6 ways a lack of cultural awareness impacts workplace productivity every day

Published on February 25th, 2021

Cultural awareness in international companies

Have you ever sat in a meeting cringing inwardly over the awkward silences? Or wanting to shrink into your office chair as your colleagues yell at one another in their own language? Or perhaps despaired during a video conference when people who ought to have important ideas simply don’t speak up?

Perhaps, though, those silences aren’t awkward to your Japanese colleagues. Your Italian counterparts may have been simply enjoying a bit of debate. You Chinese team members may not seem to have any original ideas because they can’t get a word in and they think it’s rude to interrupt.

A golden rule of working in a multicultural environment is never to assume that something you say has been understood, or interpreted in the way you want it to be. To get the results you want, as well as maximum productivity and happy teams, you need to have cultural awareness and be endlessly adaptable.

Here are 6 ways a lack of cultural awareness impacts workplace productivity every day:

1. Choose your language carefully

Many companies have fallen foul of advertising slogans that have got lost in translation or were simply offensive due to a lack of cultural awareness. A brand of ice cream in India called ‘Hitler’. A Coca Cola advert showing a map of Russia but missing out the enclave of Kaliningrad, offending Russians. The ad was later corrected to include Kaliningrad and Crimea was added, too, thus offending Ukrainians. Or an ad for Cadillac in 2014 that openly suggested all French people were lazy, and therefore undeserving of a Cadillac. Even the world’s biggest companies and most powerful ad agencies make cultural blunders because they lack cultural awareness training. The lesson? Double and triple check every cultural nuance of your ad, the language, the brand name and the imagery.

2. Manage multicultural team conflict

People from expressive cultures like Brazil, or Italy, will be comfortable with loud, animated discussion. Team members from Scandinavia, or some Asian cultures may be unnerved by this, under the impression that their colleagues are arguing. Similarly, the Brazilians and Italians may not understand that the silence and stillness of the Finns is a way of conveying disapproval, or that the Japanese are simply averse to confrontation for fear of losing face. Use techniques to create healthy and productive debate. Encourage individuals to discuss the pros and cons of an idea. Find a way of challenging ideas without humiliating an individual. Put questions to the group, rather than one person. Invite comments in writing if you really feel team members are afraid of causing conflict.

3. Make sure you’re being understood in cross cultural communication

Imagine what it’s like to think on your feet while conversing in a language that is not your mother tongue. Make it easy for your colleagues who are in this position. If you know you have a strong accent, speak clearly and slowly. Give people time; remember, a Chinese person may be translating your English in their head to Mandarin, then their response back into English. Don’t just assume you have been understood. If you have asked someone to do something, get them to repeat back to you what you’ve said – without being patronizing, of course.

4. Managing multicultural and virtual meetings

When many different cultures are present at a meeting, whoever is leading the discussion needs a high level of cultural awareness. Americans may be used to pushing themselves forward to be heard, while Japanese participants will wait their turn and even then, only speak up in context with their place in the hierarchy. There are ways round this. Go round the table saying you would like input from everybody in turn. Ask open ended questions and address them to individuals. Do not interrupt. For those who talk too much and too long, discreetly get them to talk less. Say something like: “Can you please sum that point up in a couple of sentences?”

5. Giving and receiving feedback across cultures

Different cultures perceive giving and receiving feedback in different ways. The direct-talking Dutch may give negative feedback without a second thought. Americans may shoot down an idea with no concern for the consequences. Asian team members may be reluctant to give any feedback that could cause a superior to lose face. So think carefully about setting people up to give feedback. With co-workers from high context cultures, deliver feedback in private if it’s negative. With multicultural teams, try not to be too direct; start off by saying something positive. Invite constructive criticism of your own ideas and actions.

6. Cultural perceptions of time

There are many instances of communication breaking down between teams on different continents, from different cultures; a Western, ‘time-is-money’ team thinking their Asian co-workers are lazy, for example, as they miss deadlines, or are not in the office after hours, or don’t reply to every email quickly. When working with multicultural teams, make sure everybody has bought into your perception of a deadline. Is one team under pressure from above to meet deadlines fast and if so, has this been communicated? Is the other side reluctant to ask questions for fear of losing face, having failed to understand the brief fully? Does one team address problems in a circular, rather than linear fashion? Always think about how your colleagues from different cultures interpret what you say.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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