How Understanding Cultural Differences Improve the Work Environment and the Bottom Line
The global nature of the economy poses both cultural and communication challenges
by Greg W. Hudgins
The global nature of the economy poses both cultural and communication challenges for companies conducting business today. Just how you present or accept a business card can seriously impact a first impression of you and your company, potentially making or breaking a deal. But the real challenge these days often begins at the office, where most workforces are multi-cultural. These multicultural differences can create issues that affect the work environment, and ultimately the company’s bottom line.
While a student in the Masters of Science in Organization Development Program at American University (AU/NTL), I ran into a former business colleague and asked him about some of the multicultural issues he faced in his U.S.-based business where many of his staff are Hispanic. He said he had noticed that his Hispanic staff members were generally more soft-spoken and respectful than their louder, quick-to-speak American co-workers. Furthermore, he sometimes wondered if his Hispanic staff members really understood him, even while they smiled back, nodding agreeably. This presented the perfect opportunity for me to propose conducting my academic practicum with his company with the goal of further examining these issues and helping his organization become more effective and efficient through a formal organization development change process.
One year later, after many surprises in the process, my colleague’s company, Bittersweet Catering ~ Café ~Bakery won the “Retail Business of the Year Award” from the Alexandria, Va., Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber President, said, “Bittersweet provides Old Town with a great sense of community. Any city would be lucky to have them–it is a role model for other retail businesses.” My colleague was delighted to be recognized by his peers, but his real reward was the improved work environment that helped him streamline his business and increase his revenues.
What Is The OD Process In Theory?
I explained to my colleague what is involved in the organizational development (OD) process. The object of a practicum is to conduct a needs assessment with a client and to implement changes which improve the effectiveness and efficiency of how workers interact and complete their work tasks. My role would be to assist in identifying ineffective organizational behavior and help by implementing solutions for these issues as determined collaboratively by the entire staff–owner, managers, and workers. This includes:
- A series of extensive interviews both inside and outside the organization with employees, customers, vendors, and other pertinent sources;
- Feedback session of the survey results to the leader followed by a feedback session with the staff;
- Implementation of the recommended and agreed changes, which always includes the involvement of the entire organization;
- Evaluation with modifications as needed after completing the system change; ideally this becomes an ongoing process throughout the life of the organization (Cummings & Worley, 2001; Burke, 1992);
OD is unique and differentiated from other forms of business consulting, i.e., management consulting, in that OD consultants do not bring solutions to a client–they facilitate the process to find the solutions (Block, 2000; Burke, 1992; Freedman & Zackrison, 2001). It is never the OD consultant’s decision to choose the specific direction or make recommendations of the changes to be implemented. This process can only succeed if it is a collaborative process between the owner (and the leadership of an organization), the consultant, and all members of the organization.
Ultimately, the OD process helps create awareness in organizations that change is not only healthy, but inevitable if continued improvement is to occur.
What Was The OD Process In Reality?
Although many valuable external sources were consulted in the assessment (customers, vendors, neighboring businesses), the main source of information came from interviewing the 25 staff members. Like many hospitality and service industry companies in the U.S., the majority of workers were Hispanic. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (2004) reports that Hispanics are the largest minority in America, providing the largest segment of workers. These figures are expected to increase by 2012 to represent almost 15 percent of the American workforce. My first step was to conduct one-on-one interviews with the owner and each staff member, as well as the selected external organizations. The interviews with the US staff went well, and I did not anticipate any difficulty interviewing the Hispanic staff as they seemed to speak and understand English. However, after completing three sessions with senior Hispanic members, it became obvious that the questions were not making sense at their respective language levels.
The second step was to conduct the interviews again, but this time with the translation assistance of one of the senior staff who thought he could improve this communication gap because he was part-Hispanic and said he spoke both Spanish and English. This second attempt also failed. Even though this fellow worker had communicated with the staff for years on a casual basis–and thought that his understanding of Spanish was sufficient–he was, in fact, unable to bridge the differences in language to adequately translate and convey the intended meaning of the questions, as well as their answers.
