The following is a guest post written by Dr. Colleen Cherry. Dr. Cherry holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Georgia. Since 2008, she has focused her work on intercultural communication in business, education, and health settings. Dr. Cherry has conducted cultural competence training, quality improvement, health outcomes research, and implementation science with companies, organizations, and governmental offices. She has also published in over a dozen academic journals. Dr. Cherry currently teaches intercultural management, cultural studies, and research methods at the university-level in the United States and in Germany. She is available, both virtually and in-person, to provide Cultural Competence and Cross-cultural Communication training and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Imagine this scenario: Your organization is tasked with establishing a community-wide project to create a Youth and Community Enrichment Facility in your hometown. This will require working with local businesses, organizations, government offices, and residents across diverse groups and organizations in order for the initiative to be a success.
So far, things are not going well. Businesses are complaining that working with the local government offices takes too long since every decision must be approved by their bureaucracy. The non-profit organizations keep scheduling meetings to discuss plans but never seem to decide on a course of action. Some businesses and organizations simply never respond to your emails requesting their involvement, despite your repeated efforts. You throw your hands up in the air and think that this project will never get done because everyone is just too different to work together!
When working across diverse groups of people, we are often confronted with values, perspectives, and behaviors that may differ from our own. These differences can present us with challenges that may make it hard to collaborate with others outside of our own organizations or to connect with community members or clients that are part of our target audience.
Recognizing aspects of our own organizational culture can help us be better prepared to adapt to other organizations and populations when building community ties.
What is culture, anyway?
If you ask someone how they define culture, you commonly get two answers. One is that culture involves food, language, music, clothing, art, and so on. The other answer would define culture as the way people live, what they value, who they marry, and other behavioral aspects of the population. So, which is it? The truth is, it’s all of those things…and more.
Most importantly, culture is learned and shared knowledge among a group, expressed through behaviors and beliefs. We are not born knowing how to speak our native language. Yet, still we learn the language as a child, just as we learn what is good to eat and whether we eat with chopsticks or a fork and knife. Anyone who has spent any time around a one-year-old knows how she watches people around her and then tries to imitate their behaviors, even at this young age.
What do icebergs and culture have in common?
Much of our culture is apparent, or “on the surface”, such as how we dress or the language we speak. Other aspects of culture, like our beliefs, remain “under the surface”. Like an iceberg, there are parts of culture that are easy to see and parts of culture that are more difficult to see. The iceberg model of culture is often used to explain how culture can be both explicit and implicit. Food and clothing are explicit parts of culture; they are on the surface and can be seen. Some implicit parts of culture are “underwater” and harder to see, like core values, beliefs, and work ethic.
What is your Organizational Culture?
It is likely that members of our own organization or company tend to share many common characteristics in terms of values, beliefs, language, symbols, and clothing. We often take this for granted, believing that others also operate in the same manner. Although we might overlook these commonalities, they help to make our organization work as one. Examples of organizational culture include the following:
Is your company “business casual”? Formal business? Or do you dress for casual Friday every week? Clothing may seem like a superficial way to try to connect with others, but it’s actually an important part of organizational culture. It is a way that you identify with your colleagues and demonstrate social cohesion as part of a group. Now imagine showing up in your “Hawaiian shirt Friday” outfit to run a meeting at a partner organization that dresses formally every day. You can see how people may not take you seriously.
Your organization probably uses insider language, jargon, and acronyms to communicate quickly and efficiently. These work well within your own company as everyone is familiar with their meanings. However, using this language outside of your own group may appear as exclusionary. It’s harder to communicate and build support for common goals when communication is hindered by jargon.
Some offices have an open-door policy while others primarily use email to communicate. If your office has many mobile workers or offers employees a work-from-home option, then chances are you use email or phone calls as your main communication strategy. However, what may seem normal in your organization could seem rude and impersonal to others if they are used to in-person meetings and interactions.
What are the expectations of your organization’s work/life balance? Are you expected to be available 24-7 or does your office generally hold specific business hours? Work ethic and general work practices can vary widely across organizations. Much of these differences are based on the values that employees hold about the meaning of their work. For example, passion for a cause drives workers at many non-profit organizations. On the other hand, a for-profit business employee may prioritize efficiency or revenue. Knowing what motivates an organization and its employees may help you to predict their work-life behaviors. Some organizations hold strict offline hours, while others may be willing to take calls late into the evening if it means more work gets done.
Beliefs or Shared Values
What is your company’s mission statement? What do you value as an organization? These shared values are the glue that holds you together. If you are trying to reach out to other organizations or businesses, it helps to know their core values and work to find common ground for collaboration
It’s not until we recognize aspects of our own organizational culture that we can begin to “see” other organizational cultures. Then, we can learn to adapt our own behaviors to work well with others.
How can we adapt to other organizational cultures?
Choose to dress in a way that is appropriate for the occasional. Try to match your style to that of the organization you are trying to work with, especially if you are a guest in their office.
Use respectful language that is free of jargon and acronyms. If you must use internal language with other organizations, it may help to provide a guide that better defines of frequently used terms and acronyms.
Be ready to adjust your communication strategies. Use personal visits or lunches instead of email or phone calls if that seems to be the culture of the organization with which you are trying to collaborate.
Consider asking if business contact is okay during the evenings and weekends. Your organization might operate s 24-7 and after-hours email might be the norm. However, that doesn’t mean it is the culture at every organization.
Seek out connections or shared values between your organizations and build on that common ground.
What are some successful strategies that you have used to collaborate outside of your own organization?