by Craig Storti

In an Increasingly multicultural workplace, a lot of American managers wonder how they’re supposed to be an expert on so many cultures. If you supervise a team that includes an Indian, a Vietnamese, and a Russian (among others), how can you be expected to know what makes all these people tick, hence how to manage each of them in order to call forth their best performance?

The bad news: You can’t. The good news: You don’t have to.

Say that again? I don’t have to understand my people in order to manage them well? Sure, it helps if you know your people, but when your people come from cultures very different from your own, cultures you have had little or no exposure to, it’s just not possible to know and understand them the way you will people from your culture. It’s not rocket science: we understand what we are familiar with and used to, and we don’t understand what we are not familiar with and not used to.

So there’s no need to be defensive about all this, to feel bad that you’re probably not going to understand—hence manage—some of your staff as well as others. That said, you’re not completely helpless; there are a couple of things you can do, short of becoming an expert in other cultures, that is, to better manage foreigners.

The first thing is to realize that there are going to be some, perhaps many, differences—in worldview or mindset and in resulting behaviors—between American culture and the cultures of your non-American staff. (Indeed, identifying and explaining just these differences are the raison d’etre of this column; they’re what we do here in this space every two months.) These are the differences, alluded to above, which, if you could know them, would make you an expert and help you understand how culturally diverse staff members tick. But as we’ve already said, it’s just not realistic for you to become expert in the numerous different cultures you might need to know to do your job.

And not necessary. But it is important to at least realize that non-U.S. staff are going to bring some very different notions and behaviors to the workplace, and you need to (1) be on the lookout for these and (2) try not to react when they show up. When a staff member from another culture does not question bad guidance from his manager, for example, or doesn’t like to ask questions when he doesn’t understand something and just tries what he hopes is right, you would probably react; that is, you would probably judge those behaviors negatively and write them up as weaknesses in his yearly performance evaluation.

“…Be sensitive to the fact that when non-U.S. staff do annoying things, they’re probably not aware of it.”

But what if you realized that these behaviors might be cultural? What if, in other words, you suspected that maybe these behaviors are proper and normal in that person’s culture, and he is doing them in your workplace, just as he did back home, to please management and position himself for advancement? If you suspected this was a possibility, then you would regard those behaviors and that individual quite differently and not react, or at least not as much. And then you would look into the matter, most importantly talking with that individual—who will be an expert in his culture—and figuring out what’s going on.

So that’s the first thing: Be sensitive to the fact that when non-U.S. staff do annoying things, they’re probably not aware of it. The next step is much easier: after you determine where the unusual behavior is coming from, that it’s unintentional and innocent, then you need to coach the individual about what is appropriate and expected in the U.S. workplace; that direct reports should question dubious guidance and ask questions if they don’t understand something. In other words, you should help the individual adapt to—and therefore succeed in—the U.S. workplace.

Sometimes in our politically correct world, American managers are afraid to suggest that what someone from another culture has done in the workplace is wrong or inappropriate; afraid, in other words, to judge a foreigner by American standards. This is not only absurd; it’s patronizing. If we assume that foreigners want to succeed in the U.S. workplace, then they have to know which behaviors lead to success and which lead to failure, and they need to cultivate the former and ditch the latter. Imagine that the tables were turned and you went to work in China; you’d certainly appreciate it if someone told you what would make you effective in the Chinese work environment and what would offend or upset people.

In many cases you will not even need to point these things out to people, as they will be studying their environment—observing the natives, as it were—and figuring out for themselves what works here and what doesn’t, and adjusting their behaviors accordingly. But in other, more subtle cases, they may not be able to pick up on the cultural differences, and then the manager can give the all-important feedback. And note again that this does not require any special knowledge of the employee’s culture on the part of the manager; it just requires being a keen observer and then being able to articulate U.S. workplace expectations.

I think the reason there is some hesitation to point these things out to non-U.S. staff is that it sounds like we’re saying the American way of doing things is better than or superior to their way. It’s not, of course, not in an absolute sense, but the American way is definitely better in the United States, just as the Chinese way is much better in China.

On the positive side, meanwhile, managers should be alert to and exploit all the ways that someone from another culture can add value to the American workplace. People who grow up in other cultures bring a different perspective to common issues and situations. They may see solutions Americans don’t see or identify problems no one else has noticed. They tend to be close observers of behavior because they’re trying to learn the ropes in their new environment. They tend to be very flexible. They are survivors.

It’s no question that managing a multicultural workforce has more challenges than managing a homogeneous one, and that you won’t always understand what’s going on in the mind of staff from other cultures. But if you’re aware of your limitations and you’re not too quick to judge, you will have two key qualities necessary to succeed in this brave new multicultural world.

This article has been sponsored by:
Communicating Across Cultures

Craig Storti

Craig Storti

A consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected] or learn more at his website: