The age of globalization has broadened the perspectives of organization in terms of embracing diversity. Both employers and employees have been more aware of rights regarding equal opportunities and non-discriminatory acts. The United States is one country that has always advocated for equality and ideally, organizations can hire any employee that qualifies for a vacant position regardless of his or her gender, marital status, cultural background, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc.
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Even management positions are open to foreign aspirants who possess the required qualifications. However, any potential leader should be culturally competent. This means he or she is knowledgeable about cultural differences of workers and how these can affect their performance in their jobs as well as in working relationships with their colleagues. Modern human resource management has identified cultural differences to be one of the most crucial problems in organizations today due to various implications it has on work.
Apart from psychological and political factors (Hofstede, 1994), it can also hinder the effective transfer of knowledge and information (Javernick-Will and Levitt, 2010), affect the development of trust amongst intercultural members and being a risk factor in the establishment of harmonious working relationships (Bu-Qammaz et al., 2009). Hence, it is necessary to keep such possible threats to harmony under control.
One source of potential conflict in corporate management is the issue of religious diversity. Von Bergen (2008) explains that religion has become more expressed at work as more people believe in God or a supreme being that helps them find more meaning in their lives. Beliefs and practices for religion may be lived out through various acts such as how one’s manner of dressing or presentation of himself to the world, recruiting others to join them in their faith, observing religious traditions and holidays and advocating or preaching against certain principles, among others.
Since religious diversity is one aspect of an inclusive workplace, more organizations have become tolerant of employees who openly express their faith. However, such expressions and religious differences among workers may provide grounds for disagreement, conflicts or even harassment (Von Bergen, 2008). Managers should be aware of these challenges and know that religious diversity can also be a factor in causing divisiveness and discrimination if potential problems are not addressed in a respectful and reasonable manner.
An example that can test a manager’s support of religious diversity is when employees are expected to report to work on days of religious significance to them like Good Friday for Catholics, or Jewish or Muslim holidays. The employee may request to be excused from work on those days in order to observe his religious traditions. At least two conflicts may arise from this. One is that if the employee is allowed, it may set a precedent to other employees who may exploit the benefit and even for non-religious reasons. The other is that if the employee is not allowed, he might take it against the management for not respecting his right to practice his religion and accuse management of religious discrimination. What is a manager to do?
Federal anti-discrimination law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rules against discrimination of employees based on their religion. Employers are required to “reasonably accommodate” their employees’ “sincerely held” religious practices unless such practice would result in “undue hardship” on the company or infringe on co-workers’ or customer’s rights (HR Specialist.com, 2013).
This implies that managers should determine if the worker’s request not to report on days of religious significance to him would affect the company’s productivity standards and process schedules, safety considerations, effect on other employees such as lowered employee morale or perception of unequal treatment (Aron vs. Quest Diagnostics, 2006); collective bargaining agreements; and customer relations issues (Von Bergen, 2008). The manager should not outright reject the worker’s request but show consideration on reasonable grounds. If there is no undue hardship caused, then the employee’s request may be approved.
However, if it affects any of the aforementioned considerations, then both the manager and worker can compromise on an accommodation that meets both their needs and goals. In this way, the worker is assured that the manager is exerting best effort in understanding his situation in good faith at the same time, the manager is not compromising the company’s interests. This action alone can also resolve the other conflict of other employees using such excuse to also not report for work. They would realize that the manager is not arbitrarily making decisions but is following certain protocols in considering such requests, with the requesting employee showing sincerity in his intentions. In the spirit of equal opportunities and fairness, such action shall go for all other employees.
With reference to the case provided, the foreign manager hired to oversee employees in an increasingly multicultural organization such as a large company in the United States, is recommended to develop Cultural Intelligence (CQ). This is one skill that emphasizes the capacity to grasp, reason and behave effectively in certain situations wherein cultural diversity takes place (Schmidt & Hunder, 2000). It is inevitable that some members will manifest their cultural quirks that may be perceived as intimidating to others. However, this should not stop the new manager from doing her job well. She should learn to deal with people from different cultural backgrounds in a respectful manner which does not offend anybody (Nafei, 2013).
She should know how to motivate the members to complete their tasks and do them well. Understanding the norms, practices and traditions of her members’ culture helps a lot in relating to them appropriately. Cognitive strategies in coping with individuals who may not share the same cultural norms help a culturally intelligent individual to adjust her mental models during her intercultural exchanges with them so as to bring about positive outcomes. A good manager should be sensitive enough to know how to behave appropriately towards her members in a way that they feel accepted and respected for their cultural differences (Nafei, 2013).
