How to Navigate Cultural Differences as a Manager

6 Mar ‘24
6 min
Reviewed by psychologist Margit Nooteboom
personen uit verschillende culturen helpen elkaar omhoog
Cultural nuances significantly influence every aspect of our lives, from professional environments to personal interactions. The culture we’re immersed in from birth shapes our perceptions, communication styles, and interactions. It’s a key factor in creating connections and, at times, conflicts. Recognising and navigating cultural differences as a manager is particularly important, as it creates an open, inclusive, and enhanced working environment for teams and individuals. 
OpenUp Psychologist Margit delves into the impact of cultural differences and the paths to bridge these gaps effectively.



What does culture mean?


You can think of culture as the lens or the glasses you use to view the world: It influences how you behave, how you interpret the behaviour of others – what you think of as normal or abnormal – and what you value. In an academic context, culture is often described as the range of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours shared by a group. These attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours are usually passed down from generation to generation.



How can cultural differences hold us back?


 In our globalised world, encountering diverse cultures is increasingly common, affecting our behaviour and communication. Dutch Social Psychologist Geert Hofstede introduces five dimensions shaping cultural perspectives: power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation, and masculinity vs. femininity. Each dimension plays a role in how we perceive hierarchy, community, uncertainty, time orientation, and gender roles. Yet, it’s essential to recognise that individual personalities also influence our adaptability and emotional regulation within these cultural frameworks. 



How can managers navigate cultural differences?


There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to navigating cultural differences. However, curiosity, open communication, mutual respect, and understanding are important conditions, explains psychologist Margit. ‘’For example, in the Netherlands, when managers make an important decision, their employees will expect to be informed. This is because they want to motivate their employees and know that establishing a strict hierarchy will not work in this context. In my practice, I once spoke to somebody from Croatia who worked in a Dutch company and was shocked. In Croatia, a large degree of power distance is much more normal, and people usually work in an environment where everybody has a clear place. This conflict of values and behaviours created a lot of confusion and misunderstanding for the Croatian employee.”



How can managers help to resolve cultural conflicts? 


“The solution is rooted in mutual curiosity and a desire to understand each other. For example, you could ask the other person if they’d like to discuss a cultural issue, both of you being prepared to challenge cultural stereotypes. Open communication – being respectfully honest about what you think and feel – works best here. Managers play an important role by facilitating and encouraging such discussions. You can also increase your cultural awareness – both at work and in your life – by getting involved with different holidays or traditions. 


Margit continues: ‘’The Croatian employee wasn’t used to speaking to his manager in such a direct way, but he resolved to try it. We practised with a role-play that allowed him to satisfy his curiosity by asking questions like: “Why do you work like this?” or “Why do you speak to each other using your first names?”. He also found it helpful to directly ask his manager what was expected of him. They talked about similarities and differences, which helped him feel more understood and helped his manager gain more insight into how to handle these cultural differences.”



5 tips for managers navigating cultural differences


1. Remain neutral 

 Take an objective approach towards other cultures. Wherever possible, be conscious of cultural stereotypes and biases – and actively work on mitigating these. The first step is usually accepting that you have biases. Although you may not think you have these, everyone has an unconscious bias – the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control. This affects how we view other peoples’ backgrounds and cultures and often forms societal stereotypes. 

Challenge your thoughts by asking yourself: What am I basing these opinions on? Is this a fact? What evidence do I have?


2. Expose yourself to different cultures 

The best way to understand something is to get to know something or someone better. Now and then, immerse yourself in somebody else’s cultural customs, holidays and rituals. The starting point for this is personal interest in both content and medium. For example, choose YouTube if you like watching videos, or go for an informative book or magazine if you prefer to read. You can reflect on how these values and ideas are similar to yours – or different. Think about what you can learn from the other culture.


3. Turn it into a discussion

Create opportunities to discuss your differences with another team member. Before the conversation, you can begin by saying that you want to know more about the individual’s culture and that you’re curious to understand how they feel about it. Using the first person is usually best here: “I’m curious to learn how you celebrate certain holidays, and I’d love it if you could tell me more about it. Is that okay with you?”


4. Communicate with curiosity and respect 

Communicate with curiosity and respect to avoid making your team members feel like they’re being criticised – and show that you have good intentions. You could do this by maintaining eye contact, for example, turning yourself towards the person you’re speaking to, nodding in agreement, and smiling. 


5. Remain curious

Remain curious by listening, asking questions and showing interest. This means that the team member you’re speaking to is more likely to feel seen and heard, making them more confident opening up to you. 


Remember to stay open-minded, engage in meaningful discussions, and continue learning from diverse perspectives. Want to learn more about building a culture of well-being and fueling work performance? Discover more here.

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