How To Overcome Cultural Barriers In The Workplace


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As businesses grow more diverse and more worldly, it is more and more common to encounter both employees and clients who are from very different cultures from your own. How you manage these situations says quite a bit about you as a team leader, entrepreneur, and person. Ultimately, the most successful businesses have been shown to be those which embrace and work within a diverse perspective, as opposed to those which try to stick to one narrow viewpoint. Here’s how to overcome some common cultural barriers in the workplace.

Do the work of learning about stereotypes and breaking them down in your behavior

If you are a member of a dominant culture, it is very likely that you have absorbed various stereotypical notions about people who are from other cultures. While you might pride yourself on not being racist, sexist, or even judgmental, it is very difficult to overcome these programmed notions.

When you are working with someone who is from a different cultural or spiritual background than yourself, it is important to be aware of your behavior. Watch carefully for signs you might have said or done something unintentionally offensive, and that you might need to make things right.

It can be hard to get feedback that indicates you have been insensitive, and harder still to make the changes necessary to learn from it and move forward. It is necessary work, however, if a business is going to be successful in the global marketplace.

Acknowledge the difference between business need and personal preference

Many American customer service representatives in brick-and-mortar locations are trained that giving eye contact is a good way to show respect and interest. Many cultures, however, find giving eye contact to be uncomfortable or offensive, and many autistic people find it downright uncomfortable.

Eye contact is just an example, but in this situation, you need to decide if this is really necessary for your business. Are there other ways that your employees can communicate their attention to your customers without treading on their cultural needs?

If you identify a true business need, then you should communicate to your employees that, in order to be successful, they will need to perform to your expectations. If you discover, however, that you’re doing things this way just because that’s how it has always been done? Perhaps accommodations can be made.

Talk to your employees about what they need to be successful

While the burden of education dominant cultures about less dominant cultures should never be solely the work of those who are marginalized, it is still a good idea for a team leader to discuss with their employees how best to set them up for success. Eventually, your employees could potentially be your best business advocates. In fact, this is such a good idea that all team leaders should already be having these conversations with all team members. Ask questions like:

• In what situations will you be comfortable giving me feedback about my performance?
• How best can I tell you when you’ve done outstanding work?
• What is the best way for me to discuss performance issues?

These are three common areas that cause cross-cultural problems in the workplace.

Learn about different cultures

When you are part of the dominant culture, you tend not to have to learn about other cultures unless you want to. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur in the global economy, or even with a diverse group of employees, it’s important to shift your lens and look for diverse perspectives. There is no excuse for anyone with Internet access to be unaware of what the world looks like for women, or people with black or brown skin, or people who are LGBT.

Taking the time to be aware of the challenges that other people face is a key step in building a business that will be responsive to a wide variety of needs.

Don’t assume that an employee is using a cultural barrier to be “lazy” or “manipulative”

In any business, there will be a few employees who use any excuse to get out of doing their work. Managing them out of the organization will be the right decision. But if you find yourself saying things like “those lazy (racial group)” or “why won’t those (people) just do what I asked,” the odds are that the problem isn’t with them, but with your presentation of ideas and standards. It is your job to train them to have a passion to engage with customers and go after the opportunity. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and ensure that employees are properly trained, that there are no language barriers, and that you’re not asking for something that doesn’t line up with their expectations.

Proceeding as if employees want to be successful should be common sense.

What has your business done to promote diversity and turn cultural barriers into opportunities?

Margarita Hakobyan
CEO and founder of, an online marketplace of local moving companies and storage facilities. Business women, wife and mother of two with bachelor's degree from the University of Utah with a concentration in International Studies and a Masters Degree also from the University of Utah with a degree in International business.


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