How to Develop Cultural Awareness in the Workplace – And Why

There is nothing like working in a congenial, welcoming, inclusive, safe environment, especially in a diverse, multicultural setting. People want to work in a collaborative, supportive atmosphere where personal and professional growth is enjoyed and differences are appreciated. As an employer, you can create such an ideal climate by incorporating cultural awareness in the workplace, which will improve diversity, productivity, creativity, and morale.

Cultural Differences in the Workforce

Conflicts and misunderstandings at work can happen at times because people are heterogeneous – they come from different cultural backgrounds and thus, have different ideas or viewpoints about people and the world.

To make things more complicated, cultural differences include not only ethnicity, but also generational or age gaps, gender, education, family background, religious affiliation, time orientation, work ethics, and more. Within one’s ethnic culture, differences also exist such as language, ways of doing things, learning, and interacting.

All these differences contribute to workplace diversity, the fuel that energizes an inclusive organization like yours toward success, but they can also lead to your company’s doom if workplace diversity issues, such as discrimination and harassment, are allowed to seep in, pester, and destroy one of your firm’s foundational pillars: your people.

People differ in the way they think and behave. Some are not as sensitive to, or may lack understanding, of other cultures – so much so that they may hurt others through their words and actions, whether intentional or not. Diversity cannot thrive in the soil of alienation, bias, offense, and low morale.

Why Cultural Awareness in the Workplace Should Be a Priority

Your company may be committed to diversity, and you can have your diversity programs in place with the help of your HR and Diversity teams, but how can you be sure each employee embraces diversity and respects individual and cultural differences? 

How can the values of diversity and inclusion become a lived-experience for each person on  your staff, from the entry-level talent to your top executives? Have you also deeply reflected on your own cultural biases?

The solution to these challenges lies in cultural awareness. Cultural awareness is not assuming that people are generally the same everywhere. It is not assuming that people from the same race or ethnicity share the same culture, ideas, interests, or values. It is also not assigning meaning to others’ reality through the lens of your own culture.

Cultural awareness recognizes people are different because they are shaped and informed by their respective cultural values, ideas and beliefs. They see, interpret, and evaluate others and the world differently. Through cultural awareness, one becomes more sensitive to others feelings and perspectives and becomes more careful not to offend through careless or hurtful words and actions just because someone is different.

The cultivation of cultural awareness in the workplace leads to inner transformation in each employee as an understanding of and appreciation for each others’ differences develops and grows. Therefore, it is essential to include a training program for cultural awareness in your company’s diversity initiatives.

How to Develop Cultural Awareness in Your Organization

According to a paper on the topic co-authored by Stephanie Quappe, the Cologne-based founder of Intercultural Change Management and Giovanna Cantatore and a consultant and product manager with the Park Li Group, Ltd., there are four levels of how people develop cultural awareness:

First stage: Parochial stage – This is the level at which people think their way is the only way of doing things. They do not appreciate the influence of cultural differences.

Second stage: Ethnocentric stage – At this level, people are already aware of other people’s ways of doing things, yet they still consider their own way the best one.

Third stage: Synergistic stage – People are aware of their own way as well as others’ ways of doing things. At this stage, they choose the better way of dealing with the situation. They also recognize cultural differences provide both benefits and problems, but they use cultural diversity to drive new solutions.

Final stage: Participatory stage – People are willing to open lines of communication with someone from a different cultural context and explore new meanings and new rules in order to address the needs of the situation at hand.

Moral Value of Developing Cultural Awareness

As seen from the above-mentioned levels, as one cultivates cultural awareness, one becomes familiar with new cultural beliefs and practices while at the same time becoming more aware of one’s own beliefs and values as well as biases and prejudices.

In becoming more culturally sensitive and aware of others’ cultural backgrounds, people can forge better relationships, experience meaningful exchanges with co-workers, and enhance collaboration and team work, thus boosting your company’s bottom line.

However, more than the benefit to profit, providing employees with an opportunity to learn new values for the common good should be viewed as a company’s social responsibility. Better working relationships, better work performance, greater economic success, yes – but beyond that is the greater good of establishing peace and unity, not only within the workplace but in the communities it serves.

As Peter Drucker once said, “…economic performance is not the only responsibility of a business, any more than educational performance is the only responsibility of a school or health care the only responsibility of a hospital.”

It was also Peter Drucker who reminded us of the Hippocratic oath: Primum non nocere – that is, “ above all, not knowingly to do harm” – is the first responsibility of a professional. Thus, Drucker wrote in his book on management: “No professional, be he a doctor, lawyer, or manager, can promise that he will indeed do good for his client. All he can do is try. But he can promise that he will not knowingly do harm.”

Thus, by helping develop cultural awareness in your company to lessen or mitigate the problems that come from cultural differences and promote diversity, you are living out your first responsibility as a business professional – to not knowingly do harm.