What is Cultural Awareness, and Why Should I be
Talking About it in my Company?
Núbia Vale Rodrigues[ii]
Juliana, a Brazilian manager at a start-up, was having difficulties explaining São Paulo’s work culture to her employees in Germany. In particular, that Brazilians are very flexible with their hours, often working late to avoid rush hour and regularly adjusting their schedules to meet the needs of their superiors. On a recent project that was running behind schedule, Juliana carefully explained the context to her German Manager, providing why the German team would need to work later hours. His reply, “No. Our team is not used to constant, last-minute changes; we need to stick to a previously defined, long-term plan to deliver our best results. Time for unforeseen problems should be built into the initial planning stages so as not to cause project delays.”
The business wasn’t running any smoother in the company’s office in Shanghai. Virtual team meetings were almost impossible to schedule due to time zone differences, and when they did occur, Juliana felt that the energy of the meetings was incredibly low. While the Brazilians smiled frequently and made friendly conversation, she couldn’t engage the Chinese team members to talk or contribute easily. The China project team felt a lack of clear orientation from headquarters regarding the project objectives and left meetings unclear about what was expected of them.
Many companies, including us at Sidera Consult, are filled with examples of intercultural misunderstandings, some funny, some not so much. Our company works today with our teams worldwide, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, England, United States, India, Israel, South Africa, China, New Zealand. In addition to the multifaceted nature of the teams that bring together lawyers, economists, accountants, foreign affairs specialists, international business experts, engineers, and even psychologists, it is crucial to consider the cultural differences.
These diverse characteristics bring in a massive number of approaches, perceptions, advantages and challenges for multicultural teams. Such differences can stabilise in day-to-day business routines without affecting the kaleidoscopic beauty that divergence and uniqueness bring. But, in other cases, they can cause severe damage to the workflow and environment. That is why we invite you to think about Cultural Awareness.
What is Cultural Awareness?
Technology and the globalised economy have enabled a diversity of connections between people in the most distant parts of the world. However, these increased ties in intercultural relations come with challenges intrinsic to variety.
What is often overlooked in this equation is the role of culture. The fields of Social Psychology, Anthropology and Intercultural Communication demonstrate that our personalities are built mainly based on the social, historical, and cultural environment in which we live. Where we grow up and where we live has a significant influence on everyday things and shapes how we understand habits, time, manners, and worldviews.
Understanding intercultural relationships in the business world require us to consider those invisible cultural barriers that can create numerous obstacles and are mistakenly attributed to personal difficulties or a specific view of what is wrong or right. Building cultural awareness means recognising that, to build global connections, operating from our own perspective is not enough.
Mapping It Out
Faced with these questions, some professionals have tried to map out differences between cultures throughout the world. For example, Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist and one of the earliest and most popular cross-cultural researchers in history, did a study in the ’70s with IBM employees of fifty countries. He established four cultural dimensions, and years later, other two dimensions after studying Asian cultures. Those would be individualism-collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, power distance, masculinity-femininity, long-term orientation, and indulgence versus self-restraint. In the following picture, you can see an example of how it would look like the graphics of Brazil, China and the US.
Since Hofstede’s methodology, several more recent, business-friendly methods for understanding cultural dimensions have emerged. One of the most well-known comes from Erin Meyer, an American author and professor at INSEAD Business School. Based on decades of experience in international business, she published in 2014 the book “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business”, which proposes eight scales that evaluate cultural dimensions directly influencing how we build relationships: communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, scheduling. In the following graphic, you can see the same countries comparison according to Meyer’s culture map.
SOURCE: Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map. (1st edition), Public Affairs, 2014.
As one can see above, these are behaviours that are very present in daily work. The distinct markings on the graphic illustrate how cultures can stand apart from each other in the simple act of giving team feedback, for example.
The Pitfalls of Generalisation
These mapping attempts demonstrate efforts to unravel what is different from us. Nevertheless, a few warnings must be highlighted.
The scales should be understood as a spectrum, not a fixed rule: although individuals within that culture may fall along with different parts of the spectrum, the positions pointed out represent general averages for that population. This is what differentiates stereotypes from generalisation. Stereotypes are incomplete, simple-minded and prejudiced. Generalisations are population averages that exemplify the culture shocks that tend to happen at national cultural levels. These common characteristics that we carry are what, for example, tends to lead us Brazilians to stick together in foreign environments and exhibit a series of behaviours in common, despite our regional differences.
