The importance of context in the global workplace

"You cannot understand the view without the point of view"

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In an increasingly globalized business world that often loves to discuss about “diversity” without however providing employees with the tools to navigate the tricky waters of cross-cultural communication, finding a way to successfully collaborate with co-workers whose inner functioning we may not understand can be a challenging and frustrating task: we are naturally biased and inclined to judge others according to our own values and experiences, to seek comfort in familiar situations, to unconsciously look for patterns we recognize and can easily make sense of.

Cultural awareness training in the modern workplace should be a priority rather than an “added bonus”, a powerful tool used to boost employees’ happiness levels, to create cohesion among team members, to facilitate understanding between employees and their leaders, to improve retention rates, to increase productivity.

Several studies conducted over the course of decades confirmed that national culture has a significant impact on the corporate culture: beliefs, values, group and power dynamics are bound to affect communication styles, driving factors, personal expectations and standards. What is the meaning of “culture” then, and what are its core components?

In 1976, anthropologist E.T. Hall developed the iceberg analogy of culture [1]: he theorized that if culture was an iceberg, some of its aspects (“above the water line”, such as language, food, art, music, fashion, literature, rituals, flags, festivals, etc. ) would be visible and obvious to everyone, while most of them (the unconscious aspects, such as values, social norms, unspoken and unconscious rules, sense of time, personal space and concept of privacy, interpretation of “right” and “wrong”, non-verbal communication, concept of death, gender roles, courtesy and manners, notions of beauty and intelligence, etc) would be hidden “below the water line”, and only accessible to outsiders after a certain time spent observing and learning about the new culture.

Would anyone not familiar with the concept of “cultural dimensions” immediately think of a cultural misunderstanding when involved in a frustrating personal interaction with a colleague? Probably not: the first reaction would most likely be a quick judgement about the other person’s perceived flaws and quirks, made according to our own standards.

For instance, are co-workers who don’t seem to follow a systematic approach to complete certain tasks more inefficient or unorganized than others? Not necessarily: they may simply be members of a “polychronic” culture (typical of Latin-American, South-European, Middle-Eastern, South-Asian, African countries, plus all tribal communities around the world) – , with polychronicism indicating the ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously (cyclical time) and monochronicism a tendency to handle tasks sequentially (linear time) – and manage their time differently than their monochronic colleagues [2]. How they are managed and evaluated in the workplace depends entirely on their manager’s ability to understand how they “function” from a cultural perspective.

To bring it all together, in order to grow and thrive in a global environment where most learning happens through experiences and occasional mishaps, it is important to keep an open mind and to remember that – as psychologist Noam Shpancer beautifully put it – “Context determines the meaning of things. There is no such thing as the view from nowhere, or from everywhere for that matter. Our point of view biases our observation, consciously and unconsciously. You cannot understand the view without the point of view.” [3]


[1] Hall, E. T. (1976). “Beyond culture”. New York, NY: Doubleday

[2] Hall, E. T. (1959). “The Silent Language”. New York, NY: Doubleday

[3] Shpancer, N. (2010). “The Good Psychologist”. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co.

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