Culture Bias in the Workplace

I’m at work on a conference call, working from home as an American doing work with several colleagues from several different countries and cultures from around the world. None of us have ever met in person before. We are in a very busy workplace with no time to get to know each other personally. Stress levels are high and trust is very low, as the starting place for this working relationship. As a leader, this is not a great setup for success! Then enters cultural bias, the phenomenon of how we tend to interpret the actions or assumptions of others, or even judge them according to our own perceptions and views from our own culture.

When I was young I moved overseas to another country and lived there for a while which taught me a lot about myself. Being 10,000 miles away from everything I knew and grew up with, in a people group and country that was not my own, forced me to understand culture on a whole new level.

Expatriates are a little different from those that have never lived outside the country before – it changes you. For me I have a profound sense of self and understanding of culture groups I would have never understood without that experience, for which I’m very thankful. I’ve learned, as part of that journey, to seriously consider – from the eyes of others and their culture and views – what they may be seeing or perceiving – rather than that of my own natural bias or perspective (this is not what we do naturally as humans!).

In our global workforce work from home today cultural bias can divide our teams and we may not even know it’s happening. One culture may consider the other to be rude, too direct, or incompetent when in fact you’re just being direct, assertive, “jumping in there”, and asking all the right questions which is applauded by Americans in most cases in the USA.

The other culture(s) that is offended is likely very different from that, which is of course easily judged or frustrating to Americans, often viewed as manipulative, or not being truthful, or sly, or only talking amongst their own people, etc, when in fact they are simply doing what is common to their culture and traditions of being less direct, having sidebar conversations instead of more risky conversations in group calls, and addressing it differently. It’s all too easy to become frustrated, angry, or divisive over these perceptions and actions by your colleagues and interpret things completely incorrectly.

The hard part is – do you personalize this, which is the normal human thing to do (he/she is just that way) or do you open the door to consider this as possible cultural bias and something the team can work on to be more effective as a team? A strong leader will recognize the challenges of cultural bias and lead the team towards understanding one another, and your cultures, to remove cultural bias, improve personal relationships and communication, to be more effective as a team. Individuals can work on their awareness and emotional maturity towards not being reactive but responsive and considering the big picture not just their immediate emotional response.

A book that I’ve started to read on this subject, which is fantastic so far, is “The Culture Map”, by Erin Meyer. It starts with a story of how two individuals are giving a presentation and one doesn’t assert and get involved like the other expected them to do so. Turns out culture was at the heart of it. Once they understood each other they could both work on it to be a better team. Consider where cultural bias exists on your team to bring your team closer together instead of letting it quietly divide you, especially for remote workforces.

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