Culture Resource Centre

Lacking the Motivation to Learn about Cultural Differences

I did it my Way

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We encountered two interesting cases within multinational organisations where both managers were lacking the motivation to learn about cultural differences. Unfortunately, in both cases it seriously hampered the effectiveness of their multicultural teams.

First Case – Cultural Different Behaviour Explored

In the first case we facilitated training for a group of managers responsible for managing their specialist multicultural teams in Australia. A few weeks after this training we facilitated training for the staff who were managed by the previously trained managers. The comments about one of the managers’ leadership style were worrying, e.g. claims of racism, ‘colonial dominance’ and sarcastic personal attacks, resulting in staff turnover of almost 60% for the second year in a row.

In our evaluation and recommendation report, we mentioned the comments about the managers’ poor leadership style to the executive manager without disclosing names of the participants. The executive manager was extremely concerned about the high turnover of the specialists in the team, and decided to ask all his managers to participate in a confidential on-line self-assessment to assess the present level of intercultural competence. All managers participated voluntarily. The manager in question scored extremely low on a range of cultural competences such as intercultural sensitivity, intercultural communication skills, commitment to building diverse teams, and the ability to deal with uncertainty. Despite the executive manager offering individual coaching and training to all managers, the manager who was in immediate need, declined to accept: she saw no reason to change her leadership style or increase her intercultural competencies. Unsurprisingly, the staff turnover remained alarmingly high ion the third year. Clearly, managers who lack the motivation to learning about understanding cultural differences have difficulties identifying cultural issues and might experience high turnover among their team.

Second Case – Cultural Different Behaviour Explored

The Western manager of a virtual (predominantly) Asian team decided to engage us for a cultural team training for his group. He briefed us that he was worried about the lack of commitment and accountability within the team. Before the training all participants completed our online self-assessment to measure their present intercultural competence level. The results for the team including the manager were below average. During the training the Western manager expressed openly that he was surprised that team members scored so low on intercultural sensitivity and building commitment competencies. He was certainly not aware of any problems with his style. Nobody openly disagreed with the manager: it seemed that the more hierarchically oriented Asian team members choose to agree rather than speak up about possible discontent. After all, the manager is also the judge of their performance and future career…

“I did it my way” 

During this training we facilitated a workshop about the development of task and process strategies to build an effective team culture. A worrying fact was that during this workshop the manager dominated every discussion: “It could well be that some people prefer to be indirect… but I do not appreciate people beating around the bush.” The manager furthermore expresses that he refused to spend his valuable time to find out if everybody believed in the same team practices, processes, direction etc. This resulted in hardly any of the members speaking up or participating productively during the workshop – and when they spoke it was simply to agree with the manager with virtually no team input. In this case, the development of task and processes to increase commitment and accountability of the team was seriously compromised by the manager and nothing would change. This second example is equally telling: managers who lack the motivation to become more knowledgeable about the impact of culture at work limit their own effectiveness and fail to get the best out of their multicultural teams.

Who needs the training?

Personal development in cultural training sessions presupposes that participants are motivated to acquire new skills and to act in a more culturally appropriate way to enhance the effective intercultural interactions. As we have seen in the examples above, completing a training course is no panacea. True, sometimes the decision to schedule training is just a ‘tick the box’, sometimes it is to show politically correctness, or because an executive tells you that you ‘have’ to attend. My best guess (and worst case scenario) in the above examples is that these managers actually think that they are doing a good job, but that their staff needs training in how to do it the managers’ way.

Miscommunication, Staff Turnover, and Poor Productivity

The lack of motivation to find out about the cultural self and others often resulting in ethnocentrism -‘my way is the only way’, will hamper the learning and development of the people. Increasingly, organisations recognise the value of taking responsibility for cultural training. An important part of this is having their managers assessed for their motivation and ability to actually manage multicultural teams rather than selecting those managers who can simply do the “technical” job. Furthermore, developing their business acumen and the intercultural competence of managers can go a long way towards positively addressing communication, staff turnover, and enhanced productivity.

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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