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Essential skills to succeed in a multicultural workplace

Being culturally aware is a necessity in today’s workplace, as we interact on a global scale with diverse backgrounds. Anna Calvi and Mirjam Hauck, Lecturers in Modern Languages at The Open University, discuss the essential skills required to ensure success at work.

What is culture?

‘Culture’ is a complex, fuzzy concept that has been defined in many ways. It is made up of several different aspects, ranging from tradition to ethnicity to technology, each of which is complex and encompasses further elements.

Team huddle The term ‘culture’ is often seen as a synonym of national culture. However, within nations, are countries (such as England, Wales and Scotland in the UK), regions, cities, towns and neighbourhoods that have their own culture which may differ from what is known (or perceived) as the national culture. Specific cultures may also be associated with political, religious, socio-economic, sports and special interest groups, whose members may be spread across more than one nation. Business organisations and within them, individual departments, also have their own unique cultures.

Why is it important to become culturally competent in a work environment?

Factors such as globalisation, technological developments, migration and the emergence of global languages (such as English) deeply influence modern societies, groups and organisations, making them increasingly multicultural.  In these social environments, people from different cultural backgrounds need to learn to live and work together.

Living and working in a multicultural environment is a potentially enriching experience, which promotes awareness and understanding of different viewpoints and expertise. This can stimulate problem solving capabilities and creativity, as well as an ability to better connect with colleagues and customers from different national and cultural contexts.

While the ability to connect successfully with people from different cultural contexts is often taken for granted, it is important to be aware of the challenges that this can create and devise possible solutions.

What are the main challenges?

One of the main challenges arises from a lack of knowledge and understanding of how cultural factors affect the communication process. Related to this idea are the concepts of low and high context cultures.

Red and blue human head cut from crumpled paper as a symbol for understanding political opinions or cultural differencesIn high context cultures, such as China and Japan, work partners prefer to communicate with people they share a great deal with. For this reason, learning about each other and forming trust and a good relationship is an essential requisite before any work-related discussion can begin. Because of this careful preparation, in business communication, mutual understanding is taken for granted and can include implicit content, indirect references to key ideas, body language and silence. Business people from low context cultures, such as the US and Germany, may misunderstand this behaviour and try to get down to business too quickly, insisting on detailed and explicit explanations. This can cause a breakdown in communication.

Different cultures may also perceive time differently. People who have a monochronic orientation, such as the Swiss and the British, tend to prioritise task completion and manage their time carefully and efficiently in order to achieve this goal. Due to this orientation, they may clash with those who have a polychronic orientation approach, such as Latin Americans, which leads them to prioritise people and relationships and complete tasks when possible. Failure to understand and negotiate these different perspectives and needs may lead to confusion in the role of schedules and deadlines and difficulties to agree on the way meetings should be organised and run.

Selecting the most appropriate medium of communication is also essential. Groups and individuals who focus on personal relationships and convey a great deal of information through body language, visual information and implicit meanings tend to prefer face-to-face communication. Business people from cultures that tend to focus on the task at hand in a time effective way may make more use of written communication – making the ability to convey information in writing and to structure ideas clearly a sought after skill.

Above all it’s important to remember that it’s necessary to understand different cultures and audiences, and to avoid imposing communication patterns, and indeed management patterns that may not suit. This does not mean adapting completely to another cultural context at the expense of one’s goals and priorities. Rather, it is important to work with business partners and clients so that workable communication patterns and routines can be negotiated.

Managing multicultural teams

Close up top view of people putting their hands togetherMulticultural teams and the way in which they communicate can be managed to maximise team performance and achieve desired goals, by making optimal use of the available resources: time, team members’ knowledge and skills.

Below are some of the communication strategies that could be attempted when managing a multicultural team. Depending on the context and purpose of communication, each of these strategies has advantages and drawbacks and must be carefully evaluated before being put into practice or combined with other approaches.

  • Deal with the task immediately and discuss any differences as they arise
  • Learn about team members by using social activities
  • Focus on similarities and group identity while downplaying team-members’ differences
  • Accept team members that choose to work independently on certain tasks
  • Allow a powerful and more experienced subgroup to dominate the team
  • Assign team roles according to the national cultural features of each team member

Find out more

If you’re interested in learning more about succeeding in a multicultural workplace, sign up for The OU’s free three-week course, which is available until the end of February

Anna Calvi and Mirjam Hauck, Lecturers in Modern Languages at The Open University

About Author

Hannah is part of the Media Relations Team at The Open University, working with the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies. With over five years’ experience both agency and in-house, Hannah has worked on campaigns for a number of large corporate companies and brands, including RBS, NatWest, Travelodge, Audible, AA and the Royal Academy of Dance. She has completed a Masters in Publishing Studies from Oxford Brookes, and enjoys photography, reading and going to the theatre and gigs in her spare time.

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