Another very relevant aspect of interpreting this data is cultural relativity. There is a diversity of countries in this range, and our perception of a country alters when we change our point of view. As stated by Meyer,
“(…) when examining how people from different cultures report to one another, what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures. It is this relative positioning that determines how people view one another”. (2014, p. 22).
Thus, this is not about memorising scores on scales. Instead, cultural dimensions illustrate many different approaches for working, organising things and experiencing life. We present these maps as triggers for reflections on your own experience: “Have I had problems scheduling meetings with that group repeatedly? Did part of my team remain silent for a large part of the meeting while the other took an energetic position? Have I ever heard in the hallways that I was rude when I voiced an opinion?”
A Pertinent Comment
When conflict arises within companies with multiple cultural questions at play, it is common for people to associate relationship problems with “difficult personalities” and organisational “fit” issues, saying that someone’s personal flaws and individual behaviours should be modified, ignoring the role of culture. However, in the worst cases, people create justifications based on shallow ideas full of stereotypes, prejudice, and degrading comments. As a result, the working environment quality is highly affected, excellent employees are let go or overlooked in the team-building process, and the company misses the chance to learn from differences, and to add value to its goods and services. In these situations, we highlight how essential interventions are, in the sense of demystifying, re-educating and realigning. Xenophobia is part of the agenda that brings racial, gender, sexuality, religion, and ableism prejudices into our daily lives, to name just a few, and should be dealt with firmly.
Building Cultural Awareness
We at Sidera applaud training sessions such as those provided by Differänce Intercultural, where author Adrienne Sweetwater works as an Intercultural Consultant, to facilitate companies developing Cultural Awareness. Differänce Intercultural helps multicultural teams and expatriate families develop their cultural intelligence to work more effectively across diverse environments. Through lively dynamics and interactive conversations, their teaching includes sensitisation to cultural differences and cultural self-awareness.
“We use a methodology developed by Mariana de Oliveira Barros called, ‘How History Shapes Values’. By applying cultural dimensions assessments, we help clients understand the difficulties that their global teams face or points that are likely to be difficult for an expatriate in the country of destination. We facilitate in-depth discussions with our clients about the differences between organisational culture and national culture. This topic often causes issues with start-ups, which tend to believe that everyone is operating from common organisational values. Differänce Intercultural provides customised strategies and action plans for developing cultural awareness within organisations and achieving desired results.”
Solid Business, Solid Bridges
When building cultural awareness, it is essential to remember that it is a gradual process. It means reflecting on our origins and maintaining the curiosity to learn about differences. It involves having several “ah-ha” moments that help us realise that what is “natural” for us may not be typical for others at all.
Gaining awareness about cultural dimensions does not necessarily mean that your team will apply all these dimensions thoroughly. However, it is a chance to start the conversation, in your multicultural interactions, to have a part of yourself remember that there are more layers involved in this encounter than you would have imagined at first glance.
Overtime, you will be able to see exchanges through multiple, simultaneous lenses, even preceding these interactions with a brief mental note of strategies that could be more appropriate to the specific context or aspects that you want to be more attentive towards. Unveiling these layers in an organisational culture that fosters inclusion can generate profound changes in how we see ourselves and other cultures and how we work in our teams and achieve the best results.
In a world that has created more and more walls using a globalisation discourse, we need further bridges, more respectful dialogues and awareness, and with them, we will be able to improve not only our work environments but how we understand the interconnections around the globe. And, hopefully, we will also comprehend the challenges that we need to face together, overcoming the “us versus them” mentality.
[i] Adrienne Sweetwater is a consultant at Differänce Intercultural Consultants and a valuable partner to Sidera. She is a member of the SIETAR-Brasil Board of Directors and specializes in the application of the Personal Leadership® facilitation methodology. Adrienne has worked in the intercultural communication field for ten years, delivering workshops on cultural intelligence and adaption to expatriate/re-patriate families and multicultural teams, facilitating diversity, equity and inclusion workshops, and assisting global leaders.
[ii] Nubia is a psychology student and a valuable part of Sidera Consult’s Communication team.