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How to Bridge Cultural Divides

Two people holding coffee mugs at a table.

​With so much going on in society that impacts the workplace—the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the deaths of George Floyd and John Lewis, immigration challenges, and the political divisions leading up to a historic election—a critical leadership priority is heightening awareness and appreciation of our multicultural differences. Social unrest is difficult to watch on the news every night, but such pain begets the new beginnings of reinventing ourselves and our relationships with one another.  

Working side by side with foreign-born citizens in the U.S. on temporary visas sometimes poses challenges for American-born workers. Differences in communication styles, mastery of the English language, and varying customs and norms can create clashes in the workplace. And no wonder: America may pride itself on being the world's melting pot, but with that accolade comes inevitable differences of opinion and worldviews that need to be addressed and mended in the workplace from time to time.

A Real-World Example

Let's say someone in your information technology (IT) department seems to have ongoing difficulties with a co-worker from India who's in the United States on an H-1B visa. The American worker complains that the Indian employee shows up to meetings late and rarely tells his clients no, leading to additional, unplanned work. In addition, the Indian employee lacks a sense of urgency in getting things done and shows no remorse when delays become necessary. The Indian worker, in comparison, feels that his American counterpart is abrupt and, on occasion, downright rude. Further, the Indian worker isn't sure why his American counterpart seems perturbed and frustrated by him much of the time.

"Knowing that these two co-workers come from different parts of the world and acknowledging that you're arguably no expert on Indian business norms and protocols, it's best to first meet with each individual privately and hear his or her side of the story," said Steve Axel, executive and transition coach in San Diego. We'll call the American worker Peter and the Indian employee Raj.

In this situation, Raj doesn't understand why Peter is frustrated with him. Share the following with Raj:

Raj, Peter met with me because he said he's been experiencing ongoing issues between the two of you. Specifically, he said that you're often too slow in responding to clients' requests, you show up late to meetings, and you can't seem to tell anyone no or set their expectations properly. As a result, he feels frustrated that the two of you aren't getting all of your work done on time and then doubly upset by the fact that you're taking on additional work when you can't complete the initial workload on time. Is there some legitimacy to his claims, and, if so, is there something we could do to resolve this together?

Raj will likely acknowledge some of the challenges but may also to attribute them to differences in cultural norms and expectations. For example, he may inform you that in India, saying no directly to others is considered impolite and harsh. He might also tell you that business is typically conducted at a much more leisurely pace with less focus on meeting deadlines and more focus on building relationships. While the transaction must be completed, the trust that's built in the relationship is much more significant.

Your meeting with Raj should then go on to explain the expectations of your organization. "No" and "not right now" are legitimate responses to ad hoc requests that could throw off your department's production schedule. Reporting to meetings on time or early is an absolute prerequisite to success because it shows respect for other people's time. And meeting deadlines is tied to departmental budgets and key performance indicators. Explaining the pressure that your department faces to control overhead costs should help you clarify your expectations for Raj.

Bridge the Gap and Heal the Wound

"After listening to both, ask each individual to come together in a safe setting to air their differences under your guidance and to reset expectations," Axel said. "Call both parties into your office to mediate a disagreement and find a new way forward. Your opening statement should attempt to share both parties' sides of the story in an effort to heighten sensitivity to each other's perspectives." As such, it might sound like this:

Peter and Raj, I've called you together so that we could solve as a team the issues that were brought to my attention. Peter, I met with you because you were frustrated with a number of issues regarding Raj. Specifically, you told me that Raj had difficulty telling clients no, which was increasing your workload. You were also frustrated that Raj reported to meetings late and had a very casual and somewhat cavalier attitude toward pushing back deadlines.

Raj, I then met with you to share Peter's concerns, and you shared with me some of the different expectations that exist in India in terms of telling clients no, arriving late to meetings and expecting delays. It was important for you and me at that point, Raj, to discuss the expectations that we have at our organization and in our department toward these very issues, and you agreed that it was reasonable to meet the expectations that were outlined.

