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<xTITLE>Managing Cultural Differences</xTITLE>

Managing Cultural Differences

by Daniel Dana
December 2000 Daniel Dana

Karen likes to spend a half-hour each week privately with each of her employees to sound out their concerns about the office. David, her colleague in another work unit, thinks this practice is not only a waste of time, but also is unwise. "Why take the lid off Pandora's box?" he asks.

Guillermo, 32 years old and married with four children, recently declined a promotion that would have required moving to a city 800 miles away. He explained the he does not want to leave his seven brothers and sisters and their families who live nearby. Luther, who works closely with Guillermo, thinks it is a sign of immaturity that his Hispanic colleague would give up this career opportunity for reasons that he should have grown out of by this age. Luther's respect for Guillermo is reduced one notch.

James, who grew up in an inner city black neighborhood, is being interviewed for a sales position by Lisa, who is white. Lisa notices that James does not maintain eye contact while listening to her. She forms an immediate impression that James lacks assertiveness, and will probably not be able to handle important clients.

Some facts
The Hudson Institute in its landmark study Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century (1987), and again in Workforce 2020 (1997), has documented the rapid cultural diversification in American workplaces. Considering these facts along with the warp-speed globalization of business, only the most myopic observer could fail to conclude that the days of white male hegemony in the arena of the workplace are over. Workers comprise an increasingly rainbow coalition. The challenge of managing culture-based differences at work is upon us.

In reply to this challenge, "managing cultural diversity" has become one of the hottest topics in the training industry. Many presentations at annual national conferences of the American Society for Training and Development and other human resource professional associations address cross-cultural issues. Consulting firms specializing in helping organizations manage cultural diversity abound.

Facing the challenge
The usual response is to conduct programs designed to raise the awareness of dominant-culture employees about the values and norms of other groups:

  • David seems unaware that women tend to focus on relationship issues more than do men.
  • Luther seems unaware the Hispanics place a higher value on extended family relationships than do most Anglos.
  • Lisa seems unaware that blacks from some subcultures within the United States keep eye contact while speaking but not while listening, the reverse of the pattern typical of majority-culture whites.

Information like this is typically conveyed in cross-cultural training programs for dominant-culture employees. The assumption underlying such "awareness" training is that, after completion of the program, participants are supposed to not only understand minority cultures better, but also to change how they behave toward their members.

But is awareness enough? Does awareness training work?

Reasons for concern
Simply informing members of today's organizations about cultural differences is an incomplete strategy for helping workmates bridge the gaps that impair cooperative work. To achieve maximum benefit, information should be supplemented with behaviorally specific skills or "tools" that equip trainees with practical techniques for solving workplace problems that derive from culture-based differences. Awareness is a first step, but alone is insufficient.

Consider these factors:

1) Resistance to change
Majority-culture trainees may perceive that some personal shortcoming is being "fixed" by the training. Or, they may feel personally blamed for creating the inequities often encountered by minority-culture employees. Or they may perceive, perhaps accurately, that the political power they enjoy as dominant-culture members is in jeopardy of being eroded by cross-cultural training. In short, they perceive that their self-interests are threatened.

When self-interest is threatened, defensiveness is automatically and instinctively aroused. When we feel defensive, we naturally resist the threat. Resistance can take many forms. Resistance to cross-cultural training can take forms such as:

  • Refusing to allow insight into one's own behavior and motivations to occur
  • Doubting the validity of the information presented
  • Criticizing the quality of the training program
  • Perceiving the seminar leader, especially one of a minority culture, as being self-serving or prejudiced against the dominant culture
  • Simply forgetting or not using the information provided.

In any case, resistance undermines awareness-building efforts to bridge culture-based differences in the organization. To be sure, cultural awareness training can be a powerful and enlightening experience for those who wish to learn. It may not be so for those on whom it is thrust.

2) Inherent bias
By conducting training primarily for the "benefit" of dominant-culture employees, providers of cultural diversity programs place the onus of responsibility on members of the dominant culture to accommodate to the needs of other groups. The program design may imply that minority-culture members already know plenty about the dominant culture's norms and values. Or, seminar designers may feel that members of minority groups do not have as much responsibility for bridging cultural differences because they are the low-power or victimized party in the cross-cultural relationship.

This bias may or may not be intended. Even when intended, it may not be explicitly stated by the seminar leader, hoping instead to bring change in a Trojan horse. But if dominant-culture employees are discriminately selected for training, or if training is directed at the "culture blindness" of the dominant-culture group, it is a message heard clearly by trainees.

