Often when people think of cultural learning, it’s in the context of preparing an employee for a foreign assignment. However, cultural differences also exist in the domestic workplace, and how they are handled can have a significant effect on profitability, efficiency and employee morale.
Few people are surprised that language differences can cause miscommunications. However, lack of knowledge about cultural norms can be just as damaging, or more, not only creating issues in the workplace, but personal animosity and, perhaps most important, failure to meet customer demands.
Cultural training is an important strategy to avoid these problems.
Building cultural awareness means developing knowledge of cultural differences and their effect on communication styles, expectations, work ethic, and others.
Tens of thousands of foreign-born individuals are migrating to Canada every year. In fact, Toronto and Montréal have two of the largest foreign-born populations in the world, so it’s important to understand these nuances. For example, some cultures are largely non-verbal, (Japan and the Middle East, for example) relying less spoken communications, but more on actions and settings. Others are largely verbal and direct (the U.S. and UK), relying more on speech than nonverbal clues.
It’s important to understand different cultures to break through misinformation and stereotypes, which can result in strained personal relationships, misunderstood goals and objectives, less productive creative, content and motivated employees in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Avoiding these pitfalls require:
Understanding differences in communication styles and values
In meetings, for example, people from some cultures ask questions throughout a presentation. In other cultures, it is considered rude not to wait until the end. Not knowing this and establishing understanding and agreement among all parties about the process can lead to miscommunication and resentment among employees, as well as well as hesitancy to make, what could be, important suggestions.
Even the intonation of one’s voice can trigger a cultural reaction. It’s important to consider how coworkers, may react. Also, some cultures (particularly in the West) are very direct and aggressive. Others, such as Asians, generally shy away from confrontation, and junior executives often deter to the comments of those more senior, and don’t speak until specifically called upon.
Visual aids, such as charts, graphs and infographics are often useful in getting your message across. Not understanding these differences can cause tension on the job.
One clue: avoid slang and jargon; it’s unlikely they’ll make sense to people of other cultures, and may well be offensive.
Cultural understanding can help identify talent that may otherwise have gone undetected
In some cultures people abhor silence during meetings and feel they must speak up. Others from some other cultures consider this rude. They wait for silence to speak which can sometimes be interrupted by others as a lack of enthusiasm or knowledge.
Lack of cultural understanding can limit employee engagement and cooperation
Bringing different experiences and perspectives to business issues can create synergies that help identify opportunities or solve even the most difficult issues.
Some cultures look at time differently
This goes way beyond punctuality. Difference cultures look at deadlines differently. Others put different emphasis on such issues as the division of time between work and family. There is also the issue of developing a cultural calendar. Different people observe different national, religious and other holidays, that culturally-competent companies consider when scheduling social events.
It's also important to understand your own culture
Cultural understanding is a two-way street. Understanding your own cultural biases and knowing how you communicate and react is vital to understanding others, and helps foster increased sensitivity, cooperation and productivity.
It’s clear that for companies that want to create or maintain their competitive advantage, cultural training is a must in our increasingly diversified workplace.