Significance of Cultural Awareness at Work


Because traveling to other countries and exploring different cultures became widespread, there is a belief that being culturally aware in the workplace is not significant anymore. However, there are many implications of multicultural environments at work that should be considered. These implications may lead to negative results in performance and deteriorations in the quality of work. In turn, these discrepancies may lead to project failures and financial losses. There is no universal solution to cross-cultural conflicts, but there are four strategies that can be considered when approaching disputes within multicultural teams and ventures. These methods are adaptation, structural intervention, managerial intervention, and exit. Despite the accessibility of travel, awareness of cultural differences within organizations and groups stays critical because of the potential unfavorable impacts.

Implications of Multicultural Teams

It is critical to be aware of cultural differences at work because multicultural teams have many implications. Different cultures have varying expectations about how power is distributed within an organization, how team members should communicate with each other, how conflicts should be resolved and how tasks should be assigned (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). Notable experts and researchers have identified four dimensions that are significant in the business context (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). Each item is perceived differently by various cultures, and therefore, should be considered when working within a multicultural environment.

The first dimension is Power Distance coined by Geert Hofstede (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). This concept is related to the attitudes of employees to unequal distribution of power within a company. In high-power distant cultures, such as many of the Eastern countries, subordinates are dependent on the decisions of managers (Cole, Carter, and Zhang, 2013). Ordinary employees expect directors to make significant decisions and to resolve any issues that arise during the workflow. In low-power distant environments, on the other hand, power distribution is more even, and subordinates may challenge the decisions and ideas of their managers openly (Cole, Carter, and Zhang, 2013). In multicultural teams, members and managers should be aware of differing expectations about power distance. Failure to acknowledge these variations in expectations will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. For instance, if a manager expects that employees will decide on some aspects of a project by themselves and the employees wait until specific instructions are provided, then the project will arrive at stagnation.

The second dimension is related to individuals’ preferences between rules and relationships. The notions of universalism and particularism were first proposed by Fons Trompenaars (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). Universalists believe that decisions should be guided by rules that are the same for every situation (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). Particularists, on the other hand, make choices depending on circumstances and on relationships (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). It was discovered that countries are generally inclined toward one of these types. For instance, cultures, where universalism dominates, include the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). Countries of the former Soviet Union, South Korea, China, and Indonesia are some of the examples where particularistic views prevail (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). Because multicultural teams are comprised of both universalists and particularists, it is critical to be aware of these differences. Because particularists are driven by relationships, incompatible attitudes on behalf of the universalists may offend them.

The business literature distinguishes between monochronic and polychronic time cultures. Monochronic individuals are the ones that tackle one task at a time (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). They believe that concentrating on a single job is the best way for adequate time management and its effective use. In contrast, polychronic people tend to do several tasks at once (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). There is a strong connection between universalism and monochronic culture and between particularism and polychronic culture (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). It has been found that most of the Northern European and North American countries are inclined toward a monochronic culture, whereas most Arabic and Asian countries have a polychronic culture (‘The multicultural workplace’, 2020). Because only one task can be executed at a time, employees from a monochronic culture need to schedule all jobs and conform to them. Sometimes, this planning becomes too rigorous, which significantly reduces flexibility. When a team consists of employees from both cultures, then there is inevitably going to be a challenge deciding on the schedule and workflow of a project. Therefore, it is important to recognize the existence of different cultures to be able to handle such situations.

Communication is one of the most significant aspects of doing business. Therefore, within a team, communication should be clear and effective in order for the team to meet its objectives. However, varying cultures approach communications differently; while the Western world values direct and precise contact, most Asian and Arab cultures prefer indirect and sometimes ambiguous messages (Witt and Stahl, 2016). Criticism is also approached differently – Eastern nations prefer disguised feedback, whereas the North Americans and North Europeans value transparency (Ely and Thomas, 2001). Therefore, being culturally sensitive is significant within a multicultural team. These implications may have consequences that are too costly to mitigate. Sometimes, cultural differences may lead to discrepancies at work and problems with motivation and performance.

