Term Paper: Cross-Cultural Management

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[. . .] This is not inherently a bad thing; indeed, most of the time it is a good thing. One of the reasons that we have survived (in evolutionary terms) as a species is that we are the neurological capability of understanding that tigers, lions, and bears all belong to the category of "things that can eat me if I don't run away." Such ability to group experiences together is an essential part of human intelligence.

But it does have its downside: An essential cognitive element of categorization is simplification of the elements of each member of the category, so lions and tigers and bears all become (more or less) "fast things with big teeth" and French engineers become categorized with American engineers as non-Japanese workers.

A key element of successfully managing cross-cultural differences in the workplace is the ability not to let our pan-human tendency to categorize people into neat groupings make us forget to value the differences among people.

One of the ironies of the modern workplace (which for any modest-sized or larger American company is also going to be a multi-cultural workplace, given the demographics of our nation) is that often employees are hired precisely because of their differences - but then as soon as they are brought into a company these differences become points of conflict rather than - as Simons (viz. Chapter 9) suggests - opportunities for cross-fertilization and innovation.

This woman who works as a department head at the upscale Nordstrom's department store chain provides an excellent example of just this kind of managerial folly.

This is one of those cases that if I hadn't seen it myself - well, personally I just guess I didn't think that people could really be this stupid.

We were are in San Diego County, we get a lot of customers in our store who are from Mexico. They come up to the U.S. For the weekend, go see shows, go to Disneyland, go shopping. These customers are well off, and loyal, so we want to try to give them what they want.

So someone had the good idea to bring in some marketing experts from Mexico City to talk to us. And they gave this really great presentation - smart and really insightful, not the usual obvious stuff that we hear all the time. And as I'm walking out the two women in front of me, who work in the children's department, are complaining about how the presentation was all about Mexicans and here we are in the United States.

Makes you wonder how people like that can get themselves dressed in the morning.

Less obvious examples than this abound in most workplaces. While sometimes people are intentionally dismissive of other cultural viewpoints because of bigotry, more often they are simply trying to follow an intellectually easier and emotionally safer strategy, as Carr-Ruffino argues. She evokes the traditional American "ideal" of the melting pot in which all immigrants who came to the United States shed the customs, beliefs and habits of their native countries and become just like the Americans who were already here. Had things actually worked out this way, this would have been convenient indeed for those Americans who were the ones already here. But we would never as a country have benefited from the diverse experiences and talents of the immigrants.

This same reaction often occurs in the workplace, in which those who have worked together and created a common corporate culture (most often based on ideals and ideas drawn from mainstream American society) simply want any newcomers to drop whatever cultural values they might have and "melt" into the company.

While this is at some level understandable from a psychological viewpoint, it should also be clear that this is most certainly not the way to get people to work their best - if they are always having to suppress elements of who they really are. Moreover, it is a very good way to stifle the innovation that these newcomers to the company might well bring with them.

Most workers, and indeed most managers are unaware of the ways in which they may either discriminate against or try to suppress differences in today's multi-cultural workforce. This is not the result of intentional deceit - nor stupidity - but rather an artifact of the ways in which cultures work. We are often unaware of our own assumptions, and being unaware of them cannot work to change them.

The culture of an organization operates at both a conscious and unconscious level. Often the people who see your culture more clearly are those from the outside -- the new hires, the consultants or vendors. When coaching or advising senior management, remember that culture comprises the deeply rooted but often unconscious beliefs, values and norms shared by the members of the organization. Those not living inside the culture can often see it more objectively. Better to ask a New Yorker to tell you what Californians are like than ask a Californian.

The Japanese officials at the Toyota plant described above are having problems with their French engineers for precisely this reason. At some level they are grouping French workers and American workers together and then failing to understand the French workers because they are not Americans.

You know, I'm sure none of the Japanese supervisors even realize what they're doing. But somewhere deep down they have this theory that everyone who isn't Japanese or Asian share certain work values. But because they don't realize that they think this way they can't stop thinking that way - if that makes sense - and so they keep viewing the French engineers as some sort of incompetent Americans.

Managing Conflict, Managing Culture

No workplace that has at least two people in it will be always and forever free of conflict. This is simply not the way that human relationships play themselves out. When people from different cultures come together the chances for there to be conflicts can often rise dramatically. This means that anyone with managerial duties in such a workplace must constantly work to smooth over the problems caused by cross-cultural conflict.

This should not, however, be a task that a manager finds intimidating or overwhelming. All management contains a large portion of conflict management, a set of skills that is in fact simply a collection of ancient principles prettied up with a new name. Conflict management is, at its base, about adhering to the Golden Rule - that maxim that we heard over and over as children that teaches us to treat other people fairly and respectfully, to treat them just as well as we ourselves would like to be treated.

This applies regardless of whether the people in a workplace are all from the same culture or not. Beginning with the basic concept that all workers deserve consideration and respect will negate a great deal of all the conflict that occurs in a workplace, whether the origin of that conflict lies in cross-cultural differences or simply in differences of personality.

Beginning with the idea that problems can be solved - as was true of the editor in the first example in this paper - is an essential tool needed by the manager who wishes to avoid cross-cultural problems in the workplace. With such an attitude, the differences that people bring to the workplace can be seen as strengths rather than as potential fault lines that can split the workplace. This women who works in the human relations department of a large county hospital summarizes the challenges and rewards of managing a cross-cultural labor pool.

If you ask me, and I guess you did since you're interviewing me, I think that the best model for management is to consider every workplace a multicultural one. Even if everyone that you're working with was born in the United States, that doesn't mean that they all belong to the same culture.

Say you have a twenty-year-old white gay man and a sixty-year-old Southern Baptist black woman. You think that they belong to the same culture? Not hardly.

And you can either stand back and let people pick on each other and waste all that time and energy, or you can just be real up front about it. Say, "Look, we all come from different worlds. And here's where we all landed. So let's build up something that we can all be proud of and that shows the handiwork of each person.

Managing cultural differences is certainly not easy. But not managing them until they become major conflicts is a lot harder.

References

Bivin, C. (2002). Interview.

Carr-Ruffino, N. Managing diversity: People skills for a multicultural workplace (2nd ed.). Boston: Ginn, 2001. http://www.hcgnet.com/html/articles/understanding-Culture.html

Mason, M. (2002). Interview.

Simons, G. (ed.). EuroDiversity: A business guide to managing difference. London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.

Valdes, V. (2002). Interview.

Valdes, 2002, interview. http://www.hcgnet.com/html/articles/understanding-Culture.html

Bivin, 2002, interview.

Mason, 2002, interview. http://www.hcgnet.com/html/articles/understanding-Culture.html

Bivin, 2002, interview. [END OF PREVIEW]

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