Managing Across Cultures at Home

Managers need cross-cultural sensitivity when leading employees born and raised outside the United States.

By Kathleen Begley Sep 1, 2009
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August Cover​Foreign-born workers numbered 24 million in 2008, or 16 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force age 16 and older, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These immigrants are different from those of a century ago: More foreign-born professionals come from Asia, they often hold graduate degrees, and they quickly land high-level jobs.

U.S.-born managers often make the mistake of thinking that these highly capable, highly educated newcomers need little help assimilating to the U.S. business culture. As a training consultant working primarily with men and women born and raised in other parts of the world, I have seen this cause morale and productivity problems.

I often meet engineering superstars, computer experts and financial whizzes who say they feel completely lost in this strange country. They don’t know where to turn for guidance. Corporate diversity efforts target training at the immigrants and overlook needed training for their managers.

If you find yourself managing foreign-born professionals, use these tools to guide the relationships:

Learn cultural differences. For example, according to cultural expert Gerte Hofstede, people from outside the United States differ in their perceptions of time. U.S. workers, in general, adhere to schedules, whereas those from many other cultures do not. Read about the cultures of every person you deal with internally and externally. Books such as Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands (Adams Media, 2006) offer fundamentals about cultural differences and work ethics.

  • Play the name game. Learn to correctly pronounce your employees’ names. Consider whether your name is difficult for them to pronounce.
  • Show warmth. More than one employee new to the U.S. workplace has told me that Americans are like peaches—soft on the outside, hard on the inside. Immigrant employees may think you are friendly upon introduction but hard to penetrate for long-term friendships. With workers from socially oriented cultures, this lack of connection can impede your ability to manage their work.
  • Share food. Eating together deepens any relationship.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Few U.S. citizens move to other countries with the intention of staying permanently. So, they lack the experience of the grief that accompanies such uprooting.
  • Listen without multitasking. It’s hard enough to catch the meaning of a cross-cultural conversation when you’re giving it complete attention.
  • Find mentors. Empathetic camaraderie can help.
  • Expect missteps. Accept human shortcomings and apologize. Don’t let an occasional error throw off your commitment to improve communication with people of all shapes, sizes, colors and accents.

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The author is a communications trainer and owner of Write Company Plus, based near Philadelphia. She can be reached at KBegley@writecompanyplus.com.

Web Extras

SHRM online newsletter: Managing Smart

SHRM research article: Intercultural Competence as a Key Enabler of Organizational Growth and Success

SHRM article: Experts: Mastering Diversity Competencies Takes a Lifetime (SHRM Online Diversity Discipline)

SHRM article: What’s In Your Diversity Toolbox? (SHRM Online Diversity Discipline)

SHRM article: Leadership with a Multicultural Twist (SHRM Online Diversity Discipline)

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