Understanding Diverse Culture in the Workplace

On October 27th, 2023, The Alberta Mentorship Program held an online Community Champions Mentorship Circle about Understanding Diverse Culture in the Workplace.

Shafana Mitha, Founder and Principal at aKollage Consulting, guided attendees through her presentation on how to establish a high-level ability to work with empathy while understanding diverse perspectives. Her presentation showed how diverse cultures strengthen organizations and how the inclusion of diverse voices improves decision-making. This session included:

  1. Understanding what we mean by cultural competence;
  2. Discussing how culture impacts how we communicate; and
  3. Providing tools to help achieve cultural competence in the workplace.

What is Culture?

To understand cultural competency, we first need to define culture. Culture is shared values, beliefs, and behaviours that unite a group of people.

“Culture is learned through our experiences around other humans,” says Shafana.

Typically when we think about culture, we think about our ethnic or national background. Our culture can be handed down from generation to generation and is embedded in your family life. But culture can include a wide range of communities, such as your profession, hobbies, interests, religion, and any place where people gather in person or virtually. Each of us is part of many cultural groups.

“All of these different pieces that make me unique and make me, me, is what I call my intersectionality,” says Shafana.

View the Canada Council's video,
What does culture mean to you?

“Notice how you are moving between cultures all the time,” says Shafana. “This can be very natural. Culture is fluid and flexible. Culture is multi-dimensional.”

Consider how you may act when you are angry at home with your family versus when you are angry at work. Or compare how you dress when you meet up with friends to how you dress when you go to a church or temple. Likely, you do not think about what you would do differently in each situation. You would just know. Most of us instinctively understand that our behaviour changes when we are in different or familiar cultural communities.

These shared expectations are often invisible or unspoken within a cultural group. For example, one workplace may have an informal style of communication where employees can drop by their manager’s office anytime, while at another workplace, the manager expects you to book a meeting. These communication methods may not be clearly explained to new employees, but it is known by long-time employees who comply with this expectation without thinking about it. This unspoken expectation may be challenging for a new employee if it differs from their previous workplace.

What is Cultural Competency?

This cultural competency fits into the gap between “just knowing” the cultural expectations and unfamiliarity with them. Being culturally competent means you are respectful and aware of cultural differences, whether you are a newcomer to a culture or welcoming someone to your own culture.

Cultural humility means to be aware of potential power imbalances and reflect on your biases. There is no need to memorize all cultural differences, but we can seek to learn more and be open about what we haven’t discovered yet.

“That vulnerability allows us to grow and promote equity and inclusion in your organization,” says Shafana.

Cultural competency is our will and actions to build understanding between people, to be respectful and open to diverse cultural perspectives, and to work towards equity in opportunity. Becoming culturally competent means learning about other cultures, controlling your biases, and adapting your behaviours and communication styles.

“Cultural humility is a mindset. Cultural competency is a goal,” says Shafana.

There are four key components to developing your cultural competency.

1. Awareness

Awareness means we:

  • Recognize that culture shapes our identity, behaviour, and worldview.
  • Notice that there are cultural differences, and they may affect our interactions with others.
  • Acknowledge that cultural differences can become barriers if they are related to our biases.

“Cultural competence is a journey, and it starts with awareness,” says Shafana.

2. Attitude

Our attitude indicates how open we are to cultural differences. The more resistant we are to cultural differences, the more likely we will experience cross-cultural challenges when interacting with people from other cultural groups.

3. Knowledge

We can learn about different cultures through research, observation, and engagement. Never rely on members of another culture to educate you. Take responsibility for your own learning. Knowledge doesn’t mean we have to know every possible cultural difference, but we recognize the differences and respond with understanding and respect. For example, if we know that not all cultures make decisions based on authority, we can change our approach when we work with a group that makes more collaborative decisions. Knowledge helps us create bridges.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. ~ Maya Angelou

4. Skills

Skills are a set of tools we can use to improve our interactions with one another instinctively. Like any skill, cultural competency skills require practice.

“I used to say, ‘Hey you guys’ all the time, but I wanted to use the word ‘folks’ to be intentionally inclusive,” says Shafana. “It was uncomfortable at first. It took time, but now it has become a natural part of my language.”

It is good practice to be open about our learning journey, realize that it will take time, and accept discomfort as you learn new things.

Learn more about Cultural Humility through Psych Hub's video,
What is Cultural Humility?

Cultural Competency in the Workplace

If we consider cultural competency within the workplace, we can view several forms of culture. First, there is the workplace culture created by shared patterns of behaviours of the employees. Then there are cultures that each individual brings with them.

The intersection of all these cultures creates opportunities for cross-cultural misunderstandings. While at work, consider ways we can reduce communication barriers during:

  • Sending emails;
  • Making phone calls;
  • Facilitating meetings;
  • Managing teams;
  • Doing presentations; and
  • Socializing with colleagues and clients.

There can be different ways of communicating in each of these situations, such as using humour, being direct, or making small talk. In some cultures, ice-breakers are a welcome practice to introduce a meeting, while in others, ice-breakers make people feel uncomfortable. Sometimes being informal is perceived as disrespectful, or being direct comes across as aggressive.

It is not our intention to make people uncomfortable or upset. Do not assume that what works with one group will work with another, but look for cultural differences and adjust your approach. Taking time to ask questions and understand the organization’s culture can help us determine the best approach for different organizations.

Be open and pay attention to understand how other people want to approach workplace interactions. Learning to interact respectfully and knowledgeably with people inside and outside of our own cultures is being culturally competent.

Ultimately, cultural competency is about relationships. The quality of relationships can be very powerful in making us feel like we belong or are alone within a community. It is always easier to connect to people when we understand their culture. But diversity enriches workplaces because it adds depth of perspective and experience.

Interested in learning more? Try this self-reflection exercise from Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society: Cultural Competence Checklist

The Alberta Mentorship program is sponsored by the Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council (ERIEC).

The Alberta Mentorship Program is appreciative of the funding from the Government of Alberta through Labour and Immigration, Workforce Strategies. Our program is here to provide information and support to help organizations start mentorship programs.

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