Understanding and embracing cultural differences is a vital part of creating an inclusive and productive workplace. It’s important for us all to recognise that people’s values, behaviours, and approaches to working life can vary depending on the culture or country they grew up in, as well as on many other factors
On 21 May, I led an intercultural awareness training session for NTT DATA and everis’s joint webinar event. Intercultural awareness training helps employees understand that we are all shaped by our cultural backgrounds, and that there are opportunities as well as challenges that arise when people from diverse backgrounds work together. Ultimately, being more interculturally aware and competent not only promotes inclusivity, but it also encourages collaboration and innovation – vital ingredients for business growth and success.
Acknowledging and understanding cultural differences
Recognising our own cultural baggage is key to becoming more culturally aware. Many people have a natural tendency to view themselves and their actions as the norm from which others deviate. Understanding how our own values, attitudes and behaviours have been informed by our own cultural upbringing makes it easier to understand how other people may have other perspectives.
As well as recognising our own cultural perspective, it is crucial to avoid stereotyping. While it’s useful to gain an appreciation for different cultural tendencies and norms, we must always keep in mind the reality that individuals vary hugely within any given culture or nationality. Differences may exist across a host of different factors including region, religion, socio-economic background, personality and job role.
Rather than labelling cultures with certain fixed characteristics, the aim of intercultural awareness training is to sensitise people to the ways in which different cultural backgrounds and perspectives impact the way we work. Our cultural background has the potential to inform everything from our preferred management style and how we like to express disagreement, through to punctuality and meeting deadlines.
As just one example, some cultures – such as the Japanese – tend to be more hierarchical, meaning that younger employees are often expected to be deferential and refrain from expressing disagreement with older, more experienced employees. Other cultures – such as the British or Americans – might encourage critical thinking and expression of disagreement, expecting younger workers to show initiative in challenging the status quo. Without a certain level of intercultural awareness, workers from these two different cultural backgrounds might struggle to understand each other’s perspectives.
Challenges and opportunities
Within multicultural teams, different cultural expectations and approaches can produce challenges. Miscommunication and confusion may arise if people don’t have compatible communication styles. Some people might feel excluded and alienated from their colleagues if they have different attitudes to socialising at work. Ultimately, such misunderstandings between team members can spiral into inefficiency and a failure to meet objectives – outcomes with a significant potential financial cost for a business.
However, multicultural teams also present huge opportunities. A greater diversity of perspectives and experiences breeds innovation and creates richer solutions to problems. Colleagues working together from different cultural backgrounds can broaden their horizons and develop new skills, leading to faster personal and professional growth. For many, it is simply more enjoyable working with people from different backgrounds.
Research from Carol Kovach and Nancy Adler into multicultural team performance demonstrates the potential of more diverse teams if they are managed effectively. Without cultural awareness and collaboration, multicultural teams struggle to perform to the best of their combined abilities and might even perform worse than monocultural teams. Yet, with the right leadership, the development of cultural competence on the part of all the team members, and the know-how not only to manage but to leverage cultural differences, multicultural teams have the potential to outperform monocultural teams.
Bringing cultural awareness and competence to the workplace
Intercultural awareness training and on-going coaching are two important ways of making your workforce more culturally aware and fast-tracking cultural competence in organisations. Yet companies need to also go beyond such training and take a holistic approach, incorporating cultural awareness into the business agenda. One approach could be to take intercultural competence into account during the hiring process and make it part of existing employees’ appraisals, ensuring that cultural awareness and effectiveness is built into the fabric of the business.
Other initiatives can promote further learning. Employees could volunteer to be champions of their culture. These volunteers could contribute articles and blogs discussing their cultural background and experience, and they could share ideas for books and films to help others learn more about that culture. Employees might also partner with someone from a different cultural background as a ‘cultural mentor’, giving each other a safe space to discuss cultural observations and experiences. This can be particularly helpful for multicultural teams working together for the first time.
Celebrating traditional holidays and festivals in the workplace, as NTT DATA does, is another way to make employees feel included and valued. These celebrations provide opportunities for learning and building trust across cultural boundaries. As part of an overall holistic strategy, these initiatives will bring greater cross-cultural understanding and collaboration to a business.
Collaboration across NTT DATA and beyond
For a global organisation such as NTT DATA, working across different cultures presents challenges but also rich opportunities. Continuing to build cultural awareness into NTT DATA’s workforce will enable teams across the organisation and beyond to work better together.
Partnerships that bridge different cultures, such as that between NTT DATA UK and everis, will especially benefit from greater intercultural awareness. With the right cultural understanding and competence these teams will be able to grow ever closer, and their partnership will likely be more fruitful as a result.