'Difficult' colleagues from other cultures
I often hear concerns from people about their manager or colleagues - I am used to that. But the interesting part is that the difficult behaviour they describe is often described as being due to that person’s cultural background. I hear comments such as, “He is that way because he is Indian / Saudi Arabian / Dutch. All men from that culture are patriarchal / highly-emotive / authoritarian.” (You can insert your own challenging person’s culture and labels here if you wish).
It’s interesting how often behaviour that we find challenging is explained as being due to a particular person’s culture. It is certainly true that a person’s culture has a major influence on their how they express themselves, deal with frustrations, and relate to others. Culture provides the rules for what is acceptable behaviour for any given group – behaviour that we may well find challenging. We often assume behaviour is ‘difficult’ when it is simply different to what we are used to.
It is important to remember that behaviour is not solely culturally-determined. Behaviour can also be influenced by personality factors, as well as stressors and other challenges, individuals may be dealing with. It is a huge step to live or work in another country, particularly if the culture or language is unfamiliar. If your difficult person is a new migrant or asylum-seeker, their difficulties may be compounded by significant loss or trauma.
Cross-cultural specialists refer to a ‘culture shock’ or ‘startle response’ that we can all feel when exposed to different cultures and people who look or behave or look different to us. People from significantly different cultures can feel the same thing when they come to my country, Australia. So, what can we do to relate more easily to people from different cultures who we find challenging?
Try not to take it personally: Tell yourself that their behaviour may well be entirely appropriate and functional in their culture. Or it could be symptomatic of needs in their life not being well-met. If they are new to Australia, they may also be getting used to how things work here. Just because someone is getting highly emotive, for example, does not mean they are trying to be disrespectful or offensive.
There is a chance that they may be extraordinarily difficult personality, of course. But when cultural differences are present, I would be slow to assume the worst.
- Work on your cultural intelligence: Culturally intelligent people learn the norms that are typical of particular cultures, whether these are true for particular individuals, and to adjust themselves accordingly.
One of the best ways to become more informed about a particular culture is to spend time with people from that group. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask people how they like to be addressed, for example. Being genuinely curious about how things work and monitoring how your own behaviour is received, will help you to make adjustments so you can relate more easily.
A word of caution though: generalisations about cultures can be helpful, but are not always true. You might think that in my own country, Australia, there is a single culture here. However, migrants have arrived from over 200 countries since European settlement and 25.6% of current residents were born overseas. There are also over 600 different clan groups or nations of indigenous peoples. Although there are certain norms that cultural groups can share, there are also distinct differences. If you are unsure, speak to someone who can give you an informed opinion.
- Let them know what you (or others) find helpful: Cultural differences are best bridged when there are efforts from both sides. Certainly, there are adjustments we can make in not taking it personally, coping well with (or celebrating) difference, and making changes with our own behaviour to fit in with people who are different to us.
But there are also efforts that can be made by them. There are times when you need to let individuals know the best way to work with you or how things are done at your workplace. Let them save face, of course. You can assume they are not intentionally being difficult – most of the time, you will be right. Even when you are not, nobody likes to have negative assumptions made about them. You might find yourself using phrases such as …
You may not be aware that (a particular behaviour) comes across as …’|
That's not the way things are done here …’
What I find helpful is …’
‘The best way to get what you need is to …’
- Shape the behaviour you want to see: Certainly, you can do this by giving meaningful recognition when you see them making adjustments to fit in more easily with you or others at work. Once again, this needs to be done in a way where they are feeling criticised or losing face.
You can also shape behaviour by developing some shared norms or ways of relating for your team or workplace. Workplaces sometimes do so by developing a list of Shared Values and Behaviours that will be practised by everyone in their team. They are best developed collaboratively, when this is possible.
You can also shape behaviour through systemic changes – changing things is often easier than changing people. For example, you can make it easier for quieter people to contribute through small group discussions. With people from cultures that value power, treating them with additional respect, give them choice or control when possible, or arrange someone in a position of power to deal with them.
- Accept there will be misunderstandings at different times: While this is true of any relationship, this is particularly true when you are dealing with people from different cultures, even proficient English-speakers. For example, using a person’s first name or using your finger to call them over to you, can be offensive in some Asian cultures.
Three of my team members are based overseas – in Indonesia, the Phillipines and Lebanon. So, we not only have potential cultural and language differences, but due to their location overseas, there are possible miscommunications due to the absence of vocal tone and body language.
I try to pre-empt misunderstandings by saying they are likely to occur from time to time, to please let me know if there is something I say that is unclear or comes across the wrong way. And when miscommunications do occur, I try to normalise the misunderstanding, apologise if needed, and respond with good humour.
Although we are speaking about differences between cultures and potential challenges as a result, it is important to remember the commonalities that we all share: That misunderstandings will occur in all workplace relationships. We all have to make adjustments to work well with others. And we all have needs for belonging, fun, respect, and achievement.