The Importance of Cultivating Cultural Awareness at Work

Industry Advice Communications & Digital Media

Hearing “Yes” during a business negotiation means each party reached a mutually agreed upon decision—or so one might think. Depending on who’s sitting at the table and their background, a “Yes” may mean anything from, “Maybe” to “I’ll try my best.”

It has been said that in Chinese culture, “No” is typically avoided. The response is considered disrespectful and confrontational, whereas, in North America, it’s viewed as assertive and direct—meaning one word could change the outcome of a meeting or strength of a business relationship. Teams could experience a communication breakdown due to cultural differences.

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In today’s globalized world, cultivating cultural awareness should be a company-wide priority. It affects how teams collaborate and interact, and makes for a more inclusive, productive environment, which has been validated through research in the fields of business, psychology, and sociology.

But, What Do We Mean by “Culture?”

Becoming culturally aware, however, requires understanding what “culture” means.

“’Culture’ is very dynamic and complex,” says Patty Goodman, cross-cultural communication faculty lead for Northeastern’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program. “It has to come from the individual perspective and go all the way through to the macro perspective.”

Take your office, for example. Your personal culture may be a different ethnic or regional culture from your colleagues. What unites the team is an overarching organizational culture that’s based on a particular mission statement and set of values. Through that mission statement, you’ve focused, as a company, on particular audiences—ones that might be intergenerational and becoming increasingly more global. It’s likely you’re then communicating with people from various locations, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds.

Unpacking the different layers and nuances of culture is important to cultivating awareness, both of who you are and the role you play in your organization, but also of the role your team members and organization plays to the world.

“Cultural awareness becomes an understanding of one’s self and how one needs to adjust to the environment and ecosystem that he or she is in,” Goodman says. “To be culturally aware, you’re acknowledging, ‘I’m aware of what my culture is and I’m taking the strategy to adjust my behavior in a specific way.’”

All individuals form stereotypes, whether based on specific experiences or their own set of beliefs. Uncovering those stereotypes and acknowledging any explicit or unconscious bias is key to becoming a stronger, more effective communicator and employee.

Let’s return to the conversational response, “No.” You might feel comfortable saying, “No,” but the response could conflict with other colleagues’ values. Your co-workers avoiding or misinterpreting the term doesn’t translate to a lack of assertiveness or accountability, however; it might mean they just approach business issues in a different way. Becoming culturally aware entails observing your own behaviors, challenging all assumptions, and understanding others’ boundaries.

How to Cultivate Cultural Awareness

Some managers and teams have a hard time acknowledging they have a culture problem, instead pitting the blame on a high turnover rate or change in leadership. Ignoring the issue, however, can come with consequences.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that culture impacts productivity, explaining that “employees from different backgrounds are motivated by different incentives and react differently to various management and communication styles.” For example, Swedish management tends to be decentralized and democratic, according to research by linguist Richard Lewis, whereas American managers are collaborative, yet tend to prioritize their own interests and career. Acknowledging and reconciling those subtle differences can improve communication and lead to a more motivated workforce.

For those who aren’t sure where to start, Goodman recommends performing an audit of all internal communications. What’s the mission of your organization, and how are you defining your company values? Are your mission and values inclusive? Have you taken your team’s various cultures into account?

From there, undergo a data collection exercise and survey employees. Take the time to dig in and understand what’s most meaningful to the team and connect that to your communications. By gathering employee feedback, you can better determine how the current organizational culture is being received and strategize ways to create a more inclusive environment where different perspectives and cultures are valued and embraced.

“If you have individuals who are Hindus or Jewish, for example, you should create an environment so that no matter where people are coming from, they feel comfortable sharing their views,” Goodman says. “The bottom line is that you want to recognize who you are and who you are speaking to.”

It’s important to get to know your colleagues on a personal level and find common ground—particularly in an age of video conferencing, email, and other virtual communication tools, where teams aren’t always interacting in person or observing their peers’ daily behaviors.

“There’s not a clear path or one model that’s going to fit every situation,” Goodman says. “It’s more taking the time and going through the inquiry process and, in the midst of that, recognizing the types of questions that need to be asked and what communication needs to be adjusted.”

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