Blending Intercultural Workspaces


The day of a regular working professional generally passes through a few common phases; namely the first half period, the post-lunch era and then the countdown-towards freedom! Surprisingly, or not, this is a common phenomenon across geographies! So, whether you’re a professional working in a developing market or an executive from one of the first world countries, human resources experience anxiety, boredom, interest and relief all throughout the same day. In order to break the monotony, more and more organizations arrange for some activity or the other like motivated Mondays and casual Fridays, just so that there is a positive buzz in the work space.

However, the matter of contention here is how different society’s (read cultures) perceive and tackle such situations. Although people may be trained in different areas of expertise, the training only focuses on enhancing the task, activity or output required of resources to deliver. No matter how experienced one may be, there is always a difference in culture that has an overarching influence in the day-to-day engagement of employees. This cultural difference can only be bridged when one spends more time in the existing culture and eventually blends into the system at large.

Key Comparisons

For a broader understanding of the differences, let’s club up the cultures as Eastern and Western. It is intriguing to recognize that despite the same experiences encountered by professionals on either side, they’re guided by completely different philosophies when they try to bridge this rather obvious gap in work cultures.

1. Organizational structures – Flexible vs Tall:
In most Eastern cultures, organizational hierarchies are well-defined. Instructions, orders and demands flow in a downward direction. The supervisor finds himself in greater capacity to delegate or even, at times, dictate terms to junior employees within the organization. Questions pertaining to work, if any, are seldom posed freely by the employees and even rarer cases are posed verbally. If there is a matter that needs to be discussed, supervisors and subordinates do so discreetly being fully aware of their social and work boundaries.
However, when we survey the situation in the West, the workplace seems to be slightly more democratic in nature. Questions from subordinates to the top management are appreciated. They’re considered as engaging because questions lead to refinement of the systems in place. And, communication is a two-way street.
But, in both the cultures, more often than not, it’s the ‘boss’ who generally has the last word in the discussion.

2. Addressing colleagues:
It is quite common in many workplaces in the Indian sub-continent for junior employees to address supervisors with suffixes such as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ or ‘Saheb’ or ‘Ji’. This approach isn’t necessarily frowned upon or considered as taking one’s designation too seriously but it is a part of their culture where elders and seniors, both in age and hierarchy, are bestowed with a certain degree of respect.
Which is why it is slightly awkward for people from Eastern cultures working in the West in an environment where everyone in the organization is on a first name basis; even, the CEO.
But what needs to be recognized that in both cultures there is a high degree of professionalism and work ethic regardless of the manner in which one address his or her colleague or supervisor in the workplace.

3. Flow of discussing business transactions:
Businesses in the East find it necessary to find some sort of a common ground with their partners prior to going ahead and transacting business. This common ground may be anything ranging from having the same favorite sports team to having similar ethnic roots. This makes both parties comfortable in each other’s company and makes it easier for them to talk about collaborating businesses activities. Many businesses feel free to negotiate and re-negotiate terms of transactions even if the parties involved in the transaction have just reached a consensus on the same. They can do it because they’ve developed a comfortable understanding of their business approaches.
Most professionals working in the West follow a structured pattern when transacting business. They follow a linear format of discussion wherein once the parties have reached a consensus on a particular matter, that point is sealed and they move on to the next point on the agenda.
Both methods have their peculiarities, while one may believe the Eastern philosophy to be time-consuming and confusing, some may believe that the Western philosophy is distant and nonchalant.

Way Forward

It is needless to say that geographic boundaries are shrinking. Brands seemed to have dissolved the concept of what was previously ‘foreign’ because they have seamlessly integrated with the local fabric of things. Organizations have realized the shortcomings of ethnocentric and polycentric staffing and have graduated to geocentric staffing. The focus is now on recognizing different cultures and blending them to create an inclusive and innovative work culture.

Combating the Culture-Vulture


“This is how things get done here”. How often have we come across this phrase at the office? This one simple statement opens up a can of worms for many organizations regardless of size and structure. In the contemporary work setting more and more companies are focusing on something called finding the “cultural fit” when recruiting or evaluating a candidate’s performance. This terminology covers a gambit of themes ranging from hiring decisions to firing decisions. To help me establish my point better, I would like to quote from Schein (p.17 2004) who defines organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems ” Keyton, J. (2011).

