How to avoid misunderstandings in multicultural workplaces

Multicultural workplace

Global companies have long expected talent from all over the world to work together, whether remotely or in the same location. McKinsey research has shown that a diverse workforce is in the best interest of businesses. The varied approaches workers with different characteristics and backgrounds bring to creativity, problem-solving, and leadership drive innovation and growth more effectively.

However, the different norms and value systems that come into play when people from diverse cultural backgrounds interact can lead to misunderstandings, especially in sensitive workplace situations such as conflict resolution, giving and receiving feedback, and consensus building.

“The less we know a person, the more we end up relying on cultural norms. And so, as a result, we may have misunderstandings because what I say or do is not what you understand,” said Lionel Laroche, founder and principal at MultiCultural Business Solutions Consultants in Toronto, who spoke at the AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit.

These mix-ups arise due to invisible differences in the ways we think and communicate, which depend to a great extent on the culture where we grew up and where we attended school and university, according to Laroche, who has provided cultural competency training to over 100,000 people in 18 countries over the past two decades.

When Gabriela Butler, ACMA, CGMA, a commercial finance manager at Interserve Facilities Management, moved to the UK a decade ago, she found the diversity quite different from her native Romania, where foreigners were few and far between. She also had to adapt her ways of working to the new environment. For instance, asking many questions is considered normal in Romania, a means of establishing transparency and directness.

However, this was viewed as confrontational in the UK. To build deeper trust in relationships, Butler learnt to ask fewer, more focused questions. In her voluntary work with the Aston Business School Transformation for Growth Project, which focused on entrepreneurship and transformational change to unlock business growth potential, this new approach helped Butler build a strong relationship with 40 small and midsize enterprises.

In this manner she leveraged a cultural difference to become a better problem-solver, and is now considered by her seniors as a turnaround manager in a multicultural environment. Butler also thinks that it is crucial for employers to set the agenda for cultural diversity so that all employees feel included.

A look at other cultural factors

A few other variables in workplace interactions are strongly defined by our cultural backgrounds. Two are nonverbal communication and a sense of hierarchy, according to Laroche.

In the case of the former, mismatches occur because our cultures teach us to express positive and negative emotions with different levels of intensity. For example, when colleagues try to communicate concern in stressful situations, or when a manager attempts to gauge enthusiasm for an opportunity, a worker may feel others are overreacting or not eager enough. Sometimes, gestures, facial expressions, and tone are not clear to a person from another culture.

One needs to understand the emotional scale of the other person in order to avoid these divergences, Laroche said. Verbal communication to acknowledge that they have been understood will help, and at times, mirroring the emotional state of the other person may be required to gain their confidence.

A worker’s sense of hierarchy comes into play in interactions between managers and team members. Employees from some countries such as Canada and the UK tend to look for greater autonomy from their managers, while those from Mexico and Pakistan may be more apt to expect more frequent direction, according to Laroche. Clearly, when manager and team member are from different cultures, there is room for misinterpretation until a strong personal equation is established.

According to Laroche, two ways of learning to navigate a diverse environment are by building similarly varied personal networks within and outside the workplace and finding mentors from the new culture.

Ilham Punjani, commercial director at 4S Investments, in the United Arab Emirates and Canada, is of Indian origin, and has worked and studied mostly in the Middle East. As a student, she attended educational institutions with students and teachers from varied cultural backgrounds. Her work experience has also been with Indian, American, European, and Middle Eastern organisations; and she has family all over the globe.

Punjani, who speaks six languages, has found that this diverse background makes it easier for her to adapt quickly to cultural nuances.

In certain cultures, Punjani observed that it is the oldest person at the meeting whose opinions hold greatest weight, regardless of official designations.

When language has been a barrier in client meetings, one approach that Punjani has used is to ask politely for concerns or main points to be explained in English — the point being to aid understanding by choosing a language in which one is most comfortable.

Organisational culture

Another variable is the culture of the organisation itself. This largely stems from where it is headquartered, according to Laroche. Therefore, it will serve employees well to learn the cultural nuances of that country or region, and maybe even the language, if they are seeking to build careers within that organisation.

Organisational culture is also shaped by the sector in which the business operates. For instance, the work culture of auditors in an accounting firm could be quite different from that of professionals who work in the accounting function of a mining firm, Laroche observed. Further complexity also comes in when multiple cultures are driving organisational behaviour — as in the case of an offshore subsidiary of a business based in another country.

In all these scenarios, organisations must endeavour to find a common framework for smooth daily functioning. This would include important metrics such as performance criteria and feedback scales, and unspoken customs such as the format for questioning one’s manager. “You need to discuss the rules of engagement, write down unwritten laws, explaining to people how things are done,” said Laroche.

Tips for spoken and written communication

“Once we know one another, we can separate the individual from the culture,” Laroche said. But up to that point, we can follow a few dictums he has arrived at through research and observation to appreciate one another’s cultural traits and find mutually agreeable ground in the workplace:

  • Awareness is 50% of the solution. When we realise that the other person’s behaviour and actions stem from cultural differences and are not directed at us personally, this makes it easier to adjust to.
  • Patience is a virtue. Once we are aware of cultural differences, the other 50% involves persistence to find common ground, and even change long-standing habits to do so, if needed.
  • Communicate with care. Communication is not just about sending messages; it is also about ensuring that the message sent is the message that was meant to be sent.
  • Monitor your impact on other people. Stop and clarify when the impact you have is not the impact you want to have.
  • Consider how you’re receiving messages. Monitor your emotional state to determine when you are impacted negatively. Analyse your own emotions to identify the trigger of these negative emotions and don’t act on them.
  • Separate impact from intention. The way you feel may not be the way your counterpart meant to make you feel.
  • Follow the “platinum rule”. The golden rule needs to be replaced by the platinum rule, which roughly translates as “Do unto others as they would want done to them.” Being helpful or respectful means different things to different people.

— Shilpa Pai Mizar is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at