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Cultural Intelligence – Multi-Cultural Workplace Sensitivity and Productivity

Cultural Intelligence – Multi-Cultural Workplace Sensitivity and Productivity

Cultural Intelligence – Multi-Cultural Workplace Sensitivity and Productivity

The world is a global village. Every region of the developed world is a blend of nationalities and religious and spiritual beliefs. And in today's workplace, we interact face-to-face and online with people from contrasting ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  

While collaborating with people from different backgrounds can and should be a joy and a blessing, challenges exist. A lack of cohesion, respect and sensitivity in workplace relationships will, in the least obvious cases, result in a lack of productivity and a higher rate of workforce attrition.

In extreme examples, toxic disagreements and significant resentments may lead to verbal or physical altercations and disciplinary action. These incidents severely affect morale even for people not directly involved in the fracas.  

In this piece, we discuss those challenges and suggest structures that leaders and co-workers can follow to help navigate these potentially hazardous waters healthily and respectfully.\

There are five critical areas in which people's dissimilarities may cause turmoil. 

  • Language 

This may seem an obvious statement, but it is very often not given due consideration. English is the primary language in the western world and the global business landscape. While English-speaking Americans, for example, cannot be expected to learn the languages of all foreign people, who have come to the U.S. to live and work, patience and sensitivity are needed to create stronger, more productive workplace relationships. While your foreign colleague is learning your language, it might not hurt you to try to broaden your mind with a few words or phrases in theirs.

  • Signs & Symbols 

Non-verbal language is more powerful than the spoken word. We know that body language and eye contact are up to 70% more influential than the actual words spoken. But even something seemingly insignificant as a 'thumbs-up' may mean an entirely different thing to different people. In the western world, it's a positive gesture, but in many West African and Middle Eastern cultures, it's an offensive gesture.

  • Historical Behaviors & Beliefs 

As an example, not all cultures regard punctuality in the same light as we do in the U.S. While many European countries – Germany, Scandinavia and The Netherlands – equally value their own and other people's time, others place less importance here.

  • Othering or 'Them vs Us'

Volumes can and have been written on this topic. There seems to be, almost inherent in the human condition, an instinctive need to first gauge the threat level – the ulterior motives – of people from other parts of the world before allowing ourselves even to begin to accept them. And even when no direct (or indirect) threat exists, suspicions continue to bubble.

The vast majority of people want the same things we all want regardless of where they were born or which church they attend. We're all looking for peace, safety for our families, stability at work, and perhaps some love and laughter along the way.

  • Stereotyping & Prejudice 

The most significant mistake people make in cross-cultural workplace relationships is stereotyping. Presuming that your information is accurate or applies to everyone from that country or culture is deeply problematic. Sustainable and productive multi-cultural relationships depend on an ongoing journey of communication and discovery.

Improvements in Thinking and Behavior

In developing their cultural intelligence (CQ), leaders (and workers) must consider and improve four aspects of their thinking and behavior. These four points are most effectively implemented based on a solid and up-to-date basic understanding of politics, religion, history and geography. You don't need to be an expert in any of these fields, but a decent grasp of what's happening in the world around you is a great place to start.

The four points are: cognitive, metacognitive, motivational and behavioral. 

Your cognitive CQ is the aforementioned general knowledge. The more you expose yourself to the history and the news of countries other than your own, the more respect you'll earn from those people. There is a danger here, however. Our news feeds aren't always entirely objective. Here's where point two comes in…

Metacognitive CQ requires you to question stereotypes. It demands that you dive deeper, ask specific questions and be teachable.

Your motivational CQ deepens when you act on your innate interest in different cultures – an extension of your metacognitive CQ. You initiate conversations and develop friendships. As a manager, perhaps this is a time when, away from business hours, you suspend your seniority and communicate as peers. These discussions might begin with topics other than politics and religion. Talk about food and sport, film and TV. Once a rapport has been established, more complex issues will follow.

Behavioral CQ grows when you actively involve yourself in cross-cultural practices. Whether it be an understanding of hygiene or prayer, family structures or rights of passage ceremonies, understanding and respecting other people's lifestyles and beliefs shows maturity and a high degree of behavioral CQ.     

Time spent implementing these guidelines will grow your CQ and your cross-cultural effectiveness. 

This piece published in the Harvard Business Review is a comprehensive study of multi-cultural relationships in the workplace. A Culture Map – eight verticals representing behavioral management patterns where cultural gaps are most common – provides clear guidance regarding specific differences.

The foundations of the Culture Map are based largely on the studies and findings of American anthropologist Edward Hall. Hall's metric describes the different behavior patterns of various cultures as either high- or low-context. The Culture Map applies this theory to its eight scales – communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling – and provides workable information on how people from different cultural backgrounds might or might not behave in regards to these eight factors.

The Culture Map is a complex tool, demanding a dedicated mind, but the "decades of academic research into culture from multiple perspectives" – and the revelations uncovered – are an incredible, day-to-day guideline of how we might improve our multi-cultural management and teamwork.   

This landscape is complex partly because it’s fluid. There is no panacea, no golden-bullet. It requires maturity and patience, and a willingness to learn.

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