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Cultural Diversity: Understanding Its Impact in the Workplace

Updated: May 12, 2023

Culture has a significant impact on how we interpret life and our environment

Harnessing cultural diversity within workplaces is crucial to supporting staff from a variety of cultural backgrounds, to be their best and to generate excellent results.

The term 'culture' relates to socially transmitted values, behaviours and attitudes, which are particular to a specific ethnicity, nationality or religious group or organisation.

It involves the shaping of language, belief systems, ideas, traditions etc. Culture is learned, shared and generally accepted within groups.

What Does Cultural Diversity Mean In The Workplace?

Culture is socially constructed and is passed between generations. It is of immense importance and gives us, as human beings, a framework through which we interpret our increasingly complex world.

Cultural diversity is perceptible. It can be seen in many visible and non visible characteristics. People come from different ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds.

Therefore, a workforce will have staff with a multitude of diverse experiences, thoughts, cultural understandings and approaches. Culture has a significant impact of how we interpret the world.

Cultural diversity includes, and develops, a variety of perspectives that can be benefit a business, generating a culture of innovation and more efficient ways of working and behaving. It increase the ability to become a dynamic organisation and one which is focused on learning and promoting workplace inclusion.

It increases knowledge, and enables an organisation to better connect with colleagues from different racial, cultural, ethnic and backgrounds. An understanding of cultural diversity also enables organisations to better connect with clients and customers from a wider range of communities, by developing products and services that suit their particular cultural needs.

Knowledge and understanding of cultural differences builds diversity and inclusion

Developing knowledge and awareness of different cultures helps to build workplace and business rewards.

The benefits of working within diverse teams is enhanced by multiple possibilities, including the potential to develop products and services to attract a wide variety of talent.

It is however, only through knowledge and understanding of cultural differences and embracing difference, that these benefits are truly realised.

Within the business setting, cultural diversity can make communication especially challenging. The ways of working and thinking between peoples of different cultural backgrounds can be vastly different. This can create barriers to effective communication.

Cultural Understanding - Stereotyping and Prejudice

Stereotyping and prejudice give rise to negative behaviours. They create misunderstanding and conflict between people who are not members of the same culture, and can lead to discrimination.

Cultural stereotyping and prejudice leads to discriminatory practices and behaviours, and can seriously damage workplace relationships.

These behaviours negatively impact diversity and inclusion and create issues for team cohesion, effective working practices and lower productivity. Put simply, they bad for business.

Any barrier to building inclusion into working practices, will ultimately affect your business ability to harness creativity and innovation from your staff teams.

Barriers prevent your ability to attract talent, engage staff teams and build productive business relationships.

Many articles focus on the challenges of cultural diversity within the workplace. Here, we will focus on cross cultural communication, as a means of developing, and promoting, diversity and inclusion.

Cross-Cultural Communication

The key to understanding culture lies in communication. Culture is expressed, to a large extent, by the ways in which we communicate.

People of different cultures respond differently to language, signs and symbols due to the frames of reference embedded within cultural upbringing and related understanding.

Understanding cross cultural communication is key to effective relationships. It enables a workplace to benefit from the key differences in understanding and behaviours that can impact greatly upon a business success of failure.

An organisation that has developed the ability to learn from, and engage with, a wide range of cultures is ideally placed to benefit from a more engaged workforce.

It will be better placed to support its staff, through the development and promotion of inclusive processes.

Well developed skills in cultural communication help to support an engaged workforce

An understanding of cross cultural communication will greatly enhance engagement within a workforce.

People of different cultures have developed their own specific language and behaviours, full of the nuances that cultural diversity can bring.

What has meaning for one culture may not be relevant or have a completely different meaning within another. Due to this factor, many misunderstandings can arise.

These misunderstandings can be even more problematic when people of different cultures are trying to collaborate on projects within the workplace. Meanings and understanding can become confused, due to misinterpretation.

The role of management, in ensuring that cultural diversity and its importance to effective team building, is a critical one. Embedding cultural knowledge and learning is essential to increasing work performance and adding value to your business outcomes.

