Diversity Driving Change? Maybe Not ...

My corporate career started in Mumbai. I travelled to work each day for an hour, standing by the open train door with the hot humid wind on my face as the train raced past platforms as heaving with humanity as the train itself. At work I was greeted by colleagues chatting next to my cubicle, sipping their morning chai while others around them plugged in their essential noise cancelling headphones.

Fast forward 5 years and travelling to work was on a second-hand bicycle, wearing three layers and gloves to combat the cold howling wind and incessant rain, trying to make it on time for my first day on a new job in the Netherlands. I biked for 15 minutes through ancient, cobbled streets surrounded by beautiful canals, a testament to Dutch engineering, to reach a relatively quiet open office space to enjoy a cup containing a tea bag in some tepid water.

Having worked in both environments, I have experienced first-hand the stark contrast in work culture between two countries, and the changes that the typical employee has to make when embracing the same job in very different cultures.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Outsourcing, internationalization and expansion has bought different parts of the world together within one corporate web, resulting in a tremendous increase in cross-cultural interactions.

However, corporate cultures are interpreted differently according to location, culture and background. This makes it important for multinationals to assess strategic changes through a cultural lens because work culture is directly influenced by employee culture. And different cultures initiate, react and cope with change differently.

For example, in January 2021, WhatsApp, decided to update its privacy policy globally, with people and media outlets reporting that the new policy would allow WhatsApp to read users’ conversations and other personal data 1. Global reaction to the update has been varied. Reaction in Europe and the UK has been minimal, since users there are protected by strict privacy laws 2. In the US, users chose to vent their frustration on Twitter through hashtags and direct tweets to WhatsApp’s official account. In India, one of WhatsApp’s biggest markets, both individual and corporate users flocked to rival apps such as Signal and Telegram 1. In Turkey, the government has opened an investigation into WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook, in their campaign to control and regulate content 3.

Cultural Differences

In 1996, the famous communication consultant and social theorist Richard D. Lewis came up with the “Lewis Model of Cross-Cultural Communication” 4. Based on this model, Lewis plotted cultures in relation to three categories. The first category is Linear-Active, who are considered highly organized planners; northern European countries and the US are classic examples of such cultures. The second category is Multi-Active, who are people-orientated, loquacious inter-relators; southern European, Latin, Middle-Eastern and African cultures tend to be Multi-Active. The last category is Reactive, who are introverted, respect-oriented listeners; most East Asian cultures tend to be reactive.

I hesitate to agree with Lewis’ idea of categorizing cultures as his model seems to re-enforce many stereotypes – as Lewis himself concedes. However, my personal experience in India and the Netherlands seems to confirm that the model is largely accurate. Moreover, the model has been found to be useful in providing a general roadmap for global corporate cultures 5.

While working in the Netherlands, I noticed that any change – whether minor or major – was preceded by a number of webinars, training sessions and documentation. This stems from the pragmatic nature of the Dutch culture. During my first few months, I remember attending numerous meetings to discuss possible changes. It was a struggle, leaving me feeling overwhelmed, bored and fatigued by the sheer amount of data and graphs, and in dire need of coffee to clear the resultant brain fog. The changes were driven mostly by top management, a trait commonly observed in Lewis’ description of Linear-Active cultures. Thankfully, my colleagues and managers helped me acclimatize and even took me out for a few beers when the post-meeting coffees weren’t enough.

In India, in contrast, we are more accustomed to organized chaos. Employees are expected to learn on the job, improvise using first-hand experience to solve problems, with both top and mid-management providing input.

Neither approach is optimal. Both approaches could succeed in implementing change, but both inevitably cause disruption to both employees and/or clients. That I preferred the Indian approach stems from familiarity and my own cultural preferences. Yet, in their own way, both approaches also helped ensure a somewhat smooth ride for both management and employees.

Devil’s Advocate and The Key

I can’t help but wonder: what would happen if the Dutch and Indian approaches were swapped?

The uncertainty and absence of detailed plans and data might create panic among my pragmatic, well-organized Dutch colleagues. They would struggle with the chaos and feel stressed and overloaded 4. In India, more accustomed to creative chaos, too much preparation could lead colleagues to feeling tired, bored and disengaged, as I felt in the beginning. Failure to accommodate such characteristic differences would be detrimental to employee health and wellbeing as well as cause considerable disruption and impede any implementation for change.

Cultural awareness is key when trying to implement effective change. In fact, a survey on best practices in change management found that 90% of participants rated cultural awareness as either important or very important to change management 6. This is because companies, especially those with offices in different parts of the world, need to be aware of how different cultures react to change and acknowledge that a universal approach will not be in the best interests of employees or the business 7. Knowledge and awareness of how different cultures react and interact can help change managers to plan better.

Ignorance is NOT Bliss

Work culture is intended to be a cohesive social force that supports employees’ internal integration and helps them adapt to the external environment. It’s vital to their sense of wellbeing, health and enjoyment of work 8. Using the same approach to manage change for employees based in New York, Tokyo and Lagos demonstrates a lack of understanding. A one-size-fits-all approach is almost never the best solution!

There are some key points to consider when accounting for cultural awareness to manage change 6:

Communication is critically important, in terms of the mode, tone, sender, structure and content. Try not to make cultural assumptions. Some cultures are more dialogue-oriented, whereas others tend to listen better to clear instructions. It’s vital to make sure that every employee feels involved if you expect to ensure effective change management.

Identify the specific aspects of the process that should be customized, while also keeping the overall goal in mind. For example, direct managers play a very important role in change management in most East Asian cultures, so it would be wise to identify opportunities for directly involving them at the regional level. Adjusting the tone and style of the message can help optimize for a smooth transition with minimal disruption for employees.

Culture-specific adaptations can improve responsiveness and the feeling of involvement. For example, something as simple as when annual bonuses are paid can make all the difference. Employees in London should receive their bonuses around Christmas, those in New Delhi around Diwali, those in Dubai around Eid and those in Shanghai around Chinese New Year. Such simple adaptations can go a long way in employees feeling more welcome and integrated within the organization.

A balance between cultural awareness, strategic intent, and performance priorities makes the organization as a whole more attractive to employees. They show higher levels of satisfaction and identification with the workplace and organization itself 8. Because deeply embedded cultures change slowly over time, working with and within the culture is invariably the best approach 9. Cultural awareness can make the overall change effort much smoother for your employees, thereby improving employee experience and satisfaction and optimizing productivity and wellbeing – whether they travel to work on a heaving train or a creaky bicycle!

Picture of Pranay Parsuram

Pranay Parsuram

Pranay Parsuram completed his master’s in Book and Digital Media Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands. He has worked as an Assistant Editor at Springer Nature and as an academic and research editor and copyediting quality analyst at an English language solutions provider based in Mumbai. He has also freelanced as a copyeditor, specializing in academic and scientific articles, and has trained a number of other academic copyeditors. He currently works on the editorial team of The Habtic Standard.

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