With the digital age bringing people from all walks of life closer together, it is key for successful organisations and business leaders to be more aware of diversity, inclusion and cultural differences. Now more than ever, we often see a diverse workforce working on one business engagement at a time. Learning how to effectively work with cultural differences in business can leverage many opportunities for you. Let’s explore the major elements of cultural difference in business and what it means for you.
The most apparent feature of cultural difference which surfaces at the workplace is communication. Communication encompasses a wide range of factors within it, from language to non-verbal cues.
Most businesses operate on the global language of English these days. However, scoring high on an English test is not enough; it is how you convey your message across that is important. A large percentage of the workforce is made up of those who have English as a second language, and they are still top performers at the workplace. So while having a strong command of the language can be beneficial, it is equally important to understand subtle non-verbal cultural cues that can help you structure the way you communicate. This means that someone with a higher culture quotient will outperform in communication compared to someone with a better command of the language and a lower culture quotient.
What works in your culture, may be considered offensive in others. Do your research in advance about the cultural nuances of the people you would be working with, and if you are ever in doubt, ask politely. Be perceptive and observant of non-verbal indicators, such as body language, as they tell a story too. While the cultural miscommunication can seem to be a struggle at first, it is important to always approach cross-cultural communication with respect, openness and sensitivity, as that puts everyone at ease.
While organisations put in a lot of effort to design and implement the best culture they can for their employees, people from various cultural backgrounds will inevitably bring their working culture/style wherever they work.
For example, addressing one another through email respectfully can vary in professionals from different cultures. Professionals from Asian regions of India, China and Singapore would tend to address the receiver of the email as Mr/Ms and their surname, while professionals from Western cultures would tend to address the receiver of the email by their first name. If you ever find yourself in a situation of a cultural doubt when writing an email to a foreign receiver, it is best to be formal to avoid the possibility of being seen as ignorant.
Another apparent example in emails and text communication is the level of context provided. Low-context cultures, such as those in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, USA and Europe often tend to provide little context in text communication, thereby enabling decisions to be made quickly. High-context cultures, such as those in South America, expect and supply more information in the text communication between professionals.
An obvious one at the workplace is punctuality and start/end times. Likewise, professionals from Norway, UK, US and Australia would consider starting early and ending early from work ideal, while professionals from Asia, such as India, China and Bangladesh, would prefer to start late and end late.
The list can go on, such as work hours and observation of rules and organisation hierarchy. The key takeaway is to be sensitive and respectful to the cultural norms which shape the cultural working landscape of the business professionals you are working with.
Networking and Relationships
While certain professional business cultures, such as Western cultures, places a high emphasis on building professional relationships, rule-based professional business cultures prefer the opposite. These believe that everyone deserves an equal chance and are judged strictly against a set of rules or criteria.
Understanding where your business and your clients’ businesses sit on the relationship and rule orientation scale is crucial in how you conduct business. While they both have their benefits, it is important to be aware of this as it can influence how you interact with your key stakeholders.
There is no escaping cultural diversity in business these days. With migration, the web and easier access to language education, more people from culturally diverse backgrounds are joining the workforce of any given country or organisation.
Studies have shown the benefits of a culturally diverse workforce to be enormous. From increased productivity to higher levels of innovation, many businesses and business leaders are employing the best strategies to culturally diversify their workforce.
While all this sounds great, it is key to bear in mind – be it a client or someone from your own workforce – that cultural differences, and potentially clashes, may take place. If they do, these need to be dealt with respect, sensitivity and openness to achieve a common business goal.