Further, organizations that focus cross-cultural training on the awareness deficiencies of dominant-culture employees do a disservice to their minority and female employees: Dominance of the dominant-culture is perpetuated. How? By being given primary responsibility for change, members of the dominant-culture remain in the driver's seat - they are still in power, they are still the ones with options. Minorities are kept dependent on the choices of dominant-culture members - if a white male trainee chooses to do nothing different after attending the training program, then discrimination continues. So, awareness-based training may actually backfire. It may maintain the very power imbalance that it seeks to alter.

3) No tools
In spite of these factors, let's grant that information about cultural differences is presented, and that it is learned. Awareness is achieved. Then what? What is the program participant expected to do with it? What practical behavioral tools are provided that will enable him to manage those differences with minority colleagues more effectively? Too often, trainees are left in the dilemma of the automobile mechanic who knows how to fix the problem, but lacks the tools to apply her knowledge.

An alternative
So, what alternatives exist to training that is based only on building cultural awareness? How can we achieve a more integrated multicultural workforce in which differences arising from cultural values and behavioral norms are not only recognized, but are also effectively managed?

While disseminating information about cultural values and norms is a well-intentioned effort, real organizational change requires that training include behavioral tools - tools with which both majority- and minority-culture employees can initiate problem-solving dialogue. Tools that are equally powerful, no matter whose hands are at the controls. Tools that make no value judgment, explicitly or implicitly, about whose side of a difference is more right. Tools that work.

"Do-it-yourself mediation" is such a tool - indeed, it may be regarded as a core competency of a multicultural workforce. It empowers individuals of any ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and of either gender, to initiate dialogue in search of common ground with others. Our cultural backgrounds are one source of differences, an important one. But differences that impair workplace productivity arise from many sources. As individuals, we are more than just our cultural identity. Mediation is a tool for managing differences regardless of their origin - cross-cultural or "cross-personal."

Do-it-yourself mediation
Do-it-yourself mediation is a communication tool that any individual may use to resolve common conflicts with others. It consists of four simple steps:

1) Find a time to talk.
A professional mediator first "gets the parties to the table." When we mediate our own disputes, without a neutral third party, we must do the same. Have a brief conversation with your Other to identify the issue that needs to be discussed and to establish willingness to join in dialogue about it.

2) Plan the context.
A professional mediator ensures that the time and place of the meeting will allow extended, uninterrupted dialogue about the issue. As self-mediators, we must do the same.

3) Talk it out.
A professional mediator keeps the parties engaged in sustained dialogue about the disputed issue, prevents power-plays that would impose a one-sided solution, and listens for an attitude shift that signals that a breakthrough may be possible. As self-mediators, we do the same.

4) Make a deal.
Once this attitude shift occurs, a professional mediator helps the disputants design a balanced agreement that specifies expected behavior that will ensure that the problems of the past will not be repeated in the future. As self-mediators, we do the same.

Your own cultural diversity program
Whether you are of African, Asian, European, Hispanic, Native American, mixed, or any other ethnic origin, and whether you are female or male, you can empower yourself to implement your own individual "cultural diversity program." Use do-it-yourself mediation to engage colleagues with whom you clash in dialogue to seek mutually acceptable solutions to workplace problems. If you perceive your other's behavior as arising from culture-based stereotypes or prejudices, those perceptions can be part of your dialogue.

Your differences on disputed workplace issues may reside in culture-based values and styles of behavior, and it is certainly worthwhile to learn how your other differs from you in these ways. But, beneath our culture, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation, and our gender, we share fundamentally human qualities. Do-it-yourself mediation draws on our basic human nature to bring us to common ground.


Holding the Ph.D. in psychology, Dan Dana served for several years as a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Hartford (Connecticut) Graduate School of Business, and has held faculty appointments at Syracuse University and several other institutions. (A former student once called him "Doctor Conflict," and the moniker stuck!)

As the founder and managing director of the Mediation Training Institute International, Dr. Dana seeks to expand global awareness and use of non-adversarial methods for managing human differences – in the workplace and beyond. He is the author of Managing Differences, the sourcebook of MTI’s seminars — published worldwide in six languages — and Conflict Resolution: Mediation Tools for Everyday Worklife, a featured book in the McGraw-Hill Briefcase Books series.

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Additional articles by Daniel Dana