Sunday, 2 December 2012

Multicultural workplaces

The idea for writing this post has brought to my mind by an encounter I had yesterday afternoon when I was at Euston Station in London. I was sitting on the waiting area for customers, waiting for my train to arrive, and talking on the phone with my father who lives in Italy. Close to my seat there was a woman reading a book.
At the end of the phone conversation with my father, the lady turned over me with a smile and said with a nice british accent “Ciao Papa', grazie, ti voglio bene!” (“Bye Dad, thank you, I love you!” - These were the last words I said to my father on the phone. The woman were repeating them).

After that, the lady and I engaged in a kind conversation about cultures and ultimately, the topic of our conversation ended to be 'multicultural workplaces'.
The lady I was talking with was British and a teacher of Italian and French in a school based in Liverpool. Once she had known about my passion for employee engagement and internal communications she agreed with me about the fascinating nature of the subject. She also told me that she was working with colleagues coming from China, Spain, France and Poland. She confessed to me that beside the wealth of knowledge someone can acquire by working with people with different cultures, on the other hand, sometimes it can also be challenging.

That conversation has given me the opportunity to recall a book that I used during the management studies I did at university in Canterbury a couple of year ago. The book is 'Organisational Behaviour. Individuals, Groups and Organisation' by Ian Brooks (very good academic book). One of its chapter is about 'the impact of national culture on organisational behaviour'.

The below marginalia are extracted from that chapter and relate to a study done by Edward T. Hall in 1976:

Edward T. Hall approached the issue of culture from an anthropological perspective. He looked at how people communicate between different cultures and he picked up on three areas where differences can occur.

The most significant distinction he made was between what he called 'high-context cultures' and 'low-context cultures'. The author suggests that in some cultures it is the context of the communication or negotiation which is as significant as the actual content. In high-context cultures such as Asia and Arab cultures there will be much more non-verbal communication. Silences may be significant and what isn't said may be just as significant as what is directly communicated. In terms of negotiation the objective of those cultures may be to buid a relationship rather than reach a specific conclusion and ultimate agreements will be built around trust rather than written contracts. This contrast with low-context cultures such us the United States where 'what you say it what you mean' and where negotiations are expected to reach a conclusion with a signed legal agreement.

The second dimension identified by Hall is the perception of 'personal space'. This can vary between different countries. It seems that there are differences in terms of how comfortable people are in proximity to other people. For example in the UK and Germany people like a certain physical distance between each other, so the handshake is used frequently in business and also in social life. In other countries such as Egypt, for example, it would be expected that someone would speak very closely to your face and there would be more touching.

The third area identified by the author is how the 'time' is perceived in different countries. Hall talks about 'monochronic time' and 'polychronic time'. Monochronic time tends to be linked with low-contenxt cultures and sees time as compartmentalised, something that must be planned and adhere to. If a meeting is schedule for 2.15 pm then everyone is expected to be there and to finish the meeting by reaching a conclusion. High context cultures tend to a more polychronic time dimension where the focus is on building social relationships and completing transactions but not around any rigid time schedule – thus the understanding and use of time can be more flexible”.

From Hall study we can learn how important it is to understand the different perspectives that individual with different cultures can have in relation to the context of communications, personal space and time. In multicultural workplaces such us the one of the teacher I met yesterday, this understanding is fundamental in order to build quality relationships and work effectively to achieve together organisational success.