How to handle cultural differences in the workplace

Published on 04-07-2019

Many large scale-ups nowadays are growing extremely fast and the supply of new colleagues seems unstoppable. As a result, teams quickly become larger and often more international. Great right? But how do you, as a manager, handle cultural differences within your team in the best way?

I’ve worked in several international teams throughout my career. Sometimes, some friction would occur between team members with different cultural backgrounds. How this was handled differed strongly per manager. Some managed to smooth everything out and simultaneously motivate the entire team. Others dealt with it less well, at the expense of the trust and harmony within the team.

It is crucial that you, as a manager, learn to deal with these kinds of issues if you want to prevent open conflicts and losing trust, motivation and cohesion within your team.

Direct and indirect communication

A common cause of friction is the way of communicating. You’ve probably heard that the Dutch are extremely direct in general. Whether it is personal communication “I don’t like your new hairstyle”, or at work “If this project continues, we won’t reach our ROI”, you immediately know what is meant.

As a counterexample, Japanese people are generally very indirect. When you ask a Japanese shop worker a question you’ll rarely hear an outright ‘no’. The employee says “chotto” and disappears for 10 minutes into a back room to discuss the matter with a colleague. In this situation you can usually assume that you will get a negatory answer, while as a Dutch person you probably would have preferred them to simply turn you down immediately, without wasting precious time.

From ‘The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business’ by Erin Meyer

Image source

So there’s a chance that a Japanese colleague will answer in a less direct way than a Dutch one. After all, they both grew up in a different culture and thus learned a different way of communicating. If you know this in advance you can communicate in the right way and not end up with unnecessary miscommunications.

How to improve the intercultural communication within your team

Treat others the way they want and need to be treated. – Dr. Tony Alessandra’s Platinum Rule®

The following steps can help you and your team to communicate better with each other and become more motivated.

1. Immerse yourself in the culture of your team member

If you know more about your team member’s culture and the differences compared to your own, you might better understand their reactions and place them in the right context. However, try not to descend into stereotyping. Always take the personality of your team member into account.

In this age of globalisation it is normal for people to be influenced by different cultures. Expats are also often more open to new cultures and usually try to adapt to the culture of their new place of residence. With the necessary knowledge in the back of your mind, you could help your teammate with this, if desired.

Tip: read all about the seven most common cultural differences in the workplace.

2. Accept each other

You may be a manager who doesn’t mince words, nor do you easily show your emotions. Your team member is perhaps someone who communicates indirectly and frequently shows his emotions. Do not try to change his character, but take into account his possible reaction (based on your knowledge of his character and cultural background) if, for example, you need to criticise his work. Try to bring criticism in such a way that the employee feels motivated to improve his work. It’ll prevent him delivering worse work due to insecurity or resentment.

In short, establish per team member the best way to communicate with them. This way you’ll give your team members the opportunity to trust you and communicate their issues sooner. Or they’ll understand that you find them capable enough to be able to solve any problems by themselves. Ultimately, you are the linchpin of your team and you have the greatest influence on its success.

3. Simple and clear communication

I know it’s a cliché, but communicate with each other. When there is friction between you and a team member, discuss this honestly and openly in a one-to-one meeting. Is there friction within the group, then discuss it in the group or directly with the relevant individuals. Not in a rude, but in a friendly and candid way.

Provide a safe environment in which your team members can openly express what their concerns are, or what their motivation is for certain behavior. Encourage them to learn more about each other’s cultures and lead by example. Show that curiosity and questions are appreciated. This will ensure for example, that team members from an indirect culture are gently encouraged to communicate more frankly in a more direct environment.

Good communication reduces the chance of gossip and underhanded behavior. It also brings back trust within the team. It also ensures that people no longer try to guess at each other’s intentions and thus assume negative intentions that actually don’t exist.

4.Value Fit

Are you responsible for hiring new team members? Make things easier for yourself by hiring people with personal values that fit within the corporate culture. Your new employees will sooner feel at home within your organisation, be more satisfied and leave less quickly.

And no, hiring people who fit within your corporate culture will not lead to complete uniformity, or employees with only one specific nationality. Individuals from Japan and the Netherlands can have the same values, drivers and motivators, even though they each come from a different culture.

Good luck!

So take the right approach and ensure that both you and your team communicate with this information in mind. This way, you’ll have the greatest chance of creating a team of motivated employees who can work well together.

Tip: are you interested in the topic of leadership? Download our white paper Leadership and Corporate Culture.

Header photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

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