The Impact of Non Verbal Communications

Deposited within the cultural attributes of all societies, is the meaning of different words, behaviours and gestures. These form the basis of 'ways of being and acting’ which are specific within all the different cultures of the world. ​

Signals from non-verbal communication are nuanced. They are as different as those posed by the spoken word. The following business etiquette examples demonstrate this:

Business Etiquette varies Amongst Cultures

In Bangladesh, a business card is exchanged immediately after the initial introduction and are presented with the right hand. Business etiquette dictates that the card is treated with respect and should be carefully read. Merely glancing at it would be considered unprofessional and rude.

Contrast this with the custom of giving business cards in the UK. The card is usually given at the end of a meeting and there is no ceremony regarding the card itself or the giving of it.

It is not unusual for people to immediately write notes on the back of business card! Writing on a business card is regarded as abhorrent behaviour in many cultures.

Japanese culture dictates that a business card is both given, and received with both hands, whilst bowing at the same time. In addition, both parties must stand, with the person of the highest ranking offering his / her card first.

It is appropriate to take time to read the card before putting it carefully into a card case. It is never appropriate to write on a business card and doing so will cause great offence, as will putting the card you have just received into your pocket.

Consider the following examples:

In the UK, business meetings follow a clear pattern, are formal and usually include a formal agenda. There is sometimes a little small talk before getting down to business.

It is a requirement to arrive on time or a little early and being late is often seen as unprofessional without very good reason.

In India, business meetings are regularly started with small talk, which may be extended for some time, before getting down to the actual business at hand.

It is customary for Indians to do business with people, once they have had a chance to get to know them a little.

It is often useful to make enquiries about family, spouse or education as an ice breaker. Indians prefer an element of familiarity in order to feel at ease, and able to conduct business.

In addition to this, many Indians avoid saying ‘no’ as it may be deemed too confrontational and will often use ‘maybe’ instead. It is useful for colleagues from the UK culture to recognise this and it can be helpful to rephrase a question if possible to ensure clarity.

There are certainly different ways of conducting business and building strong teams and relationships.

Whilst initially challenging for both parties, with a little understanding and knowledge, communication is successful between people of different cultures.

No one should consider him or herself correct, as this is where stereotyping and prejudice can set in. This will only harm partnerships and create misunderstanding and animosity within the workplace and other business settings.

Don’t Underestimate Semantics

People of different cultures respond differently to language, signs and symbols due to the frames of reference embedded within cultural upbringing and related understanding.

Semantics are an important part of communication and relates to the meanings conferred through language. It is important to understand semantics and how, it impacts logic, meaning and understanding.

Semantics is all about meaning!

Understanding semantics is important for effective cross cultural communication and cultural diversity.

Using phrases that are specific to a particular culture can create misunderstanding amongst people who are not familiar with their usage.

For example, the phrase ‘beating around the bush’, used mainly in the UK, means to prevaricate, or avoid coming directly to the point. This may be completely lost on a colleague from a different culture who may wonder why you would want to beat the bush!!

Clearly, using semantical language /phrases can confuse meaning and understanding. It is best to avoid, unless discussions are such, that a full and immediate explanation can be offered.

Semiotics are An Important Factor

Semiotics relate to the study of how meaning is communicated through signs and symbols. Again, it is useful to understand how semiotics can impact on understanding and confuse cross cultural relationships.

Different cultures have different meaning for signs and symbols. In many western societies, a ‘thumbs up’ denotes a positive acknowledgement of something that is good and to be appreciated. However, in other cultures, this seemingly positive signal has very negative connotations.

For example, within the Bangladeshi culture, it is taken as an insult. This is clearly not the sign that someone from the UK wants to use at the end of an otherwise positive negotiations!

Behaviours are Predicated on Culture

Cultural differences are important and can define behaviour and personality differences amongst groups of people.

Culture is demonstrated through things like body language, manners, values etc, and can lead to misinterpretation.

In some cultures, maintaining eye contact is important and is an indication of trust, honesty and truth. However, in others, it is seen as a sign of disrespect and must be avoided at all costs.

Culture defines Values, Attitudes, and Beliefs

Culture sets the parameters of values and behaviours that are seen as acceptable within a society. It mandates behaviours and notions of right and wrong.

