On the 3rd of May, I had the honour of speaking at the Sydney launch of LeadUp about “How To Navigate Diverse Cultures At Work.”
If you haven’t yet worked in a culturally diverse workplace, you might be thinking, “So what? What’s so special about workplace cultural diversity? Is this really an important topic?”
Workplace Cultural Diversity: A Make Or Break Issue
If you’ve already worked in a team that comes from a variety of backgrounds, you might appreciate how make-or-break an issue cultural diversity (and how it’s handled) can be. I’d rank it as one of the top three things that determine whether a culturally diverse team succeeds or fails.
I’m Australian by birth, but have worked and led teams in France, Egypt, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, the United States, Pakistan and Australia. These days I run a team that is split between Australia, the US and India and has team members from those countries, as well as from Palestine and Lebanon. So …. I’ve seen and been part of workplace cultural diversity across different teams.
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From the outside, the extent to which workplace cultural diversity can affect a team’s performance is often not apparent. It’s only once you’re inside a team that is up and running (or failing to function) that it becomes clear what an asset or a liability cultural diversity can be. As I mentioned, I believe that the defining factor here is what we do with workplace cultural diversity.
An Anecdote From Overseas On Workplace Cultural Diversity
Let me illustrate this with a quick anecdote.
In 2009 I was working in Baghdad, Iraq, as a Senior Manager at Grant Thornton International. We were consulting to the US Department of Defence, and helping to build capacity inside Iraq government ministries. One of our goals was to equip teams of Iraqi bureaucrats who had been cut off from the outside world for 30 years to deal with international markets.
I was leading a project to train attorneys and translators to teach Legal English. The purpose of this project was so they could understand and use international contracts. I had a team of around ten American and Iraqi staff helping me with different aspects of the project.
One day, I received a complaint from the Ministry of Oil, whose team I was training. We’d tested some staff on their progress in Legal English. The marks had been processed and there seemed to be some mistakes in the test scores. At that time, public sector staff in Iraq were very sensitive about any grading or assessment of their work, as they were afraid that a bad mark could jeopardise their employment. The reputation of my team and the firm was at stake. I didn’t want us to be accused of sloppy work and I definitely didn’t want anyone losing their job over a grade on an English language exam. It was a problem we had to resolve quickly.
Reflecting on the best and fastest way to sort things out, I decided that the best course of action was to talk to Zeinab, the lady who had compiled the scores, along with her direct supervisor, Jessica, who was an American. My idea was we’d sit down, chat through what had gone wrong and work out a strategy for fixing it.
Jessica, Zeinab and I got together and I explained that the Ministry of Oil was unhappy because we had sent them a set of test scores that weren’t accurate and how that made us look unprofessional. Another comment I made was that some of the staff I’d been teaching were upset because they’d been given the wrong score and they were worried about how this might affect their position at the Ministry. I also emphasised how important it was that we resolved the problem quickly, and Jessica agreed with me.
I said that because Zeinab had compiled the scores, the best thing would be for her to revise the marks and make sure that they were accurate. So I proposed that Jessica would check them over before they went out again. Also, I asked Zeinab to write to the Ministry with the new, accurate data, explain that she had made a mistake and apologise. In my mind this was a fairly standard way to deal with the situation. We fixed the product, we apologised to the people we’d upset and we got the person who had made the mistake to be responsible. Jessica agreed, we ended the meeting. It seemed to have been a friendly and reasonable discussion, no-one had yelled, no-one had got upset and we had a solution. What a good outcome!
Learning From Mistakes
A day or two later I realised Zeinab wasn’t speaking to me anymore … and I wasn’t sure why, but I could tell that the atmosphere had soured. Time passed, she didn’t speak for weeks and I still hadn’t figured out what was wrong. I suspected it might have something to do with the test scores. In retrospect, I should have sat down with her and tried to talk it through. But I wasn’t experienced enough and I didn’t realise that I’d offended her quite badly.
If you’re feeling confused at this point, let me explain. In Iraqi culture, as in most Arab cultures, criticism voiced directly is usually taken personally, even in a professional context. That’s because Arab cultures are high-context communication cultures. This means much of the message is communicated indirectly and people often rely on hints or suggestions to get a point across. There is also a high degree of emphasis on maintaining face and preserving harmony between people.
This is very different to Anglo-Saxon cultures, which value clarity and ‘getting the message across’ as unambiguously as possible. Anglo-Saxon cultures are also less concerned about people’s feelings, especially in professional contexts.
Criticism from a superior is taken especially seriously in countries like Iraq. This is because Arab cultures tend to be very hierarchical and those higher up the chain automatically command respect and their opinion carries weight. Lastly, directly criticising someone in front of another person or a group is frowned on. It makes the person being criticised lose face and shames them. In other words, to put it bluntly, I’d stuffed up.
I thought I had explained what had gone wrong, come up with a solution and asked Zeinab to execute it in a way which resolved the problem quickly, encouraged her to take responsibility for her work and didn’t make our company look bad.
What Zeinab probably heard was that I thought she’d done a terrible job. That I was embarrassed by her work and I was shaming her by making her apologise to the agency. Worse still, I had shamed her further by highlighting her faults in front of another superior (Jessica).
What To Do With Workplace Cultural Diversity And Why it's Important
What I took to be straight-forward problem solving and teamwork with people taking responsibility, was mean, punitive punishment to her. It was an innocent mistake on my part, but it made our relationship difficult for a long time after that. I made that mistake even after years of working in the Middle East, with staff from across the Arab countries. This illustrates what a minefield the cross-cultural area can be, even when you have experience.
On the flip side, I now run a company with core team members from four different countries and time zones. It’s interesting to see the different emphasis that our staff from Lebanon, Palestine and India bring to our meetings. They have different approaches to doing things, different senses of humour and different ways of working. Over time we have learned to manage our differences and different expectations well. This has brought a real diversity and liveliness to the way that we assess problems and come up with solutions.
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I believe that the key ingredients to a functional culturally diverse team are constant, clear communication. In addition to patience with each other and each other’s differences. Perhaps most importantly, standing in the other person’s shoes. It’s important to remember that each of us see the world differently and that is OK. My perspective is not necessarily more valid than yours … it’s just different.
Over the the last five years, we’ve had people from all around the world work with our team. It has been a great privilege to learn about the ways in which different cultures prefer to communicate and relate and how to get the best out of them. I’ve learned a lot from that and from the 12 years or so that I spent working all around the world…. And I’m still learning.
Didn’t make our LeadUp event in Sydney? Want to relive the experience? Play back the insightful evening with actionable tips on “how to navigate diverse cultures at work”!