The unexpected third step (unexpected because we had anticipated that we would have already gathered the pertinent input from the Hispanic staff) was to create a paper survey in Spanish. This too, quite disappointingly, proved ineffective as the responses once again indicated that a significant barrier still existed prohibiting an accurate information exchange. Furthermore, there appeared to be a low level of trust, which was difficult to penetrate.
Puzzled, I contacted a fellow graduate colleague from Bolivia and explained the situation. She listened emphatically to the circumstances and volunteered to look at the “translated” questions and answers. After her review of all the surveys and a lengthy discussion about the differences in language and culture, the pieces began to come together.
As a result, my Bolivian colleague was added to the project team to interview the Hispanic staff members–a significant change from the original concept and work contract, that only I would be interrupting the normal work process. The language and cultural barriers became less figural as the staff was now able to easily and comfortably communicate with a fellow Hispanic, who understood their language and culture. By bridging this gap, authentic and often deeply held information was revealed, which became essential for understanding their needs and expectations.
At last, we had arrived at a productive stage of our work. After condensing this information, which is first summarized, quantified and categorized into themes, I shared the results with my colleague. After a few meetings and lengthy dialogue, we presented this reservoir of information in both languages to the rest of the company; first with management, then the whole organization. Because we continually included the entire staff during the process and had promised this feedback meeting from the beginning, the presentation was highly anticipated.
This is a key difference in OD consulting as opposed to management consulting. Historically the heritage of OD consulting is based on democratic principles of inclusion (Burke, 1992). Because the OD process does include all organization members, it makes sense that the rate of success in an OD driven change effort would be higher than most management consulting change efforts. For example, if a change effort is implemented by dictum, announcing new policy decisions and direction (which is a common practice in organizations today) it is more likely to fail. If change is to be effective and long-lasting, the entire group who participated in the assessment must be included in the feedback process and remain actively involved (Block, 2000; Burke, 1992).
From the beginning of a feedback meeting, as the results of the assessment are presented, the employees begin to recognize the information as their own and agree enthusiastically that it is an accurate depiction of their issues.
Confirming that the information is their own and having them validate it, is an important step the consultant must reach in order to keep all members involved and prepared for what’s next (Segal, 1997). Following this acceptance, a brainstorming process is facilitated where the staff prioritizes what they choose to do next. This step is enormously empowering as the stakeholders begin to take ownership. In essence, they create their own action plan and move forward together with this newly discovered, jointly created vision.
This is exactly what occurred at Bittersweet as the results of the long and arduous interview process began to unfold in front of the entire organization. There was an overwhelming flood of relief mirrored with joy as the feedback was presented, agreeing that this was how they felt. This validation was followed by an energetic and highly involved brainstorming process where the staff prioritized what they wanted to do next in order to facilitate the benefits of this year-long effort. It was very emotional as they began to realize that they were now enabled and empowered to change their work environment.
During a conversation with my colleague afterwards, he remarked, “From the first intervention, the staff woke up to the possibility of empowerment that has grown into a full scale realization that they can achieve much more for themselves and the organization than they may have thought possible. While many restaurant managers are going to be uncomfortable with having this level of input by the staff because they are used to an autocratic style of management, I’ve learned that empowering employees allows growth both personally and professionally. Also, the staff now requires less direct supervision allowing me to have a life.”
What Were The Immediate Benefits?
The one-on-one assessment interviews gave staff members an opportunity to discreetly share information, not only about themselves, but about fellow staff members. Typically, this is not safe to do in organizations with either management or often loose-lipped fellow staff members. But it is possible with an OD scholar-practitioner as the members are guaranteed anonymity. Protecting the sources of sensitive information is key if change is going to be successful, and this is why OD is successful–understanding the nature of human behavior is vital to effecting positive change, and thus the study of it is the core of OD.
Prior to the feedback meeting, most managers would have assumed the following: that management was clearly communicating with the Hispanic staff, that the staff understood management and each other, and that management understood the needs and expectations of its staff. During the feedback meeting, staff members shared their learning that not only was these assumptions not valid, but also that American and Hispanic co-workers had very different perspectives on a variety of issues. It is difficult to imagine how this information could have been gathered without the promise of anonymity that is part of the OD process.