All people, whatever their cultural background, are influenced by culture, which can be national or regional. It impacts actions such as social interests, music, clothing, career and ambitions.

The importance of culture and belief, should never be underestimated or undervalued. Gender roles are defined within cultures and may impact ways of working within the workplace. Whether we recognise it or not, culture is central to our behaviours and understanding

Culture Informs and Defines Gender Roles and Behaviours

Effective communication can only be realised if all colleagues are empathetic to the differences in cultural reference. Being accommodating to differences. and learning from them, is an essential part of building diversity and inclusion and efficient work teams.

It is important to keep an open mind and try to work within the parameters, as imposed by culture, as far as possible.

Overcoming Cultural Barriers

Functional cross cultural communication, presents an opportunity for creativity, new perspectives, and openness to new ideas and increased unity within the workplace.

Overcoming cultural barriers demands an appreciation and acceptance of different styles of working and understanding.

Getting to know the people around you and developing an understanding of the cultural habits, traditions and values is essential to developing cohesive ways of working. It develops more productive and innovative work teams.

D&I training that includes cultural learning can help overcome cultural barriers by building knowledge and understanding.

Learning, structured around the differences between values and attitudes, can develop strategies to engage with a wider range of customers, stakeholders and communities.

It can help to develop inclusive recruitment strategies to source diverse talent. It represents an opportunity to develop targeted products and services, to better serve the needs of diverse clients and customers.

Building a Strong Cross-Cultural Team

Just as there are different working styles amongst colleagues of the same cultural background, there are differences associated with cross cultural team members.

Some cultures are more likely to be individualist in working styles, whilst others place high importance on co-operation among and within teams.

It is not unusual to find colleagues from some cultures who are excellent on focusing on hard, complex facts, whilst others are more adept at taking a more creative approach.

Within the workplace team environment, this can be seen as a potential source of conflict. However, the cultural differences within teams are a source of strength, helping to generate diversity of thought, creativity and innovation.

Cross cultural teams increase knowledge, productivity and innovation.

The varied skill sets found within a culturally diverse team, can add value to the end results of your products and service provision. Diverse teams are also better equipped to work towards a common goal, whilst developing new skills and building team.

Developing Team Awareness Around Culture

Building awareness and acceptance as part of your organisational value system, will benefit your organisation in a multitude of ways. Developing awareness around cultural diversity will add value to organisational processes and develop knowledge.

One of the most powerful benefits of cultural diversity is that we all develop different skill sets. The ability to work in a cross cultural or international team successfully, demands an appreciation, acceptance, and awareness, of different cultural norms and values.

Here, it is important to be cognisant of the fact that your ‘normal’ does not necessarily facilitate understanding in others.

awareness-acceptance-of-different-cultures-builds-effective-inclusive teams
Developing team awareness of culture, helps to produce better engagement and results.

Recognise that your communicating, collaboration and learning styles, may differ significantly from others who are from another culture. It is important to empathise with colleagues from across cultures, to increase diversity and embed inclusion.

Your ‘centre’ may be to the 'left or right' of someone else so it is important to empathise with colleagues from outside of your culture and accept that in order to build successful business relationships, developing learning and communication skills are crucial.

There are many benefits highlighted in the business case for diversity Keep your mind open to new approaches that can innovate your business and develop creativity, generating enhanced outcomes.

What is completing normal to you, may not be so obvious to a colleague from a different cultural background.

Moving Forward with Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity within your business, develops opportunities to explore new ways of doing things. Learn to take advantage of the benefits that understanding cultural diversity bring, rather than seeing it as a hindrance.

Embedding and utilising knowledge of cultural diversity within policy and organisational practice, will help to build an inclusive, culturally responsive environment.

Cultural diversity is a business positive. It helps to harness the best that we have to offer and should be utilised at every given opportunity.

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LEARN MORE: Organisational effectiveness of diversity and inclusive processes is important. Read our blog post on re-framing organisational culture to build inclusion.

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Kenroi Consulting is a bespoke diversity consultancy providing tailor made solutions for businesses across the UK.

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