Relationships among co-workers can be difficult, especially as what you have are different personalities trying to accomplish a common goal. But throw cultural diversity into the mix and the potential for conflict increases.
But given how many workplaces today take pride in drawing international talent, it’s best to learn early on how to survive — more so, thrive — within a multinational organization. Indeed, proven ability to make the most of diversity can be competitive advantage at work and also during your job search.
So what are some of the things that you need to know when you’re working with different cultures, in a multicultural workplace?
Consider the following:
Clarify before jumping into conclusions.
This here is a communication rule that applies to any working environment, but especially to a multi-cultural one.
Different cultures mean different world views: different concepts of time, urgency, personal space, risk-taking behaviour, and values. And these differences aren’t always captured by a language (usually a second language for the parties involved). So before you make hasty judgements, carefully explain your side and wait for the other party to explain theirs.
For example: workers from individualistic countries like the United States tend to make decisions on their own, and are far less likely to consult. On the other end, workers from collectivist countries (those that value relationships more than autonomy), such as most Southeast Asian countries, would find it offensive not get people’s approval in a major decision – even if it’s just a formality. Without proper communication, these differences can easily lead to misunderstanding and postponement of work. The more prudent way is to iron out these differences as soon as possible — and then find mutually agreeable, objective systems for doing things.
Be respectful and whenever possible, accommodating.
You can never insist on one way of doing things when in a multi-cultural environment. The only universal law is flexibility. You have to empathize with your co-workers, understand what is important to them, and whenever possible, accommodate their needs.
For example, there are religions which require midday prayers or attendance in worship services at particular dates. Now you can insist that a project has a deadline, and religious practices can wait. But faith is something deeply personal. Unless you can respect your co-workers’ beliefs, you won’t get their 100% engagement. They would probably even feel that you’re stepping on their rights.
If anything, be an advocate for your co-workers, maybe even going as far as requesting management for a private prayer room in the office. A thriving multi-cultural workforce is one where all stakeholders are actively working to create an environment conducive to embracing differences — and letting each person be who they need to be. It’s good if upper management is supportive, but as the bosses can’t always anticipate everything, it’s up to peers to get the job done. Even the simple gesture of minding your co-workers’ dietary restrictions when choosing a restaurant can go a long way. Sensitivity is key.
Steer clear of stereotypes.
Admit it: we all have some stereotype or another of how people of different cultures are. Germans are supposedly hard-working, meticulous, detailed oriented and beer-loving; Asians good at math; Americans direct and insensitive; Australians easy-going and without ambition; and Middle Eastern scary and violent when provoked.
But in the same way that you don’t want to be defined by a stereotype (which is almost always incorrect), neither does your workmate from another culture. Stereotypes can be nasty, and plant seeds of discrimination. So keep out all the baseless adjectives from your head. Start with a blank slate and work from there. You’d be surprised — you just might have more in common with that workmate than you first thought!
Lastly, create opportunities to get to know another’s culture.
It wouldn’t hurt to expand what you know about the different nationalities in your company! So how about celebrating a cultural night where parties can share their unique food, dance, or art with everyone? You can even suggest a bulletin board for the sole purpose of celebrating the unique culture of each member of your team. Or at least open the topic up at the water cooler. At the very least, these gestures will send the message that everyone is welcome and appreciated.