Although it is a cliche of the business world, it is nonetheless also true that no business that neglects - or abuses - its workers can prosper for long. Badly trained, badly prepared, or badly treated workers do not do their best - and indeed, why should they? The best way to get the most out of a worker is to ensure that that worker feels appreciated and respected, and it is the job of those in supervisorial and managerial positions who must ensure that an environment of mutual respect in instigated and maintained.
This is always a challenging task: Managing the relationships among employees is one of the most difficult tasks that there is for supervisors. It is especially difficult when those people who come together in the workplace come from different cultures. This paper addresses this topic: How does a supervisor manage cross-cultural differences in the workplace so that the rights and sensibilities of each person are respected.
This is, of course, a difficult and demanding task. The complexities of creating cross-cultural communication and respect in the workplace can indeed seem overwhelming. This woman serves as an upper-level editor at a daily newspaper, and her recent experiences with two of her employees demonstrates some of the complications that can arise in a multi-cultural workplace.
First off, I have to say that those these two people are technically my subordinates - I mean, I do things like sign their timecards - newspapers really aren't very hierarchical. There's no "I'm the boss and you do what I say" tradition.
And that's generally a good thing, I think, because it means that you have to sit down with people and talk to them and create a mood of cooperation.
But then you have a situation like this. I have one writer who is an observant Muslim. And the person who sits next to her is Chinese-American. And this second person often eats pork dishes at her desk - they work until 8 at night so they usually bring their dinners.
And the Muslim woman doesn't like to be around the smell of pork. And the Chinese-American woman says that her grandmother makes her dinners and would be insulted if she didn't eat them and that pork is an important Chinese food.
And this seems like something trivial, but soon everyone is taking sides and sniping at each other. I try moving them to other desks, but the Muslim woman says that she can still smell the pork and the Chinese-American woman walks around eating - I think on purpose - next to her desk. It was driving me crazy.
This precisely the kind of cross-cultural management problem that often comes up in workplaces today, where what seems to be a small, relatively insignificant point quickly mushrooms into something larger. These manager, however, was able to take control of the situation. Her actions could serve as a model for others. The first thing that she did was "to take a big deep mental breath" and get some psychological distance on the conflict. The second thing that she did was to ask herself whether she wasn't being culturally insensitive herself.
Part of what was bothering me is that I kept thinking, this is such a stupid thing to fight about. But then I realized that was only because this wasn't an issue in my own family. What if it was something that really bothered me, something that I found culturally offensive. What if someone was eating dog or cat? Or someone said I couldn't eat my family's favorite foods? I would be pissed off. And looking at it that way allowed me to empathize and to understand.
The editor then took steps to get the two women to understand with each other. She asked the Chinese-American woman to take her colleague home to dinner so that she could learn something about the importance of food and especially of meat in Chinese families. And she asked the Chinese-American woman to talk to an Muslim scholar about the historical prohibitions against pork for Muslims. Then she made a ruling: The Chinese-American woman could eat pork in the office on even-numbered days but not on odd ones and the Muslim woman couldn't complain if the schedule was adhered to. Finally, she gave the Chinese-American woman a longer dinner time once a week so that she could go home to eat.
The whole thing was really exhausting, but, you know, it turned out okay. We're all still speaking to each other and working well together and we all learned something about how other Americans lived. I think that we did okay because we always kept reminding ourselves that the first step to solving a problem is honestly and sincerely wanting to fix it.
Question of Corporate Culture
The brief case study above suggests the ways in which a good manager can use determination and creativity to solve cross-cultural misunderstandings in the workplace. But not all such problems have such happy outcomes. Some times this is the case because the individuals involved - unlike those in the case above - are not genuinely interested in trying to find a solution. At other times the problem is more deeply rooted in the culture of the workplace.
Managing cross-cultural differences in the workplace requires a manager willing and able to take on this task, but it also requires a corporate culture that supports such managerial tasks. To understand how and why this is the case we have to come to an understanding of what it is that we mean by corporate culture.
It is at least in some important ways different from what most people automatically think about when they hear the word "culture." The term usually conjures up something anthropological and terribly ethnic - people in masks performing arcane and desperately important rituals perhaps.
But culture is simply the generally accepted beliefs, actions, and material culture that a group of people share and that defines them as a group. With this broad definition of culture in hand we can see how it is something that companies as well as villages possess. Whether cross-cultural management is relatively easy, or even possible, is directly dependent on the overall corporate culture of an organization.
One implication of this fact is that if a manager wants to begin to solve the kind of cross-cultural misunderstandings and problems that had previously been ignored, then he or she may well have to change the overall culture of the organization so that it can include the cultural values of workers with widely divergent belief systems. This is often very difficult.
The reasons that organizational cultures may be so difficult to change are suggested at this excerpt from an article on corporate culture:
Culture can be viewed at several levels. Some aspects of culture are visible and tangible and others are intangible and unconscious. Basic assumptions that guide the organization are deeply rooted and often taken for granted.
Those basic assumptions of an organization's culture often include an assumption that there is only a single, or at most a limited way of accomplishing a particular job.
Although managers and other workers might believe that this defined right way simply reflects common sense and logic, it may also have embedded in it cultural values or practices of mainstream America (or some other culture) that result in conflicts in the workplace.
This woman is a design engineer at an American Toyota plant. The Toyota corporation does fairly extensive cross-cultural training for its managers in American and Japanese culture, but even in a relatively sensitive cross-cultural setting such as the plant that she works in there have been problems.
The Toyota company is sensitive to being seen as insensitive to non-Japanese workers and non-Japanese values, and so I have seen the Japanese officials that we work with really extend themselves to make Americans feel welcome. They take courses in American culture, they speak English, they always apologize if they make a cultural mistake - and most of all they listen.
But even given that there are limitations. The problem is that we have all these mechanisms set up to facilitate Japanese-American communication, but of course these are hardly the only two cultures in the world. We've had a large group of French engineers working at our plant for the last six weeks, and they have a very different communication style, work style - everything - from the Americans.
And I've noticed that the Americans are just fine with this. It's like, "Well, they're French. Of course they try to smoke in the offices and come in late and stay late. It's that European thing.
But the Japanese officials we have here seem really frustrated: The French are acting like Americans. And they're certainly not acting like the Japanese. So how do you categorize them?
Lions and Tigers and French Engineers, Oh My
This question of categorization is an essential issue in cross-cultural management. One of the qualities that…