Potential Work Discrepancies

Because of the significance of the mentioned four domains, any issues that occur within these contexts may significantly deteriorate the performance of a team or an organization as a whole. There are documented cases when cultural conflicts led to project failures or increased financial expenditure. Brett, Behfar, and Kern (2006) have interviewed numerous managers and discovered that misunderstandings that arise from cultural differences often lead to project failures without adequate management.

The researchers have summarised the sources of conflict and divided them into four groups. The first reason is the choice between direct and indirect communication. When a team consists of Americans and Koreans, for instance, explicit comments about a problem within a project made by Americans may offend Koreans. Accents of non-native English speakers are also a hindrance – employees may be perceived as lacking expertise (Brett, Behfar, and Kern, 2006). However, such thinking is fallacious because language skills are not directly related to domain skills. Sometimes, as stated by Brett, Behfar, and Kern (2006), a person lacking fluency in English is the one with the most experience and expertise. The last two groups of conflict initiators are related to the power distance. As stated before, most Asian and Arab cultures are inclined toward a strict hierarchy. They believe that significant decisions should be made by managers. In a multicultural software development team, for instance, this may pose a hindrance to the fast delivery of features because individuals from high-power distance cultures may resist making decisions. It is not possible to solve such communication issues without understanding different cultures. Without cultural awareness, it may not be possible even to identify the source of a problem.

Team performance is bound to the individual performance of each of the members. It has been believed that increasing employee motivation by various incentives and rewards has a positive impact on productivity (Sanchez-Runde and Steers, 2003). The equity theory has been predominantly used to explain how individuals get motivated and the potential consequences of an employee being treated unfairly according to his or her perception (Sanchez-Runde and Steers, 2003). In multicultural teams, however, the issue is much more complicated because the view of equity differs between varying cultures. Also, a reward system that is suitable for employees from Western cultures may not be ideal for workers from Asian countries (Sanchez-Runde and Steers, 2003). For instance, some cultures seek status, while others emphasize the significance of interpersonal relationships (Rockstuhl et al., 2012). Therefore, the task of motivating and reinforcing employees becomes more complex in multicultural teams, and in turn, undermotivated individuals may degrade the overall performance of the organization. Managers that are incompetent in cultural issues will not be able to comprehend what caused underperformance. In turn, compensation and reward programs may become ineffective, causing significant unfavorable consequences for the company.

Ways of Solving the Issues

When cultural conflicts arise, it is fallacious to reason that a manager is responsible for direct intervention and problem resolution. That is because there is no universal solution to such issues. However, Brett, Behfar, and Kern (2006) propose a set of four strategies that can be used to solve disputes that take place within multicultural environments. The authors also suggest a framework according to which a manager may decide on what strategy to apply in a particular situation (Brett, Behfar, and Kern, 2006). These four methods are adaptation, structural intervention, managerial intervention, and exit. For these methods to be used efficiently, however, a manager or an employee should understand the root causes of conflicts.

Adaptation is acknowledging that cultural differences and issues caused by them exist and trying to solve these conflicts openly. As the name suggests, cultures need to adapt to each other and find a balanced position. Sometimes, such combinations form efficient and effective teams that are not located at the extremes of, for instance, universalism and particularism but place themselves somewhere in the middle (Brett, Behfar, and Kern, 2006). This approach to solving cultural conflicts is similar to a mechanism of checks and balances. While one culture claims that rigid planning is needed, leading to sufficient time losses, other cultures may discuss it openly until a consensus is reached. This strategy is the first method that should be applied after recognizing that cultural misunderstandings caused the conflict.

