How Culture Impacts Workplace Dynamics



If you’ve ever worked in a multicultural team, you’ve almost certainly experienced some type of cultural miscommunication.  Ever wondered why a colleague seemed hurt when you communicated your point of view? How about feeling frustrated when your direct report seemed to agree with you, but then did the exact opposite? These miscommunications can happen in any team, they are much more common culturally diverse teams.

Many studies have shown that working with people from different cultural backgrounds introduces us to new ways of thinking, and that culturally diverse teams perform much better than homogeneous teams. So how can we learn how to benefit from diversity rather than suffering from miscommunication?

The first step is to understand what culture is on a deeper level. Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg model shows that there are many layers to a culture. While some parts are noticeable immediately, others take much longer to understand, and some are subconscious traits that not even members of a culture are fully aware of.
As you read through these cultural layers, think about the way things are done in your culture, and how it might differ from others.

Surface Culture vs. Deep Culture

Surface culture includes the things you notice immediately when you first interact with a new culture. This is the part of culture you can see, taste, smell, hear, and touch - things like food, music, visual arts, language, celebrations, and games. While these are the most obvious parts of a culture, they are literally just the tip of the iceberg.  In order to really understand a culture, we need to dig deeper.

Can you list one typical element in each category from your own culture?

Deep culture can be broken into two groups. The first includes things that are near the surface, but still hidden -  the unspoken rules of a culture. These are things like nonverbal communication, how we interact with or show our emotions, our concepts of personal space, our definitions of beauty, and our basic ideas about manners and contextual behaviour. It takes much more time for an outsider to understand this part of a society. It also carries a heavier emotional load. If you change these values, people feel like their cultural identity is being threatened.

What are the unwritten rules when interacting with a colleague in your own culture: do you just say ‘hi’, do you shake hands, what are the typical phrases used?

Finally, we get to the core of the cultural iceberg, where the vast majority of things that define a culture can be found. This includes things like ideas about child rearing, definitions of adulthood, concepts of self, roles of gender/sex/age/class, family networks, pace of work, and the tempo of society. These are the defining values of a culture that people often adhere to and believe without consciously thinking about it.

How is the load distributed between a working mother and a working father in your culture?

We must try to understand these cultural values at the core of the iceberg if we want to overcome cultural conflicts and work together positively. The Hofstede Model gives us a great resource for comparing cultures and understanding how cultural differences impact the workplace.

Hofstede Model of Cultural Dimensions

Understanding how our culture compares with our colleagues’ can help us appreciate cultural differences and find common ground. The Hofstede Model is one of the most comprehensive models for comparing cultures using six dimensions that define a national culture. Let’s take a look at Hofstede's definitions of these six dimensions, and how they impact our interactions with other cultures.

Power Distance

Power distance, according to Hofstede, is the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Inequalities exist in every society, and power distance addresses the way a culture approaches those inequalities. An important aspect of power distance is the amount of influence a person is able to exert over others. For example, an interaction between an employee and their boss in a high power distance society would be very one sided, with little input on the employee’s side.  On the other hand, in low power distance society, both parties would contribute and share their opinions equally.

In your culture, how would you address a question to your boss if you disagreed with a decision?

Individualism

The issue addressed by individualism is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. In an individualistic society, people think from an “I” perspective while collectivist societies are focused on “we”. In the workplace, this can impact our tendencies toward working for our benefit versus the greater good of the organization. In individualistic societies, employee relationships are based on mutual advantage and promotions are made based on merit. Collectivist societies, on the other hand, focus on the contributions of the team as a whole rather than the individual contributions of each team member.

When acknowledging the performance of your team, do you single out individuals for praise or do you highlight the teamwork?

Masculinity

Cultures can be defined as either masculine or feminine according to what motivates members of the society. Masculine cultures are defined by a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Feminine cultures on the other hand, prefer cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Masculine societies value making decisions and taking charge, while feminine societies value consensus with the group and avoid standing out.

When you disagree with the direction of your team, do you assert yourself and stand for your views or fall in line with others to preserve the group?

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance is the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Cultures that score high in this dimension will create systems and beliefs to try to limit uncertainty as much as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, cultures with low scores here are very open to new ideas and innovation.

What is your decision-making process like?

Long Term Orientation

Long term orientation deals with the challenge cultures face in maintaining some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Cultures can be described here as having a long term orientation or a normative orientation. Long term cultures focus on preparing for the future and people are generally more adaptable to new situations.  In contrast, normative cultures view societal changes with suspicion, preferring to do things how they’ve always been done.

What is your first reaction when a new way of working is presented to you?

Indulgence

This dimension deals with the way people respond to their desires and impulses. In an indulgent culture, people have relatively weak control. They want to enjoy the moment, and look for instant gratification. A restrained culture, however, has much more control, and people prefer to hold out for long term benefits rather than living in the now.

How and how often do you celebrate small wins at work in your culture?

Comparing Cultures

These 6 dimensions individually tell us a lot about a culture, but when combined, we get into the specifics of what makes a culture unique. For example, the US scores low in power distance, and high in individualism. The combination of these two scores results in a loose-knit society that values independence, and where hierarchy within organizations exists only for convenience and is avoided when possible. Spain, on the other hand, scores higher in power dominance, and is a collectivist country compared to the US. In Spanish culture, hierarchy is expected. Subordinates expect to be told what to do, and people are naturally drawn to collaboration and working in teams. These differences should be considered and respected when people from these cultures work together.

Hofstede Insights has a great tool for comparing national cultures using these 6 dimensions. Try it out and see how your culture compares to those that you work with regularly. You may find that your cultures are very similar in some dimensions, and polar opposites in others.  These insights can help you understand how your culture impacts the way you work, and help you to see things from your colleagues’ perspective a little more easily.

Did you try the country comparison tool? Were you surprised by the results?

I would love to hear from you and help you explore some ways to benefit from the diversity within your team!

Contact me here or send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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There are some great resources for learning more about cultural dynamics in the workplace. Here are a few of my favorites that helped me write this article:

Understanding Cross-Cultural Management by  Marie-Joelle Browaeys

Introducing Intercultural Communication
by Shuang Liu and Zala Volcic


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