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Thinking, Communicating, Doing: Through the Lens of Culture in the Workplace

Nitya MallikarjunBy: Nitya Mallikarjun, MEMP ’11, Director of Product Development at VIF International Education

Last year, I was part of a leadership training workshop at work that included 13 people from across the organization. Our workforce, albeit small, is incredibly diverse so even this limited group included Americans, Canadians, Costa Ricans, Indians, a Nigerian, and a Romanian. As an exercise, we were asked to draw three circles to represent the past, the present and the future respectively. Without giving it a second thought, I drew a small circle representing the past, a bigger one around it for the present, and the biggest circle around the second one for the future (imagine a dartboard with three concentric circles).

When the group shared their drawings, I was quite surprised to find that only one other person (interestingly, an American) had drawn the same figure.  Everyone else drew three circles of varying sizes not in a concentric manner but side by side in a linear fashion, starting with the smallest and ending with the biggest representing the future.

The presenter explained to us the difference between this circular/cyclic concept of time vs. the linear concept of time. In cultures that value this “linearity” of time, it is too precious of a commodity to be wasted. It moves fast and one must move with it, making use of every minute to produce value in some form or the other. This is typically an American concept of time, and also one that is greatly valued by German, Swiss, British and Scandinavian cultures (to name a few).

The “circular” concept of time, on the other hand, is one where people try to understand the linkages and connections between the past, the present, and the future. It is almost as if life controls time, rather than the other way around. Decisions are made differently with reflection on and consideration to past experiences. It should come as no surprise that this is a predominantly eastern view of time and life, notably in Chinese, Japanese and Indian subcontinent cultures.

Nitya Picture for Blog Post copy

Photo by Nitya Mallikarjun

As foreigners studying or working in the U.S, we find that time is not the only aspect of life that may be different from what we were used to back home. As the global economy grows, work becomes increasingly knowledge-based, and technology breaks down barriers to communications and collaboration, we may find ourselves in a workplace that is more diverse than ever before. Luckily, organizations the world over are quickly recognizing this diversity and cultural differences as an asset rather than a liability. This means by increasing awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, we have the ability to truly succeed in the global marketplace no matter who we are or where we are from. To explain how this cultural diversity comes into play in our workplace, I broke down the essence of “work” into three broad categories that I feel are agnostic to one’s job, company, or industry. They are more process-oriented and will most likely occur in some form or another no matter what you do.

Thinking

In the knowledge economy it’s becoming clear that as important as what you think is how you think. With companies focussing on rapid problem solving, creativity and innovation, having cultural diversity in the way people think about specific problems helps in identifying solutions in a more effective manner. These cultural differences are also important because they can help avoid groupthink, minimize expert overconfidence (yes, there is such a thing!), and glean new & fresh insights as well as perspectives. Try to let go of your fear of being wrong, and don’t be afraid to bring your own unique perspectives forward. Thinking however, is not enough. We must also be able to communicate these ideas in an effective manner which becomes a challenge when working in a culturally diverse group.

Communicating

When it comes to communicating in a culturally diverse setting, things can get tricky and often do. Some cultures are infamously upfront and direct, while others are more indirect and non-confrontational. It is important to understand that you do not need to become like one from another culture, you simply need to find the right balance while communicating with people. This means understanding them, understanding yourself, and finding the best way together to get the message across. As young professionals we are particularly at an advantage for this kind of learning and being able to apply it to work. Ask your friends, ask your peers, and especially ask your managers and superiors how you can find the right balance while communicating with your team.

Doing

Now that you have brought forth your unique perspectives and communicated them with those around you, it is important to be able to adapt to how your team and company works and values time within the context of work. Do you understand how work is divided within your team and why? Do you know what is expected of you and when? Do you know when you need to take initiative, and when you need to be a supportive team member? In some cultures, work is defined and we are encouraged to not question authority and “go with the flow”. Deadlines are not stringent, and focus may be on long term gains. In other cultures, especially in the U.S, you may be expected to show initiative and take on things without always being asked. Time may often be more important than money. Try to understand these expectations from the perspective of your job function and your role in the team/organization, and continuously look for feedback to grow and improve.

There is a common thread in all of the three above – relationships. It’s easy when you are friends with everyone you work with, but that is not always the case. Better relationships should mean better teams that think more creatively, communicate more effectively, and work more efficiently. But, it’s a vicious circle of sorts because these three in turn also lead to better relationships! So whether someone is from your culture or not, try to understand their perspectives and focus on building a genuine relationship based on mutual trust, respect and understanding.


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