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How to be successful in culturally diverse workplace

Indrayani Walinjkar I MBA – HR,
Singapore, 14 May 2015

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ABC Company was pleased after its first meeting with representatives of a major Japanese firm. The Japanese had nodded assent throughout the meeting and had not objected to a single proposal. The next day, however, ABC Company was stunned to learn that the Japanese had rejected the entire plan. In interpreting the nonverbal behavioural messages, the company had made a typical mistake. They assumed the Japanese were nodding in agreement. In this case, however, the nods of assent indicated comprehension—not approval.

A Filipino receptionist asked Canadian lady “What’s your good name?” Canadian lady got thoroughly confused and apologised “Sorry, I do not have any good name; my name is Laura, that’s it.”

Capitalizing on workplace diversity is a challenge for most organizations and individuals. Harmony and acceptance does not happen automatically when people who are not similar work together. Understanding the verbal and nonverbal message is difficult even when communicators are from the same culture. But when they are from different cultures, special sensitivity and skills are necessary. As global competition opens world markets, workforce is also becoming more diverse—in race, ethnicity, age, gender, nationality, physical ability, and many more other characteristics.

 Tips for effective communication

  • Understand the value of differences. Diversity makes an organization innovative and creative. Gone are the days when businesses could demand that new employees or customers simply conform to the existing organization’s culture. Today, the people who bring new perspectives and ideas are valued. But with those new ideas comes the responsibility to listen and to allow those new ideas to grow.
  • Create zero tolerance for bias and stereotypes. Cultural patterns exist in every identity group, but applying these patterns to individuals results in stereotyping. Check your own use of stereotypes and labels. Don’t tell sexist or ethnic jokes. Avoid slang, abbreviations, and jargon that imply stereotypes.
  • Practise focused, thoughtful, and open-minded listening. Much misunderstanding can be avoided by attentive listening. Listen for main points; take notes if necessary to remember important details. The most important part of listening, especially among diverse communicators, is judging ideas, not appearances or accents.
  • Ask, use, and give feedback. As you read earlier, a critical element in successful communication is feedback. You can encourage it by asking questions such as Is there anything you don’t understand? Does the receiver need more details? A different example? Slower delivery? As a good listener, you should also be prepared to give feedback. For example, summarize your understanding of what was said or agreed on.
  • Make fewer assumptions. Be careful of seemingly insignificant, innocent workplace assumptions. For example, don’t assume that everyone wants to observe the holidays with a Christmas party and a decorated tree. Celebrating only Christian holidays in December and January excludes those who honour Diwali, Chinese New Year, and Ramadan. Moreover, in workplace discussions, don’t assume that everyone is married or wants to be, and don’t assume people’s sexual orientation. For invitations, avoid phrases such as “managers and their wives.” Spouses or partners is more inclusive.
  • Learn about your cultural self. Knowing your own cultural biases helps you become more objective and adaptable. Begin to recognize the reactions and thought patterns that are automatic to you as a result of your upbringing. Become more aware of your own values and beliefs. That way you can see them at work when you are confronted by differing values.
  • Seek common ground. Be prepared to consider issues from many perspectives, all of which may be valid. Accept that there is room for different points of view to coexist peacefully. Although you can always find differences, it’s much harder to find similarities. Look for common ground in shared experiences, mutual goals, and similar values.

How to avoid oral miscommunication

  1. Use simple English. Speak in short sentences (under 15 words) with familiar, short words. Eliminate specific cultural references, slang, and jargon (special business terms).
  2. Speak slowly and enunciate clearly. Avoid fast speech, but don’t raise your voice. Over-punctuate with pauses. Always write numbers for all to see.
  3. Encourage accurate feedback. Ask probing questions, and encourage the listener to paraphrase what you say. Don’t assume that a yes, a nod, or a smile indicates comprehension or assent.
  4. Check frequently for comprehension. Avoid waiting until you finish a long explanation to request feedback. Instead, make one point at a time, pausing to check for comprehension. Don’t proceed to B until A has been grasped.
  5. Observe eye messages. Be alert to a glazed expression or wandering eyes. These tell you the listener is lost. Accept blame. If a misunderstanding results, graciously accept the blame for not making your meaning clear.
  6. Follow up in writing. After conversations or oral negotiations, confirm the results and agreements with follow-up letters or e-mails. For proposals and contracts, engage a translator to prepare copies in the local language.

How to avoid written miscommunication

  1. Adopt local styles. Learn how documents are formatted and how letters are addressed and developed in the intended reader’s country. Use local formats and styles.
  2. Consider hiring a translator. Engage a translator if (1) your document is important, (2) your document will be distributed to many readers, or (3) you must be persuasive.
  3. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Sentences with fewer than 15 words and paragraphs with fewer than 5 lines are most readable.
  4. Avoid ambiguous wording. Avoid idioms (once in a blue moon), slang (my presentation really bombed), acronyms (ASAP for as soon as possible), abbreviations (DBA for doing business as), and jargon (input, output, bottom line). Use action-specific verbs (purchase a printer rather than get a printer).
  5. Cite numbers carefully. Always convert dollar figures into local currency. Avoid using figures to express the month of the year. For clarity, always spell out the month so it doesn’t get confused with the day (e.g., 03/05/06 can be read as March 5, 2006 or May 3, 2006).

– Indrayani Valinjkar I MBA – HR,

MA – Counselling Psychologist, Certified Yoga teacher


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