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

Overview

“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!

Elements

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.

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

The Power of Mentorship

The summer before college, I was nervous about starting nursing school. I had never truly experienced patient care before and had lingering doubts about my abilities. Sure, I wanted to be a nurse, but who knew what would happen when I had to take care of a sick patient for the first time? What if I couldn’t handle it?

Enter Eva Gomez, a nurse and clinical educator at Boston Children’s Hospital. She ran an internship program designed to expose high school students to nursing careers, and she shaped my nursing career from the moment I met her. Smart, confident, but not afraid to discuss her own mistakes, Eva made all of us instantly comfortable. She challenged us to think of nursing as a calling, not just a career. Eva never made us feel like students; she treated us like future nurses. The infusion of confidence I gained as a direct result of her intervention fueled me through my freshman year and showed me that even if I had doubts about my abilities, there was at least one nurse who believed I could do it. After the program ended, Eva and I kept in touch, as she has done for all the graduates of the program. I have frequently asked for her advice, and she remains a huge influence in my life.

My mentorship experience began my freshman year of high school through a program called Project Reach, which is designed to help at risk elementary school students academically and socially by pairing them with a high school tutor. I worked with three children over four years, providing both homework help and emotional support. In all cases, when the students felt comfortable sharing their feelings with me, their academic achievement increased. Additionally, their outlook on school changed from pessimistic to optimistic. I will never forget the pride each child had when they showed me their first perfect score on a spelling or math test, a feat they never believed was possible until they had someone who believed in them. Even here at NEU, my involvement as a mentor in Bouve Fellows has shown me just how valuable having someone show you the way is, especially in your first year at school.

Finding a mentor at work is crucial to your success, and not just in that they may help you “get ahead.” Mentors are a wealth of information about your chosen career and the complications you may run into as time goes on. A true mentor will want to help you succeed both professionally and personally. Eva and the countless others who have been mentor figures to me over the years have shaped my development every step of the way, allowing me to pay it forward and become a mentor figure myself.

I see mentorship as the best possible way to improve relationships within a group and encourage each member to work towards his or her goals. It perpetuates a cycle of service, building the confidence of the mentees while allowing mentors to have a positive impact on the community that gave them the opportunity to succeed. It also strengthens the bonds between the younger and older individuals, building a strong cohort that helps each one professionally as well as personally. I have had several mentors within nursing, and each has given me valuable information that I will carry with me throughout my nursing career. I have witnessed the positive effect mentorship has, particularly in the nursing major here at NEU. Nurses who graduated years or even decades ago look back on programs like Bouve Fellows fondly and are more willing to help younger nurses transition. The interconnected nature of the major coupled with program like Bouve Fellows creates a strong network of empowered nurses, not only benefiting Bouve College but also the healthcare community as a whole.

Julia Thompson is a second year Nursing major in the Bouve College of Health Sciences. She works as a nursing assistant at South Shore Hospital and is currently on her first co-op at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is the secretary of the Northeastern University Student Nurses’ Association and is also involved with Bouve Fellows. Feel free to contact her at thompson.jul@husky.neu.edu with any questions. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.