An effective strategy in becoming a successful multicultural leader is to model competence in cross-cultural communication so that she can explain her instructions and policies clearly to the staff and avoid misinterpretations especially when she addresses their specific tasks. Being competent in cross-cultural communication ensures direct and positive outcomes regarding managers’ decision-making and problem-solving abilities (Matneev & Nelson, 2004). Another action that multicultural leaders can take is to encourage their employees to value the exchange of alternative points of view. Workers should be trained to be open to the ideas of others, fostering “out of the box” thinking.
This results in the bringing fresh perspectives and creative thinking. Tolerating uncertainty in group processes is actually encouraged because it strengthens the bond of the members as they strive to find the best solutions to problems together. The manager should also instill respect for each member as they are encouraged to share their own experiences from their own cultural practices so it can enrich others’ knowledge as it consequently improves their understanding and tolerance of differences. Exposing members to the values of other cultures provides them with opportunities for learning (Mead, 1994).
For the first action of modeling competence in cross-cultural communication, the manager should go beyond understanding another individual’s culture and language but also encompass emotional and behavioral skills such as empathy, warmth, charisma and the efficient management of conflict, anxiety and uncertainty (Gudykunst, 2005).
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It would be wise to invest efforts in studying how people from the various cultures of the workers communicate with each other like how to best draw out ideas from the more reserved Japanese technician or help the more loquacious Mexican clerk focus on specific topics at a time. Being aware of the differences in the communication and interaction of other members of the team can make the foreign manager flexible the delivery of her instructions and policies, adjusting to the specific communication style of each worker. It will also help her in settling conflicts and makes her confident in communicating with workers from various cultures (Congden et al., 2009).
In terms of helping workers be more open to the ideas of their co-workers from other cultures, brainstorming sessions may be held where each member can present their ideas freely, without judgment. They can draw ideas from their own cultural practices and let the team determine if they are feasible to apply in their current project plans. This way, each worker gets an opportunity to share his or her ideas, which may be potentially brilliant for the team.
More than verbal communication, non-verbal communication between people from different cultures may also be a source of misunderstanding so members from the same organization should exert an effort to understand the meaning of the gestures, facial expressions, posture, etc. of their co-members. For example, Butler et al. (2007) shared that the cultural values of independence and self-assertion in Western European countries are expressed in their transparent facial expressions. They do not have a need to hide their feelings and express them genuinely.
On the other hand, the cultural values of interdependence and relationship harmony in East Asian countries make people there suppress their emotions to maintain the status quo (Gross and John, 1998). Americans leaned forward to show interest and liking for another person while Japanese are more restrained postures by straightening their backs. They show much fewer gestures so as not to reveal their inner emotions to others (Bond & Shiraishi, 1974).
One possible source of conflict from non-verbal communication is the interpretation of eye contact. Western cultures such as those from American and Arab countries value eye contact to indicate attentiveness, interest and honesty. However, in other cultures such as the Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans, eye contact is avoided or else it may be perceived as a sign of disrespect or rudeness especially if directed towards a person of authority (Ikeda & Tidwell, n.d.). Hence, managers should learn even the non-verbal communication differences in the cultural groups of his members and explain this to his team so that everyone is clear on it and not cause miscommunications and conflicts.
Another source of conflict is the non-verbal demeanor of workers from different cultures when they communicate. For example, in negotiation, Americans who are usually more verbose and uncomfortable with silence may interpret the silence from their Japanese counterparts as consent when it is actually the opposite (Graham and Sano, 1984). Japanese negotiators usually resort to silence as a persuasive tactic to elicit more in the deal or it can be their indirect approach in turning down a deal (Graham, 1985).
Therefore, managers should be aware of cultural differences in their professional behaviours, attitudes and expression of emotions and conduct training sessions with their workers so all of them are aware of these and become more sensitive to their cultural differences. Determining a common understanding of cultural differences in various aspects of communication, values, beliefs, traditions and practices helps in developing not only a culturally competent manager but also a culturally competent team. Being more understanding and respectful of cultural differences can lead to more harmonious work relationships that contribute to a socially satisfying and productive work environment.
In conclusion, because cultural diversity is being encouraged nowadays, there is no reason for a qualified foreign manager to assume her position in a multicultural organization as long as she is well-prepared for the challenges that cultural diversity may bring. Apart from being culturally competent, she should have the confidence and courage it takes to manage her team and openness to learning more about how they work best together as a team despite their cultural differences.
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