In theory, this definition conveys that organizations, nowadays, prefer having someone on board who is like them. Over a significant period of time, defining organizational culture has become essential for organizations in not just sourcing talent but also for its very existence!


Every organization is established on certain principles and values that it wishes to find in its workforce. If they don’t find it during their search the companies will try to instill the same principles by driving the narrative throughout the organization. Apple; a large organization with a diverse workforce is a wonderful example of this. The company focused on Steve Jobs interest in calligraphy in the early part of his career. This shaped his company and pushed their limits to be more aesthetically pleasing. From product designs and features to product innovations, Apple products are always ahead of the learning curve.

In order to drive this narrative, it is vital that companies realize their own ethos which is central to the very existence of the organization. This in turn can be channelized through various methods to reach the end users, the employees. An employee will more likely be encouraged to try and perform the same function using a new method in organizations that focus on innovation and encourage free flow of ideas throughout the organization.

When Nokia was at its zenith, the company focused on making phones that were push-button, robust and had a great battery life. However, by the turn of 2010, the company couldn’t match up to the smart phones manufactured by Apple and Samsung and Nokia fell apart. This saga brought to light the conservative and reserved culture that existed at Nokia, where senior leadership refused to question the status quo. On the flip side companies like Google are built on not just questioning the status quo but even changing the existing dynamics. The Google Innovation Lab and other research centers are delegated with the responsibility to try, fail, learn, and innovate path-breaking products and its results are inimitable such as google glass, project loon-X, and the self-driving car.

The factor that sets the tone for the narrative in the organization are its people. People define, execute, transform, and establish how things get done at any organization. As a new employee in any organization, I’m curious to understand the work environment in the office. It’s not just about having friendly co-workers or having casual Friday’s. It’s much more whether or not I’m allowed to work independently, what are my decision making powers and most importantly how easily can I get my grievances resolved without ruffling too many feathers. These are various factors one needs to consider when assessing the culture. In my experience there aren’t any textbooks available that can teach potential and even current employees about grasping the work culture. I believe that only experience will allow you to understand it. Although portals like Glassdoor and Linkedin do a splendid job in giving candidates a clearer picture, but it is only so much that these portals can do.

Cultural Alignment

More often than not even factors external to the organization play a vital role in defining the organizational culture. A company faced with competition may re-define its policies and change the entire method of the climate. Managing the change is where most employees and the organization face a steep task because many employees resist change. Even if the change may be beneficial to the organization as a whole in the long run, managers and leaders aren’t able to align company objectives with the individual goals of the employees. Whatever may be the principles of an organization, it is imperative that the company propagates adaptability and flexibility as major components of the organizational culture.

So as companies wade through industry trends, market demands and customer preferences, it is essential for employees and potential candidates to ‘culturally-fit’ in the work setting. Doing so, enhances job satisfaction, increases growth potential and paves the way for a long-standing association with the organization. Also by rewarding, monetarily and otherwise, a workforce that accepts and embraces the company’s vision, organizations have a greater control in retaining their best talent. The only method that this can be attained is by recognizing the objectives of both the stakeholders and jointly planning to establish an inclusive, ethical, and stimulating environment in the organization.

Keyton, J. (2011). Communication & Organizational Culture: a key to understand work experience (2nd ed.). California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Networking in Action with Own The Boardroom

Your network is the greatest resource you have.

Think about the last decision you made – did you use the opinions, reviews, or recommendations of others to make that decision? That’s the power of a network. Your network is an extension of you; they’ll vouch for you, they’ll refer you, they’ll help you.

Your network is the most efficient path to your goals. No one reaches success on their own.

Despite all the benefits of networking, most people seem to hate it. If you search the term in Google, you’ll find articles upon articles with titles like “networking for people who hate networking”.

Networking feels uncomfortable and scary; let’s change how we perceive it.  By the end of this you’ll feel confident and comfortable with networking. Are you ready?