The second strategy proposed by Brett, Behfar, and Kern (2006) is the structural intervention, which is the direct involvement of a manager in resolving a conflict. This method is suitable in situations when there is a known source of conflict, such as a group of individuals within a team that judges others’ performance by stereotypes. A manager may reorganize his or her team into subgroups that consist of individuals from various cultures in order to elicit definitive information about the reasons behind cultural frictions. The authors, however, state that structural intervention involves certain risks. For instance, when a team is subdivided and is given portions of a bigger task, the results of each group should be assembled together at the end (Brett, Behfar, and Kern, 2006). Therefore, the presence of an individual that communicates with all subgroups in order to produce the final result is necessary. This necessitates the presence of a competent manager that understands what cultural sensitivity is.

Managerial intervention is the third strategy suggested by the authors. This method is suitable when there is a conflict between two teams of different cultures (Brett, Behfar, and Kern, 2006). For instance, when an American team has misunderstandings with a team from China, instead of directly contacting the Chinese managers and breaking the rules of hierarchy, the members of the American team may use the help of the higher-level management (Brett, Behfar and Kern, 2006). The director, in turn, will contact an individual of similar rank from the Chinese side to discuss the issue (Brett, Behfar, and Kern, 2006). By conforming to hierarchical rules and asking a higher-level manager to resolve the conflict, it is possible to avoid any additional problems that may arise. However, constantly relying on managerial intervention has significant drawbacks. For instance, a team may become significantly dependent on the manager. Therefore, it is more favorable to promote cultural awareness in the company as a whole. When all employees are sensitive to differing cultures, problems may not arise at all.

Though not recommended explicitly by Brett, Behfar, and Kern (2006), an exit is another way of solving cultural issues. It should be noted that it only addresses personal problems that arise from conflicts. For instance, if constant disputes with other team members are not being resolved and the individual loses patience, he or she may exit the project. Brett, Behfar, and Kern (2006) share a story where an employee decided to leave the company because of issues caused by cultural misunderstandings. If the original source of the problem is the individual who decided to leave the team, the issue may disappear when the individual exits. However, in most cases, an exit does not solve team conflicts. Other approaches should be considered when addressing the reason behind misunderstandings.


Cultural awareness and sensitivity are still relevant in the context of business and team management because conflicts between varying cultures may lead to significant discrepancies and performance degradations. Managing multicultural teams is challenging because of the many implications of cross-cultural groups, such as differing views on time management, hierarchy, and communication. These differences often lead to conflicts, delays in the schedule, and potentially to a complete failure of a project. The motivation and performance of individual workers may also be impacted because of varying perceptions of what equity is and how employees should be rewarded. It is challenging to resolve multicultural conflicts, and no method exists that works ubiquitously effectively. Some interventions may do harm and managers should consider carefully before intervening. Among the potential strategies that managers may use are structural and managerial intervention, while individual workers may choose to adapt or leave. Multicultural teams may bring many benefits, and the awareness of cultural differences should not be neglected.

Reference List

‘The multicultural workplace’ (2020) [PowerPoint presentation]. Organizational Behaviour and Leadership.

Brett, J., Behfar, K. and Kern, M. (2006) ‘Managing multicultural teams’, Harvard Business Review: Cross-Cultural Management. Web.

Cole, M.S., Carter, M.Z. and Zhang, Z. (2013) ‘Leader–team congruence in power distance values and team effectiveness: the mediating role of procedural justice climate’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(6), pp. 962-973.

Ely, R.J. and Thomas, D.A. (2001) ‘Cultural diversity at work: the effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(2), pp. 229-273.

Rockstuhl, T., Dulebohn, J.H., Ang, S. and Shore, L.M. (2012) ‘Leader–member exchange (LMX) and culture: a meta-analysis of correlates of LMX across 23 countries’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), pp. 1097-1130.

Sanchez-Runde, C.J. and Steers, R.M. (2003) ‘Cultural influences on work motivation and performance’, in L.W. Porter, G.A. Bigley and R.M. Steers (Eds.) Motivation and work behavior. Irvine: McGraw-Hill, pp. 357-374.

Witt, M.A. and Stahl, G.K. (2016) ‘Foundations of responsible leadership: Asian versus Western executive responsibility orientations toward key stakeholders’, Journal of Business Ethics, 136(3), pp. 623-638.

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