In the case of Bittersweet, it was especially significant as the appreciation for cultural differences became figural in the success of understanding workplace issues. These differences were not uncovered until after the process began. This is not unusual in effective OD work that is based on proper needs assessment. What may significant and valid in the initial assessment may appear to be significant and valid in the initial assessment may become much less important as actual data begins to come in.
As a result, both the American management team and the Hispanic workers became aware that understanding cultural differences made the working relationships between departments better. Each listened more attentively and began to appreciate that each person’s unique responsibilities were equally important in achieving Bittersweet’s ultimate goal–to provide the best food and customer service experience.
At the same time, the Hispanic staff became more enabled to self-manage. They were more supportive of each other and provided direction for fellow-workers as needed. This was not the case prior to the intervention, even within the Hispanic staff, which is noteworthy because historically Hispanics have a stronger tie to family and community. The work place became a safer environment for them and they felt comfortable taking on responsibilities.
Another rather unexpected outcome was that there was a significant change in management: an ineffective manager was replaced with a new manager-chef–and because management listened to the needs of all of the staff members, both Hispanic and American–they hired one who was bilingual. As a result, trust levels between management and staff improved, as well as among staff members. This helped create a much safer work environment for the Hispanics whose collectivist culture is quite different from their more individualist American co-workers (Hofstede, 1980). This enhanced team effort led to a more cohesive work force, a more comfortable work environment and enriched organizational culture.
As a result of the improved work environment, better communication practices evolved. Meetings were more effective and productive not only between management and staff, but within divisions. The entire staff now understood that input and feedback was not only helpful, but desirable.
Meetings were identified as a good source for sharing new information, updating members on the status of business (positive and negative), and discussing customer comments.
The improved communication and feedback processes enabled the Hispanic staff to become so self-managed that in just one year, when the manager-chef announced his plans for a new career opportunity, it was decided that instead of replacing him, his responsibilities would be divided between several of the Hispanic staff members. This move eliminated one of the highest cost positions from payroll.
Bittersweet experienced other cost reductions in staff as non-team oriented members realized they no longer fit in and could not work there. The remaining team-oriented staff enhanced the overall efficiency of the operation.
The bottom line continued to improve as staff worked to streamline systems, eliminating costly steps, while improving inventory practices. More effective food ordering resulted, less waste became the norm, and food costs were lowered. Also, Bittersweet developed new menus and improved food quality based on information gathered from customers and staff during the interview process. This has led to not only an increase in customer satisfaction, but also to an increase in volume of actual customers, which has improved profitability.
My colleague recently reflected on how things are going: “A flood of creativity has resulted where members of different departments throughout the organization have impact on product development. Their willingness to take risks and new responsibilities has enabled them to be self-managing and has increased their earning power significantly. Bittersweet is very profitable as a result.”
The Value of Appreciating Cultural Differences
Geert Hofstede (1980) must be credited for the value of his research on cultural differences, and how his work helped make sense of what was happening at Bittersweet. Hofstede’s lifelong work, which began in the late 70’s, helped organizations understand why their business models worked in some countries and not in others. He is highly regarded as an expert in both dimensions–cultures and organizations. He recommends today that organizations think local, but act global.
From Hofstede and other sources we learn that Hispanic cultures pride themselves in having a hard work ethic. As a From Hofstede and other sources we learn that Hispanic cultures pride themselves in having a hard work ethic. As a result of the thorough and accurate needs assessment, Bittersweet gained significant information, not only in what the organization needed, but in the quality and content of the knowledge it gained about its staff.
With this added awareness and appreciation of the cultural differences came all to be more sensitive and empathetic.
It also facilitated a better appreciation of one another, which helped improve communication. This new insight has helped Bittersweet reenergize itself, but before any assumptions are made, Bittersweet was not selected for this practicum because it needed help, quite the contrary. Here lies a potential paradox which may exist in organizations today. Bittersweet has always been an excellent environment in which to work, especially for Hispanics. My colleague is loved by his people–as shown by very low turnover in an industry which is plagued by that problem.
