HR Magazine, March 2001: Management Tools: Cross-Cultural Awareness

By Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe Mar 1, 2001

Effective managers can recognize and adapt to different work styles and cultures

Getting work done through others requires a free flow of accurate information and open, productive relationships with employees. But that’s easier said than done in a diverse workplace where many cultures collide.

Many a manager has been frustrated by the employee who nods in apparent understanding of a direction, then does just the opposite. Or there are the staff members who grow cold and distant after receiving feedback on their work, as well as the team members who clam up at meetings when asked for suggestions.

But culture is behind our behavior on the job. Often without our realization, culture influences how close we stand, how loud we speak, how we deal with conflict—even how we participate in a meeting.

While many cultural norms influence a manager’s behavior and subsequent reactions, five particularly important ones are hierarchy and status, groups vs. individual orientation, time consciousness, communication and conflict resolution. By failing to understand how culture impacts individual needs and preferences, managers often misinterpret behaviors.

Nurturing a Safe, Inclusive Climate

When we ask people to describe a desirable work climate, we tend to hear very similar answers—regardless of geography or industry. Responses include words such as “high trust,” “collaborative,” “accountable,” “feeling connected,” “effective problem solving” and “feeling valued.” But trying to create a climate in which complex work groups feel the same way about these matters is not easy.

Consider the norm of hierarchy and status. If you want all people to feel valued and to participate in problem solving or decision making, differences in this norm could be inhibiting. An employee who has been taught deference to age, gender or title, might—out of respect—shy away from being honest or offering ideas because offering suggestions to an elder or a boss might appear to be challenging authority.

The manager also may need to structure a climate that balances preferences for group and individual work. The employee who can’t or won’t subordinate individual needs or desires for the good of the group may perform better working alone.

A culturally competent manager will create opportunities for individuals to take some risks and explore projects that don’t require coordinating with others. Doing so can encourage employees with a strong individualist bent to draw attention to important matters, such as policies or procedures that don’t work.

On the other hand, when managers place too high a premium on avoiding workplace discord, even individualistic employees may be discouraged from providing potentially constructive feedback.

Time-conscious managers may see people whose cultures take a more relaxed view toward deadlines as being less committed to team goals, as well as less dependable, accountable and reliable. Or, consider the employee who nods “yes” but doesn’t mean it. Both individuals are not only operating according to their own rules of communication, but they also are interpreting each other’s behavior through that lens.

If you are a direct communicator, you probably expect a “tell it like it is,” response from the employee. But the employee may be an indirect communicator who expects you to read the contextual clues to understand his response. His cultural background might require you to pick up on nonverbal cues to understand that his nodding and affirmative response is a polite, face-saving gesture, not an indication of agreement or understanding.

What happens with the team that clams up? Your egalitarian approach and individualistic orientation expects teamwork between manager and employees; you expect people to think and speak for themselves. But for staff members with a more hierarchical and group orientation, taking the initiative to make suggestions to an authority figure would be awkward for all involved. They may expect you as the manager to demonstrate your leadership by making decisions and giving directions.

Recognizing the Role of Culture

So what can you do? First, recognize the role culture plays in interactions and try to identify the critical elements of the cultures involved. What are your preferences and expectations, and what are the norms and preferences of your employee? Second, don’t interpret their behavior through your cultural background. Most employees don’t intend to be deceptive, difficult or unproductive; they are simply adhering to their cultural programming.

However, to get the information and effective communication you need, you have to find alternative approaches that are more in line with the employee’s culture. Here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid yes/no questions such as “Is that clear?” or “Do you understand?” Give the employee options from which to choose. Ask for specific information, such as “Which step will you do first with this new procedure?”

  • If time allows, perform the task along with the employee or watch to see how well he understands your directions.

  • Try using passive language that focuses on the situation or behavior, rather than the individual. For example, “Calls must be answered by the third ring” or “All requests need accurate charge codes in order to be processed.”

  • Give employees enough lead time to collect their thoughts before a meeting so they can feel prepared to bring input.

  • Have employees work in small groups, generating ideas through discussion and presenting input as a group.

Developing Employees

One of the most important functions of a manager is developing and grooming employees for promotion. Cross-cultural norms have a huge impact on this job because of the underlying assumptions a manager might make about an employee’s potential.

To determine promotion potential, managers consider such questions as: How is initiative demonstrated? What behaviors show commitment? How much is high potential determined by accomplishing the task and how much is determined by good interpersonal skills? How do employees get to use and showcase their unique talents?

In answering these questions, a manager aware of the influence of hierarchy, time consciousness, communication and group orientation will make fewer assumptions about the motivations and drive of certain employees.

Initiative won’t necessarily be defined as acting without waiting for directions but seen perhaps through the lens of a good team member who kept the group moving, made some contribution and helped preserve harmony in the face of expected differences.

Commitment may not be defined in terms of meeting deadlines but also as encouraging further exploration of an issue, and thus more creative or flexible in striving to get a best outcome. Perhaps an employee will never openly challenge ideas at a meeting but instead will offer back-door suggestions that can influence the direction of a project.

A manager who is aware of different cultural norms is less likely to incorrectly interpret behaviors and prescribe ineffective courses of action when developing people. Toward this end, here are some suggestions for managers to consider:

  • Teach employees to interpret the culture of the organization by pointing out factors such as how people dress, recreational patterns and the formality or informality of communication. Employees can make effective choices when they clearly understand the informal rules of the organizational culture.

  • Help employees understand the difference between deadlines that are non-negotiable and those that are more elastic. Get an accurate sense of the person’s planning and organizational skills. Then, set clear expectations that help the employee perform better and build in follow-up sessions.

  • Coach employees who are uncomfortable acknowledging their own individual work to talk about accomplishments through work group performance. As employees try to move up, the need to sell oneself in an unassuming way as part of a work group is a comfortable way to show one’s part in a group’s accomplishment.

  • Focus on relationship building. An employee can learn that giving a manager feedback is an act of loyalty and help. But this is a paradigm shift that requires rapport, safety and trust.

Conflict: Dealing with Differences

Conflict is difficult to manage for most of us, and it becomes more so when employees and managers have different rules about how to handle it. Along with conflicts about schedules, work projects or assignments, differences in approach can spark conflicts. Some employees will prefer direct discussion of differences. Others will find this approach upsetting and disruptive to smooth work relationships. In addition, differences in attitudes toward status may influence how people deal with conflict.

Begin the awareness process by helping employees recognize these differences and share their preferences with one another. This proactive approach helps avoid unnecessary rubs by building a common base of understanding about the best ways to deal with each other. Beyond understanding, taking specific steps to resolve conflict in culturally appropriate ways is critical.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Hold team development sessions where employees can learn more about their own and each other’s conflict styles and preferences.

  • In one-on-one sessions, help employees understand cultural differences that may underlie the conflicts they are experiencing.

  • Consider using a third-party intermediary to help resolve conflict in a face-saving manner.

  • Create a norm that says conflict is a normal part of any workplace and that resolving it requires give and take on all sides.

  • Work to create solution strategies that meet both your objectives and those of your employee.

Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe are partners in the management consulting firm of Gardenswartz & Rowe of Los Angeles. Both hold doctorates of human behavior from the United States International University.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect