What Are The Challenges of a Culturally Diverse Workplace?

While multicultural workplaces are the norm in most countries, they require a bit more consideration in others. Whatever your own workplace looks like, however, one thing is certain – more and more of us expect greater diversity in the workplace. One study found that 67% of us consider this a crucial factor when choosing a place to work, and this number is expected to grow.

A wealth of data seems to show that greater diversity produces better results. Yet while this sounds very promising, the reality often presents some challenges that need to be overcome, especially in the beginning. Whether it’s difficulties in communication or simply finding the time to train your staff, knowing what to expect can only help you as you navigate an increasingly diverse world.

Unconscious bias and stereotyping

Cultural stereotypes are some of the first challenges that diverse teams face and may even be the most difficult habits to break. Our impression of other people and cultures is informed by our entire worldview, and is often influenced by unsympathetic portrayals in our media. The ideas we inherit from the media we consume can lead to unconscious bias, where we assume things to be true based on our own experiences, and act in accordance with those assumptions. As the name suggests, unconscious bias is generally not premeditated – it’s a shortcut in our thinking.

While negative stereotypes are actively harmful, so-called positive stereotypes can be dangerous too. For example, the age-old stereotype that Asians are intelligent may seem complementary on the surface. However, when we make broad assumptions about the people we work with based on their culture, this can drastically affect communication and working relationships. Regardless of the nature of the stereotype, most people will want to be judged on their own merits, rather than what they’re supposed to be good at. If first impressions are everything, then starting out on the wrong foot with a damaging cultural stereotype is not indicative of a happy relationship.

Communication and misunderstandings

Similar to unconscious bias, another challenge when managing multicultural teams is miscommunication. If your workplace lacks cultural diversity, attempts to improve diversity may cause chaos and resentment as different personalities, comfort levels, and communication styles fight for dominance. Add to that a variety of accents, or people using their second or third language, and it is easy to see how misunderstandings can occur.

An even more challenging issue can be non-verbal communication. When misunderstanding a colleague’s accent, employees can simply pardon themselves, ask for clarification, or even speak via email to make things easier. This is less easy with non-verbal communication, where our physical behaviour is often deeply ingrained.

Non-verbal communication, even something as seemingly simple as a handshake, can have a multitude of cultural implications that may not be immediately obvious to everyone. Eye contact, pointing or even facial expressions are all a part of a complex cultural language that we subconsciously learn, and often don’t stop to think about. More importantly, we often use our body, gestures and even silence to add depth to our meaning. If you haven’t learned a colleague’s non-verbal language, then you are unlikely to understand them completely.

Cultural awareness training can aid multicultural businesses in ironing out any potential misunderstandings and improve communication, benefiting the entire team and can positively impact the bottom line. Ultimately, improving communication is not about asking individuals to change their way of speaking or thinking, but to educate everyone in different communication styles. That way, differences are far less likely to be seen as personal attacks or missteps, but rather appreciated for their own individuality.

Business etiquette

Learning the ins and outs of business etiquette in your own culture can be a struggle to start with, especially if you are new to the business world. Varying expectations from managers, employees and other businesses can lead to some friction or awkwardness, something which is only compounded by cultural differences.

A popular and pertinent example is the corporate culture in Japan. With its longer than average working hours and strict age hierarchy, Japanese business culture is vastly different to the Western-style 8-hour workday, and prioritization of work/life balance. In Japan and some similar cultures, it is even seen as rude to leave the office before your boss or superiors, and many junior employees may end up working late into the evening or night. It’s very possible that for these individuals, working in a less strict environment could prove challenging at first, and lead to concerns that they aren’t contributing enough.

If you aren’t careful, dealing with differences in business etiquette and professional expectations can easily lead to confrontations. As detailed by Harvard Business Review,  there can be stark differences between the Eastern and Western ways of managing professional conflicts, and the direct vs indirect way that each culture prefers to conduct things may not always be compatible.

This is why a thorough understanding of the cultures you are working with and doing business with is vital. All parties involved will need to consider a shift in perspective, and learn to do business in a slightly different way to what they may be used to. It’s these compromises that reduce conflict, and help foster teamwork and relationships.

Diversity implementation

Too often, businesses fall into the trap of investing in diversity training, and thinking that this solves their problems. Unfortunately, the complex nature of the issue at hand demands a more structured and rigorous approach. By making a number of coordinated changes to your workplace and its culture, you’ll ensure that the message is heard and understood, and has a tangible and lasting impact on people’s behaviour.

Diversity implementation must be an active effort on the part of everyone in an organisation, but the example must come from the top. What often trips business leaders up is  the day-to-day running of a business, and how this can draw focus away from (and mask the importance of) complex issues such as diversity implementation. In fact, one report found that 41% of managers admit that they are “too busy” to dedicate enough time to these matters.

Proper diversity implementation often mandates a thorough restructuring and rethinking of old ways and old approaches. While employers should set the example and provide the tools for these changes to take place, implementation initiatives must be understood, accepted and integrated into a company-wide culture by all employees. This is including, but not limited to diversity and inclusion training, workshops and monitoring, or even changes to recruitment procedures.

Such widespread changes can often feel uncomfortable at first, and growing pains are to be expected, no matter your level of experience or seniority. But while some defensive behaviour is to be expected, the goal of diversity implementation is ultimately to help people better understand cultural issues, and empathise with others. By teaching employees and fostering understanding, you can create positive attitudes that bleed into your company culture, and offset the friction that might otherwise arise from new rules.

Cultural diversity is a complex issue, but not an impossible one to solve. Like most things, successfully adapting your business to support cultural diversity requires hard work, buy-in at all levels, and a commitment to broad and long-lasting change.

With the diversity of the working population only increasing, businesses that do not make an effort to avoid issues with workplace diversity risk problems down the line. By reforming your policies and attitudes now, you’ll not only foster a less toxic and more inclusive workplace, but open yourself to a wealth of new talent – and create an environment everyone wants to work in.

This post was written by Chris Crosby, CEO and co-founder of Country Navigator. Country Navigator are providers of cultural diversity and inclusion training in the workplace, creating unique and tailor made solutions for businesses through inclusion, innovation and collaboration. From cultural influences to unconscious bias, Country Navigator’s cultural diversity and inclusion training gives detailed and highly accurate analysis across parameters including explicit and implicit communication and individual and group identity. Chris has over 30 years of experience in helping leaders, teams and organisations to work better across cultures.