Specifically, you said that from this point forward, you would be careful about politely telling clients no, and you said that if you felt uncomfortable doing so, you would refer them to me. Is that correct? (Wait for him to confirm.) You also said that you would be more diligent about reporting to meetings on time or before they actually start and that you would ensure that project delays were more the exception than the rule. You also committed to letting Peter know in advance any time a project looked like it might not be completed by the target deadline. Is that a fair assessment of what we discussed? (Wait for him to agree.)

Good. Then let me ask you this: Raj, is there anything else you'd care to discuss with Peter while we're here together—any concerns, questions or recommendations you'd like to share with him and me? (Wait for him to respond.)

OK then, Peter. You've heard what we've discussed and now agree to. Is there anything else you'd like to share with Raj while we're together right now? (Allow him to respond.)

And there you have it: The "confrontation" didn't have to be confrontational at all, and your ability to gently re-educate Raj in terms of your department's expectations after hearing his side of the story led to a reasonable agreement to adjust his way of looking at things.

End the Meeting by Paying It Forward

"You're not quite done, though," Axel said. "Peter's somewhat aggressive behavior needs to be addressed, and your role as a coach and mentor in the realm of leadership development is to teach your staff members how to approach matters like this differently in the future." As such, your closing comments might continue like this:  

Peter, regardless of the merits of your argument in this instance, the fact that you made Raj feel uncomfortable is a lesson for you. My job here is to make sure that you both are prepared to lead others successfully as you progress through your careers, so you'll want to raise your awareness about the perception you've created in Raj's eyes. Perception is reality until proven otherwise, and talking matters through with a peer is always better than expressing your dissatisfaction with grunts, eyeball rolls or other nonverbal behaviors. I'm glad you brought the matter to my attention so we could resolve it together but building on people's strengths rather than calling attention to their weaknesses or differences is your key takeaway from this encounter. Does that sound like a reasonable outcome for you under the circumstances, Peter? (Wait for him to confirm.)

Let me close by saying that our differences here will make us stronger over time. I don't doubt there are certain aspects of your experience and assumptions, Raj, that we can learn from, and vice versa. For example, your orientation is to build strong relationships and trust with your clients over time; unfortunately, we sometimes lose some of that perspective in the more transactional nature of our client service when there's so much to do and so little time to do it.

But I'll tell you both the trick to all this: Have each other's backs. Teach what you choose to learn. Appreciate your differences as a source of strength rather than something that divides you. When in doubt, err on the side of compassion and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. When you find that level of teamwork and camaraderie on a daily basis, you'll truly learn to give more than you get and to build, include and strengthen relationships with those around you throughout your entire career. From there, you can simply let karma take care of itself. Am I clear here, and do you see the wisdom in strengthening your awareness and appreciation of each other's differences? (Wait for them to agree.) 

Then those are my expectations of you both going forward. I want you both to demonstrate role-model leadership, inclusiveness, and a strong sense of awareness and appreciation for those around you. That's the department I want to lead, and that's the department I want you both to lead when the time comes. Consider this executive coaching from a standpoint of professional and career development because it will make your entire career more meaningful, not only because you'll be helping yourselves but because you'll be helping others. And that's the goal of selfless leadership—putting others' needs ahead of your own and creating strong leaders all around you. Thank you both for meeting with me and allowing me to help you through this. I expect you both to pay this forward to those who follow you as you progress through your own careers.

Effective leadership shows itself in many ways but in none more so than displaying wisdom and strengthening those around you as they progress in their own careers. Be the wise leader who expects more from people than they sometimes expect of themselves, raises the bar of performance and conduct, and gives wounds a chance to heal. Sometimes a step backward caused by interpersonal conflict may provide you with an opportunity to move team relationships and careers two steps ahead.

Paul Falcone ( is CHRO at the Motion Picture & Television Fund in Los Angeles and author of 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees, and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. This article is adapted from 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees: A Manager's Guide to Addressing Performance, Conduct, and Discipline Challenges (Amacom/HarperCollins Leadership, 2nd ed., 2019).


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