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Differing cultural norms

The way you work is influenced by your cultural norms. But do you realise how far this can go?
KOMALA MURUGIAH: I would say it’s still very much dependent on the work context. I think in the spaces that I worked in in Singapore, for example, sometimes it’s encouraged that we ask permission before we do something. In other settings they say that, you know, just go ahead and do it and then make sure that within the boundaries you know what you’re doing, and then that’s fine. I think mostly in an Asian context, being conflict averse is a trait that might come up more at the forefront, whereas in different contexts it could be a bit more open to resolving conflict.
AAKANKSHA CHHIKARA: I think for me, like, when I first joined, I found StreamShark was a very informal, relaxed workplace. And I think that partly also reflects the industry– that it’s in the software industry. So I’ve also worked within engineering in Germany, and again, you’ve got to be very polite, very direct.
MESUT LATIFOGLU: Yeah, I agree with that exactly. So it’s a very casual working space. We talk in a very lazy, leaned back way– yeah, very casual.
FARRAH KING: Some cultures it’s I guess part of their culture that they just respect the hierarchy, say yes to everything, and don’t push back. And so I have found that challenging when working with certain people that I want to encourage them to ask questions and call out problems, and they might not be comfortable doing that because that’s not an environment they’ve grown up in.
KOMALA MURUGIAH: In more reserved cultures, not maintaining eye contact is the way to go, because that’s how we show– in that particular context, not maintaining eye contact means I’m showing you respect. I’m showing you that I’m listening to you, whereas if I were to behave in that same way in a more open kind of cultural environment, not maintaining eye contact would mean that, oh, that person seems a bit reticent. Maybe they do not want to engage.
AAKANKSHA CHHIKARA: When you have a certain expectation that something has got to be to a standard and doesn’t meet that standard, you complain. Indians complain a lot. And so I think especially– Cameron might remember when I first joined, I would complain about things a lot. So I’ve definitely turn that down. However, behind the scenes I get that fixed. But that’s also helpful, because when I work with vendors or suppliers and something is not up to the agreed quality, being able to actually negotiate– not so much complain, but negotiate and get it done to the level that was expected.
FARRAH KING: Some of those examples around communication and expectations of respecting a hierarchy can be challenging, because for some people it is asking them to step outside their comfort zone where they have to do something that innately they’ve never done– they’ve never been exposed to. And so it’s really about taking the time and coaching them to do something that you didn’t think you’d have to address. In terms of their role– they obviously have a role to do– but that underlying element of what they’re comfortable doing and their communication style can become something that you have to take the time to address.
KOMALA MURUGIAH: I’m very mindful when I’m managing my teams just to make sure that I have an understanding of who they are as an individual– getting to know them, because that gives me insights into what kind of cultural backgrounds they came from. What kind of norms are they used to? What kind of styles do they adopt when they are working in a team?
CAMERON LOWE: I think also if the person who has a different cultural background, if they’re open to explaining things it’s quite an eye opener.

Multicultural team members can have different ideas and expectations about almost every aspect of their work.

These expectations, or cultural norms, are the standards of behaviour a cultural group would see as appropriate: they’re how a person should act.

Cultural norms in the workplace can influence countless things including:

  • requesting help or information
  • asking for permission
  • giving and receiving praise
  • giving and receiving critical feedback
  • speaking in meetings
  • cooperating with group members
  • decision-making
  • initiating and resolving conflict

Case study: Heineken’s multicultural teams

Brewing company Heineken has its headquarters in Amsterdam, and also runs a large operation in Mexico. As a result, Heineken’s head office has many Mexican and Dutch employees.

In her article for Forbes, Erin Meyer spoke to one of Heineken’s Mexican managers about his experience managing Dutch teams.

Carlos Gomez, who had previously lead Mexican teams, described the transition as a struggle:

I will schedule a meeting in order to roll out a new process, and during the meeting my team starts challenging the process…and paying no attention to the fact that they work for me. Sometimes I just watch them astounded…

In this case, cultural norms that emphasise equality clash with norms that emphasise hierarchy and authority.

Your task

Watch the video of Farrah King, Komala Murugiah and the team from StreamShark as they discuss their experiences of working in diverse teams and across cultures.

Do any of their observations resonate with you? Or could you give another example of differing cultural norms in the workplace?

Share your observations in the comments and read about the experiences of other learners.

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Leading Culturally Diverse Teams in the Workplace

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