A Global Workplace
Cultural Awareness: Preparing for the Global Workplace
Since global reach is a reality for most of us in our business environment, we are faced with challenges and implications that affect how we communicate, negotiate, collaborate and make decisions. For coaches, trainers and consultants it adds an extra dimension when our clients are dealing with the same conundrum. The global workplace is one where we work in multicultural teams (sometimes virtually), lead intercultural employees and/or deal with customers across cultures. We cannot possibly become experts in the myriad of cultures we touch in our daily lives. So how can we best prepare ourselves to meet this challenge? The key, I believe, is to build awareness of the cultural nuances that surround us. To do this, we must ask ourselves three questions:
1. What Is Culture?
The first step is to examine what exactly we mean by 'culture.' Not an easy question to answer, but culture is certainly more than just traditions, customs and etiquette. Ultimately, the culture of a particular group is defined by the 'values' of the people who form the group. This has developed over centuries, if not millennia, and is based on history, politics, religion, ethics, class distinction, regional differences, hierarchy...the list goes on. Furthermore, culture isn't just how members of a particular society live, but also how they view others in their respective cultures. The concept of culture is essentially a subjective one, adding to its mystique.
2. Do You Know Your Own Culture?
Analyzing your own culture is often the best thing to do in the quest to attain awareness, especially when viewed through the eyes of someone from another culture. In doing so, we must take into account not only our own ethnicity, but the influences of others that have touched our lives and continue to do so. Most societies are impacted by the increasingly fluid movement of people across the globe and the instant information supplied by the Internet.
3. How Do Cultures Differ?
There are numerous studies that look at the characteristics of various cultural groups, but the work of Geert Hofstede is perhaps the best known among students of cultural diversity. His research concluded that there are five major areas of cultural variation. These essentially assess attributes such as tolerance of hierarchy, individualism versus collectivism, masculine versus feminine traits, the need of formality or rules, and long-term versus short-term orientation. Of late, there has been some criticism that the cross-cultural training industry emphasizes differences and stereotypes, thereby aggravating the challenges encountered in the global business environment. There may be some truth to this, or is this criticism perhaps driven by a sense of political correctness that may itself be a cultural trait of the West? For many people it may be easier to seek understanding by focusing on the similarities found in other cultures as a starting point. After all, we are dealing with human nature and many traits are shared by all cultures. In my experience however, I have found it easier to deal with cross-cultural conflict and challenges once I have accepted that there are attributes and characteristics that differentiate us. I personally welcome the differences found in various societies, and I am particularly interested in the nuances between similar cultures. What a boring world it would be without these differences!
If you are interested in learning about a particular culture, or more about your own, I would suggest you visit the website for the Centre for Intercultural Learning (part of the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department) at www.intercultures.gc.ca. Government sites such as this will often have ample information intended for people doing business in foreign countries. To find out more about Hofstede's work and analysis of each country he studied, see www.geert-hofstede.com. Of course, another great way to learn is to simply ask others about their culture.
Clearly, culture is a complex matter that is best understood through intercultural dialogue; the challenges it brings are best met by being flexible, open-minded and aware.