No time to read? Click here to listen to the podcast version, or watch the presentation:

What exactly is networking?

As Devora Zack defines it in her book, Networking for People Who Hate Networking; “Building and maintaining connections with others for shared positive outcomes”.  No wonder you hate the idea of networking. Does that sound fun to you?

In plain speak, networking is meeting people and staying in touch.

You already have a network. Your friends, family, professors, coaches, anyone that you have a relationship with – that’s your network.

Photos via Northeastern University Networking in Action event

Photos via Northeastern University Networking in Action Event

Why bother networking?

It may sound basic but it’s true: Opportunities are all about who you know. Think about it:

Whether you’re buying something off Amazon, deciding whether to swipe left or right in a dating app, whether you’re trying a new restaurant – it’s all thanks to a mutual connection or recommendation.

That doesn’t change with business decisions. No matter how close to the top you are in a hierarchy, you’re always going to consider recommendations from people you trust.

According to an ABC News report from 2012, 80% of people find a new job through networking. It’s possible that number has increased to 85%, as identified by Lou Adler’s 2016 report.

Clearly, it’s going to be more efficient to network your way into a job than continue sending your resume into the black hole of online job applications.

How do I network?

We know networking is meeting people and staying in touch.  That can literally happen everywhere! For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on strategy during networking events.

When you’re at a networking event, everyone is there to meet other people. Yes, networking events feel formal and business-y; keep in mind that everyone is there expecting to talk to strangers and you’ll feel more comfortable introducing yourself.

Christopher Barrat’s TEDx talk, Successful Networking – The Ultimate Guide, explains four steps to building a successful business relationship

You have to move through these phases in order – no skipping ahead! When building your network, you focus on the first two; Know, Like.

You’re not pitching yourself. You’re not handing out resumes. You’re getting to know people as people, and the most effective way to do that is to barely talk at all. Listen to others, ask relevant follow up questions, give them your full attention.

Barrat sums it up as “Be interested. Not interesting”.

How do I know who to talk to?

Barrat’s TEDx talk also addresses tips on how to decide which conversation to join. Essentially, look for groups where there’s an open space for you to stand. Barrat refers to these as “open two’s” and “open threes”.

In the networking image below I identify open and closed groups. Look at the closed two – they’re facing each other directly, off to the side, they’re chatting. Compare that to the open two on the far right – they’re clearly engaged with each other but their body language is turned slightly outward which makes an opening for you to walk into.

But how do I do it?

Strategy is nice but you have to do it. Hopefully you feel a little better about the concept of networking at this point, but if you don’t – don’t worry. Networking is something that gets easier the more you do it.

So let’s talk tactics that will help you take those first steps:

It all starts with you walking up to a stranger, and introducing yourself. It sounds uncomfortable, but remember that everyone at networking events is expecting to meet strangers, so it’s socially acceptable in this context. I personally find that exiting conversations without feeling rude is the most difficult part.  In the full presentation, we discuss tried-and-true phrases (three each!) to use for entering a conversation and exiting a conversation. Scroll down to access the presentation for free and receive these concrete tips.

Remember, networking is meeting people and staying in touch. At a networking event you’re focusing on the first part – meeting people – and the goal is to give others the opportunity to know and like you. Likewise, you want to know and like them.

How do you feel now? Are you ready to network?


This post is a summary of Own The Boardroom’s presentation that kicked-off Northeastern University’s Networking in Action. The event was organized by Michelle Dubow a Career Advisor at Northeastern University. This post was written by Erica Zahka CEO/Founder of Own The Boardroom.

Want to experience the full talk?  Access it here for free.

In this presentation you’ll learn:

  • How to think about networking so it’s not scary
  • The basics of networking; what it is, where it happens, do’s and don’t’s
  • Strategy for assessing which group(s) to approach first
  • Tried-and-true statements for introducing yourself and exiting conversations

OTB offers everything you need to make a powerful first impression: subscribe to learn how to present your best-self in any business situation and keep an eye on our suit options to rent business professional attire when you need it (women’s attire coming soon!).