5 Simple Ways You Can Promote Cultural Awareness At Work Today
I often overhear business travelers at the airport talking on the phone, characterizing their imminent journey as “I’m headed to Asia” or “I’ll be in the Middle East next week.” I know I’ve done it as well because let’s face it, sometimes it’s just easier to say that rather saying something like “I’ve got 3 days in Tokyo, 3 more in Seoul and a final two in Jakarta before I head home.” As outsiders, though, many of us actually see it that way – going to a region where everything appears to be the same between the local countries. Unfortunate may it be, it’s the truth.
Recognizing Cultural Differences
But when you travel abroad extensively as I have fortunately been able to do in my career, you begin to realize that every country has its own special character, culture and subtleties that can only be noticed when you squint really hard. Even countries close in proximity will have unique characteristics beyond just the colors of their flags.
And of course, there are cultural differences within a single nation. Look at northern and southern United States, for example. As a generality, Americans from the southern states are quite different in terms of values and culture than those in the northern part of the country. In England, you’ll encounter vastly different accents from citizens who grew up just 40km apart. And how many people realize that there is a predominantly Muslim province in China (Xinjiang, in the far west)?
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When Culture Mixes at Work
When such subtleties and unique flavors of culture mix in the workplace, they can often be overlooked, misunderstood or all around, ignored. I once worked in an office that had 500 employees. Among those 500 employees, nearly 200 of them were born and raised in other countries. And further, nearly 50 nationalities were represented by the employees in that office. Despite such obvious diversity, few employees really took the time to learn and understand one another from a cultural standpoint.
Diversity has become such an important workplace topic that it been given its own acronym. ID. I had no idea what my friend in Human Resources was talking about until I finally asked 15 minutes into the conversation. “Inclusion and diversity” she said.
When I hear people talk about cultural appreciation in the workplace it is usually limited to a simple embrace of the differences between people, as if to say “Everyone, just get along!” But there are far more important and strategic reasons why it’s important to understand cultural differences in the workplace other than just to celebrate diversity.
Five Ways to Promote Cultural Awareness at Work
As Mitchell Holt points out, because the office environment is becoming a cultural melting pot more and more every day, understanding and appreciating cultural diversity helps “enhance communication, productivity and unity in the workplace.” Let’s not forget that one of the many roles of the manager is to enable his or her team to overcome individual differences in order to act as a single unit in pursuit of a specific goal. Further, managers need to find ways to maximize the strengths of the individuals and protect against weaknesses. Understanding the cultural values and differences between employees is a great start in making this happen.
To start, here are 5 ways you can promote cultural awareness in your office today:
1. Ask Employees About Home – So simple, yet so infrequent. As a manager, spending a few minutes asking your employees about their culture goes a long way towards increasing your awareness of their heritage, as well as promoting employee engagement. For instance, I once had an employee from Algeria who was very traditional in his religious beliefs. I actually asked him privately if he would be uncomfortable if there were alcohol present at an upcoming team dinner. He was taken back, appreciative I had asked, and responded with some of his personal boundaries pertaining to alcohol.
If an employee is heating up his or her lunch in the cafeteria, ask about the food of their home country. If they are taking a day off to celebrate a holiday with their family, inquire about the meaning of the occasion. Particularly when other employees are around to listen, asking and offering appreciation for a given employee’s culture fosters a mutual respect between employees as well as you, their manager.
2. Get Out an Old Fashioned World Map – Maps are making their exit these days, being replaced by smart phones and GPS systems. But you can still get an old school map at a bookstore. Get a world map and post it in a common or public area – the cafeteria, a conference room, or some other area where people assemble. Ask employees to take a pin with a flag on it and write their name. Have them stick the pin on the map to show where they are from. When an employee sees a colleague’s name on the board, it offers a sense of appreciation and may tell them something he or she had not previously known. That slight accent you pick up from Catherine? Yeah, she’s actually from Argentina. Plus, when employees walk by the board and see the distribution of the flags, they will have a better sense of the diversity within their own workplace.
3. Organize an International Food Day – As described by author Mark Kurlansky in Choice Cuts “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.” If you have a large number of nationalities represented in your office, host an international food day. Once a year, ask for your employees to bring in a traditional dish from their homeland to share with other employees. Make a buffet or potluck lunch out of it.
Food is such an important element in many cultures that you will find a conversation about one’s traditional food often turns into a much broader discussion of one’s culture. Though she would go out to lunch every other day of the week, a colleague of mine from China would always bring in traditional food for lunch on Mondays. When I asked about the reason she only brought her lunch on Mondays, she said it was because she would spend the weekend cooking to get a little slice of home.
4. Celebrate Monthly Holidays – Every culture, religion and nationality has its various holidays and festivals. A great way to build awareness of cultural heritage is to publicize and celebrate these traditions. Starting next month, send out a company email highlighting the various holidays and festivals that your firm’s employees will be celebrating. Or, if your office is small enough, hold a special event each month to celebrate the traditions as a group.
5. Get Formal Training – If you work extensively with colleagues or customers in another country, it may be advisable to seek formal training for your employees and staff about the other culture. If your firm does a great deal of business in China, for example, getting some formal training from an experienced person who has worked in China is highly recommended.
Particularly in a business setting, formal training will not only offer an appreciation of the culture, but will also discuss specific areas to be cognizant of when it comes to business. Formal training in many cases will often address basic topics like communication and business etiquette as well as more specific needs such negotiation and marketing skills.
Ultimately, promoting cultural awareness in an office is more than just something to help keep the peace. In contrast, promoting cultural awareness in your office helps teams function better and helps you manage more effectively. So the next time you want to throw an office party, consider making it an international food day.
What are you doing to promote diversity in your workplace?