Cultural Awareness in the Workplace: Why Does It Matter?

Jul 31, 2021 | 0 comments

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Now more than ever, it is vital that companies diversifying their workforce seek to include cultural awareness as part of their company culture. This will ensure that everyone is heard, valued, and understood.

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As the world grows increasingly smaller, our cultures and backgrounds continue to merge and interact with each other. Even without the advantages of air travel, getting us across borders and time zones at what would have been fictional speeds just a few generations ago, technology has also facilitated a far more inclusive outlook for businesses and workplaces. Companies are now able to expand far beyond what might once have been possible. Now, they can hire and import employees from across the world.

However, it is not just expansion that has become the new norm. The UK has seen a 58% increase in diversity and inclusion roles in the last five years. Moreover, the trend looks set to continue. This shift creates far more opportunities for growth and education. However, it can also provide certain challenges with communication. Moreover, different cultural or linguistic backgrounds bring their own expectations to the workplace. Now more than ever, it is vital that companies diversifying their workforce seek to include cultural awareness as part of their company culture. This will ensure that everyone is heard, valued, and understood.

What Do We Mean by Cultural Awareness?

Before we can understand the importance of cultural awareness in the workplace, we must first understand what culture actually is. We also need to grasp how cultural diversity can affect working relationships. Simply put, culture has everything to do with the way we experience and move through the world. Basically, each person’s culture comes from where and how they grew up.

Ultimately, the concept of culture is not something we’re often forced to consider when it comes to our own habits and preferences. It’s only when placed among those whose culture is different from our own that we begin to see the complex and varying dynamics at play.

In a work environment, culture has to do with the way we communicate. It can influence the types of tasks we perhaps find easier or more challenging. It can also affect our level of comfort in group or solitary settings. All of these factors contribute to how well a team is able to work together and how they are able to understand each other. Therefore, the goal of cultural awareness is to break down the distance and barriers between those differences. This process will allow people to better understand themselves and ultimately each other.

Patty Goodman is cross-cultural communication faculty lead for Northeastern’s Master of Science in Corporate and Organizational Communication program. She describes the concept of culture and cultural awareness as “an understanding of oneself and how one needs to adjust to the environment and ecosystem that he or she is in.”

Because culture is ultimately a living, breathing thing, it will alter and shift with time just as people do. Therefore, the first step to understanding cultural awareness is to accept that it must remain flexible and open to evolution.

Self-Awareness Is Key to Cultural Awareness

One of the misconceptions surrounding cultural awareness training is that the greatest emphasis is placed upon examining other people’s behaviors. In fact, however, the first step to becoming truly culturally aware is an exploration of oneself. People must first begin to understand the way they prefer to work, solve problems, and communicate.

Regardless of whether you have a diverse team or not, assessing your own behavior is a great benefit to both yourself and your colleagues. After all, when you understand how you work and why you do things the way you do, you are better equipped to capitalize on the traits that help you achieve your goals. You will also be better able to improve the areas where you may not be as naturally gifted.

For employers, allowing staff to go through this process of self-discovery during training also allows you to home in on areas of concern. You’ll be better able to understand why some strategies work better than others and you’ll learn how to better overcome obstacles.

For example, research suggests that under the right circumstances, introverts and extroverts can both produce extremely positive results in the workplace. But understanding who may identify as such may not always be possible based on external opinion, especially in larger organizations. This means that self-assessment is often crucial to understanding the quirks of each individual.

How Does Cultural Awareness Affect Workplace Communication?

Difficulties in communication, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations are consistently listed among the main issues that employees face in the workplace. No relationship can ever truly flourish without clear communication, and work relationships are no exception.

Fostering this kind of environment can be difficult enough, especially considering differing personalities and expectations from people with similar backgrounds. Adding cross-cultural communication to the equation can often complicate the process even further. Misinterpretation is all too easy.

Communication can be one of the greatest challenges when interacting with and integrating a multicultural team. However, it is also one of your greatest strengths when you understand the process. A team whose members are able to understand themselves and those around them will be far less likely to argue and experience friction. This is especially true if each team member is aware of their personal communication styles and needs.

For example, understanding that an individual is a very explicit communicator is helpful. This can enable employees to understand it as a personality or cultural trait, and not as a personal attack. A team that is able to navigate these differences effectively is far more likely to succeed. And that all starts with cultural awareness.

It Can Have a Positive Effect Throughout the Business

Cultural awareness instills long-term problem-solving and interpersonal skills that have countless benefits that lead to better results, including the creation of a successful business. These sorts of teams bring a range of experiences, skills, and expertise to the workplace. Naturally, these are of great benefit to businesses.

Countless studies have shown a clear link between a culturally diverse workplace and good productivity. While this is largely due to an increase in opportunities for innovation, it also comes from healthy competition. A homogenous team is sometimes seen as a “safe” choice. However, multicultural teams who work well together thanks to cultural awareness are able to achieve terrific results. L’Oréal has been one such example of this truth. That company admits that much of its success has been precisely due to its investment in multicultural teams throughout its life as a company.

The friction that can arise between multicultural teams, especially when it comes to producing results, can certainly be a challenge. But that’s why cultural awareness matters. This is also why it is so vital for increasing profits. When a multicultural team can work well together, the business often reaps the biggest benefits.

Your Workplace Reflects a Multicultural World

Cultural awareness has countless benefits for the well-being and overall happiness of employees. First, employee satisfaction contributes to a positive company culture. A diverse employee base that works well together and respects each other is more likely to form stronger connections at work. Moreover, employees are more likely to express greater job satisfaction. In fact, workers in inclusive teams are twice as likely to receive regular career development opportunities. They are ten times more likely to be effective than workers in non-inclusive teams.

From a moral perspective, teams that promote inclusivity and work against stereotyping and discrimination promote a higher level of trust. This applies not only among fellow employees, but also toward higher-ups as well. A cultural awareness initiative can help to alleviate the stresses that issues such as unconscious bias place upon those from multicultural backgrounds.

While cultural awareness by itself does not immediately guarantee excellent mental health, it certainly reduces the likelihood of tribalism or unhealthy competitive behaviors. Moreover, it encourages us to consider the value in our differences. Psychologists believe that the experience of being understood and accepted is a key to overall human happiness and wellbeing. It should encompass the workplace as well as our personal lives.

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Conclusion

Diverse work environments can easily pose challenges when cultural awareness is not a priority. By taking steps to become more aware of both ourselves and others, we can strengthen our interpersonal skills. We can then turn that challenge into an advantage.

Of course, like any skill, cultural awareness does not happen overnight. It requires patience, an open mind, and a willingness to self-reflect and be flexible. Once you are able to achieve this, you’re certainly on the right track to success.

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About the Author

This post was written by Chris Crosby, CEO and co-founder of Country Navigator. Country Navigator provides cultural diversity and inclusion training in the workplace. The company creates unique and tailor-made solutions for businesses through inclusion, innovation, and collaboration. Country Navigator’s cultural diversity and inclusion training gives detailed and highly accurate analysis across parameters. These include explicit and implicit communication and individual and group identity. Chris has more than 30 years of experience in helping leaders, teams, and organizations to work better across cultures.

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