5. Culture and the Workplace

Culture infuses every interaction we have with every person. In this video we will see practical examples of cultural differences seen in the workplace.

Culture and the Workplace

(To read along click here.)

In the video, Gurwinder Gill addressed an important distinction: culture and performance. A manager doesn’t need to excuse an employee’s chronic tardiness as a cultural practice; it’s a performance issue and can be dealt with as such.

For a manager, making distinctions like these can sometimes be difficult. Cultural diversity experts Lionel Laroche and Caroline Yang offer these insights:

There are three different levels of cultural interaction: individual, cultural, and universal.1

Universal—At the universal level we are all the same—we are all human beings.

Cultural—The cultural level is somewhere between the universal and the individual. It makes us more similar to one group of people than other groups of people.

Individual—At the individual level everyone is unique. Even identical twins have different aptitudes and personalities.

Laroche and Yang caution that when dealing with cultural differences, “the first challenge we face is the tendency to confuse cultural and universal traits.”2 We come from our own culture and our behaviours are self-explanatory. When someone behaves in a way that goes against our cultural norms we interpret it in terms of what that behaviour means in our own culture. The words ‘disrespectful’ and ‘unacceptable’ often run through our minds when this happens.3

The second challenge is “the tendency to confuse cultural differences with personality traits.”4 Unless we feel comfortable asking a person the reason for behaviour that we find strange or inappropriate, we are likely to judge them without understanding. “Separating cultural differences from personality issues helps the people involved avoid taking the issue personally; from there, they are more likely to discuss how they can adapt to each other.”5

How can we determine whether behaviour is driven by culture or by personality? There are several things that we can do:

  • Observe
  • Ask the person
  • Ask other people who are familiar with the culture
  • Research books or websites6

Cultural competence is an ongoing journey—one that is well worth taking. There are a wealth of resources in the courses that follow to help you as you continue on that journey.

Self-Reflection: Culture in the Workplace


1Lionel Laroche and Caroline Yang. Danger and Opportunity: Bridging Cultural Diversity for Competitive Advantage. New York: Routledge, 2014. p.9
2Ibid. p.9
3Ibid. p.10
4Ibid. p.11
5Ibid. p.12
6Ibid. pp.12-13

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