What is Organisational Culture, and Why is it a Vital Organ for Multi-Cultural Companies?

Many people limit the meaning of culture to stand within a race, a religion or an accent heard in conversation, but it in fact spreads to so many elements of our lives. Organisational culture is defined as the way in which members of an organisation relate to each other, their work and the outside world in comparison to other organisations. It can enable or hinder an organisation’s strategy – Geert Hofstede. It is made up of instinctive repetitive habits and emotional responses which are self-sustained, and brought into each company by each individuals personal values, attitude and beliefs.

One way to observe this, is by looking to the different workplace structures of the east and the west. It can be readily established that the existence of high power distance values and a bureaucratic culture in Asian firms is very uniform, where for example, important decisions are made by the owners and senior management of Korean and Chinese firms. Owners and executives are on top of any bureaucratic structure in these firms and direction and orders tend to be top-down with little delegation and empowerment. On the other hand, despite the seemingly bureaucratic workplace structure of Australian companies, they are mainly used to coordinate activities and reporting purposes. Held increasingly by values of equalitarianism, democracy and participation, there is greater delegation and decentralisation of decision making and control. In both situations, each organisational structure has taken advantage of the beliefs and values of their employers, and structured it into a workable organisation that evolves the needs of both parties involved.

 

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At an organisational level, culture is a basis of all interactions between the people in that workplace.  Our collective ability to constructively manage workplace relationships, particularly in the face of inevitable tension and conflict, defines our organisational culture.

In order to stimulate the growth of organisational culture, it is beneficial to start noting those actions that benefit the company and lead it towards a positive outcome, and utilise them more frequently. These things may include the way your employees speak to clients or the way in which meetings are lead, and it is important that these align with the business strategy. Therefore, instead of focusing on changing the cultures themselves, it is often more appropriate to change behaviours in the workplace, as they tend to be more tangible and easily appropriated. Cultures do not tend to change automatically, but they do turn to follow behaviour chains.

Understanding and realising the cultural organisation of your company is only the starting point to how to improve in a manner that will increase the odds of financial and operational success. The next step involves the recognition and observation of different practices of cultural organisation in leadership, workload distribution, work capabilities, relationships and structural controls.

 

Read more: Five key factors that determine organisational culture.

Embracing Culture Through Communication

 

As cross-cultural communicators, leaders or students, we tend to focus a lot of our time on bridging cultural barriers and overcoming challenges to create an environment where we feel unified. However, as important as it is to find a common ground, it is also vital to embrace the way in which different cultures move and evolve in their own way, and to take the time to be curious about those differences.

The modern human is one who can not only adjust to change, but is also one who can stand strong within their core, while allowing various adaptations of cultures to move smoothly around them.

So what culturally relative areas of communication must we embrace? To be frank, the answer is just about everything. There are, however, a few areas that stand to be more prominent than the rest.

 

Silence.

Cultures differ with respect to what is defined as silence and when it is deemed appropriate. It has been well established that Western countries hold themselves on rhetoric being an intrinsic part of self-expression. Americans, as a general example, think of communication as essentially a verbal activity and are subsequently uncomfortable with long periods of silence. It is often seen as a moment of awkwardness and uneasiness.

However, in a country like Japan, silence has become institutionalised to become a recognised social behaviour. In Japan, it is very important to care about (kiwo tsukau) and to understand (sassuru) others. The study of body language, including the use of the hands, body posture, gesture, facial expressions and silence are all treated as an undivided whole.

Where these two cultures interact in social situations, a clash occurs, where one wants to get to know the other by talking, and the other feels it is inappropriate to talk until they are familiar with the other. This leads to cross-cultural stereotyping, where those who are verbal see the silent culture as uncooperative or unskilled, and the silent stereotypes the talkative as garrulous and ill-mannered.

 

What to say.

Once you do decide when to talk, what do you say? Do you ask questions? We take it for granted that questions are basic to the educational setting. How would one learn anything if one does not ask why, or how? Often hierarchy in cultures dictates who can ask the questions, but questions are also regarded as too powerful to throw around, because they force a response.

When questions are avoided, stories are often used. To think historically, many tribes and prehistoric cultures used stories to explain why certain things occurred, and taught important lessons. Take India, a country of over 415 different languages, has existed for ages with all these hyphenated identities but without any major catastrophe. Stories played a vital part in the process of consolidation and cementing cultures together. It is the ethos that was woven all through the cultures. It is so important to continue embracing story, and educating and communicating through story, especially in  such a quickly evolving, technology based society we have today. Cross-cultural communication is effectively possible if one attempts to bring in stories of the cultural other into one’s own cultural realm.

 

Intonation.

Another level of difference is intonation. Intonation varies from language to language and from culture to culture with different cultures that use the same language often being able to draw different meanings using the same words where the only modification is in the intonation. The understanding of intonations across different cultures is of paramount importance for communication to be effective in an intercultural setting. This is because the underlying basis of any communication process is to create understanding and this understanding can only be derived by the use of the language understood by the audience.

Tiny differences in intonation can throw an interaction completely off without the speaker knowing that something they said caused the problem. Intonation is made up of differences in pitch, loudness, and rhythm – features of talk, we use both to show how we mean what we say, and to express special meanings.

 

Cross-cultural communication is like trying to follow a route on which someone has turned the signposts around. All the familiar signposts are there, but when you follow them they don’t lead you in the right direction. That is the constant conflict that cross-cultural communicators have almost every day. By going through only a few of the elements of cross-cultural communication, we are reminded that this is only the natural progression of having people from different cultural backgrounds communicate with one another. If we all remind ourselves that others may not have understood what we said, it may go a long way to make all foreign language learners and communicators a little more sane!

Managing Multicultural Teams

Multicultural teams offer a variety of advantages to large companies, including a deep knowledge of different product markets, culturally sensitive customer service and innovative ideas from different cultural experiences. However, where many people from different cultures, have different traditions, complex communication styles and a variety of beliefs and values, issues may arise and workplaces may breakdown.

 

As a manager or human resources coordinator, your role in a team relies heavily on how these groups of people can overcome challenges successfully, and strive to stay above any future issues. This short video examines four main challenges that creates barriers to a team’s success:
  1. Communication – Western cultures tend to speak directly, whereas in many other cultures, this is considered impolite and aggressive. This misunderstanding can cause friction and imbalances between leaders and team members.
  2. Accents and fluency – Where non-native speakers struggle to tie words together in a fluent and concise way, other team members tend not to value or listen to their opinion as much as they would if their colleague was a native speaker
  3. Hierarchy and authority – A differing structure of flat and hierarchical authority composition, often leads to a breakdown in respect between colleagues.
  4. Decision making – Different speeds and styles of decisions making, such as thinking instinctively vs analytically, create conflicts where some peoples decision will be undervalued.

By dealing with these challenges, there were four corresponding solutions to solve these issues: adaptation through changing the shape or makeup of the team; managerial intervention, by setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager; structural intervention, by changing the shape or makeup of the manager; and exit, by removing a team member when all other options have failed

Through early intervention and setting out structures and norms, teams and managers can then engage with everyone on the team, and find challenges that stem from culture.