It was the rich organizational culture at Bittersweet, which made it so appealing for this practicum. Culture is to an organization what personality is to an individual (Shafritz & Ott, 2001).
The atmosphere at Bittersweet is one of comfort, exuding a sense of community that only exists in an environment of goodwill.
My colleague’s continuous desire for improvement in his business and selflessness in sharing with his dedicated staff made it an inviting and fertile ground for this work.
The paradox for organizations is that OD may be needed even if the organization is not struggling with the work environment or the bottom line. It is not only for businesses with leadership, communication, and internal conflict or morale issues.
OD consultation will benefit any organization as it simply brings clarity and awareness. It is not uncommon in thriving businesses, those recognized in the media as being “smarter” organizations, to understand that opportunities for improvement exist as often as technology changes–daily. Unfortunately, the organizations which need OD most are often the ones with the most close-minded leaders who lack awareness, and make unfounded assumptions daily.
The success of this work at Bittersweet is two-fold. First, it is the result of excellent leadership–my colleague has never avoided change, and has always recognized that it is inevitable and good. So it comes naturally for those companies with visionary leaders that continuous improvement is an on-going journey. Second, this OD intervention succeeded due to the commitment to obtain accurate and authentic information from the organizational members, particularly the Hispanic staff whose blank stares provided the first clue to what was really occurring at Bittersweet–people weren’t really hearing and understanding each other. The breakthrough occurred when the language barrier came down, and the value and appreciation for cultural differences took place.
The multiple attempts to quash the communication barrier was the application of action research (Coghlan & Brannock, 2001), which eventually led to the discovery of key information and helped guide the process to a successful conclusion.
In addition to uncovering the many misassumptions, it revealed a commonly held, but unspoken belief among the staff: The ineffective manager needed to go and to be replaced with someone sensitive to the needs and expectations of the staff, and most importantly, one who was bilingual and bicultural.
What Can Be Learned By All?
After three unsuccessful attempts to interview the Hispanic staff, very significant and unknown issues had became apparent–an assumption that management was clearly communicating with the Hispanic staff, an assumption that the staff understood management as well as each other, and an assumption that management understood the needs and expectations of its staff.
The epiphany for Bittersweet and this graduate research is not just about discovering these assumptions, but the awareness it created for management and staff who suddenly understood the relevance–how the differences in language coupled with the differences of culture did impact their organization’s effectiveness and efficiency.
It is the intertwining of the two, this combination of culture and language, which was obviously taken for granted. It took an OD assessment to identify and validate that these assumptions were occurring. Surely if this was happening at Bittersweet there must be other organizations where fellow Hispanics and their co-workers were experiencing the same. So, not only with highly Hispanic organizations might this information be applicable but in other multicultural organizations in general, where cultural and language differences affect the ability to operate effectively.
Sharing this experience may induce many organizations to examine their assumptions, and may benefit a wide range of constituents. Perhaps for Hispanics, the largest working minority in the United States, valuable differences may be recognized and better understood in the future. Similar service oriented organizations that find a mirror in the Bittersweet example, may see that they make routine unsafe assumptions about their abilities to communicate effectively and understand their own staffs. And last, under a much larger and inclusive umbrella, all multicultural organizations as well as all multi-diverse organizations–which in today’s global economy includes just about any organization–may find that they can relate and learn from this experience.
For multicultural organizations and for that matter all organizations, to compete successfully in today’s challenging business environments, communication channels must operate at extremely efficient levels. If diversely populated businesses are to perform at their peak, management and staff need to clearly understand each other while appreciating and celebrating their differences–and not fooling themselves with complacent assumptions. This bittersweet experience is not only good for the work environment but it is good for the bottom line. –FQ
–This article previously appeared in OD Practitioner, the Journal of the Organization Development Network.
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- Greg W. Hudgins, MSOD, is an independent OD Consultant with more than 15 years experience with a Malcolm Baldrige recipient. Reach him at GWHudgins1@aol.com.