Cultural miscues lose top staff

Cross-cultural misunderstandings can be incorrectly attributed to personality issues or incompetence

Tomasz, a Polish engineer who emigrated to Canada 15 years ago, was highly considered by his management. He received every possible award his company could give him; he was on top of the technical expert ladder. Yet he left the organization because he felt his skills and contributions were unappreciated.

Mohammed, a Somali who recently emigrated to Canada, was interviewed by two Canadian professionals. One was very impressed by Mohammed’s initiative and go-getter attitude, the other considered that “Mohammed’s bachelor was not worth a Canadian high school diploma.” The first hired Mohammed; three years later; Mohammed has received a company-wide award for his excellent work and dedication.

These two situations illustrate the challenges many Canadian HR professionals routinely face. Indeed, the workforce of most Canadian organizations nowadays looks like the United Nations. People born and educated all over the world, often in countries culturally quite different from Canada, work side by side with North American-born staff. The different sets of values and the different expectations with respect to how things get done in the workplace lead to many misunderstandings.

In many cases, the cross-cultural nature of these misunderstandings is not identified. They are attributed to personality issues, as in Tomasz’ case, or incompetence, the second person interviewing Mohammed considered him as unqualified for the position to be filled. The true nature of the problem is often not understood.

In Tomasz’ case, the issue at hand was the fact that in Poland (as in many hierarchical countries), the key measure of success of an individual is the number of people who report to him. While Tomasz was receiving numerous technical awards and had a salary commensurate with many senior managers, these forms of recognition did not register with him — they did not really count. From his perspective, what mattered was the fact that he still managed only two technicians, which to him implied that his skills, accomplishments and contributions were unappreciated. In such situations, providing cross-cultural coaching for Tomasz and cross-cultural training for his managers could have easily turned the situation around.

In Mohammed’s case one company lost out on a valuable employee because a cross-cultural misunderstanding got in the way.

From an organization’s perspective, cross-cultural misunderstandings can result in significant inefficiencies. Organizations may lose highly valuable skills or miss out on significant contributors. Other common challenges resulting from cross-cultural issues that are often misdiagnosed include:

•Multicultural teams that break down into sub-teams along cultural fault lines. For example, Canadian-born, Chinese and Indian team members work side by side rather than together. The team does not work as a team; people are constantly checking the information provided by culturally different team members. The team misses deadlines or uses up large amounts of resources to achieve relatively minor results.

•Managers and employees of different cultural backgrounds who do not work well together. For example, a Canadian-born manager will consider that her “New Canadian” employee lacks initiative, while the New Canadian employee considers that her Canadian-born manager is not providing enough leadership and direction.

•New Canadian employees over- or under-react to negative feedback. Some might quit as a result of comments that were not considered major by their Canadian-born managers, while others may need to be put on performance improvement plans in order to make them realize that their behaviours and attitudes are not considered acceptable in the organization.

Attention to cross-cultural issues helps people on both sides of a cross-cultural conflict understand what the others are thinking and why they behave the way they do. On a personal level, management skills, interpersonal competence and career paths can benefit from expanding one’s intercultural response repertoire.

Lionel Laroche is the executive vice-president, cross-cultural and relocation services at CPI Hazell & Associates, an HR consulting organization located in Toronto. A regular contributor to Canadian HR Reporter, he is the author of “Managing Cultural Diversity in Technical Professions” (ISBN 0750675810, 2003 Butterworth Heinemann). He can be reached at (416) 961-370, [email protected].

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