I have had the good fortune of living in Madrid for a year ending shortly in July. Traveling between Spain and the US for work, I have often noticed how culture shapes our assumptions about what is important and how we expect people to behave. Once again, I have come to appreciate the parallels between negotiating life in another culture and the everyday challenges of negotiating differences in the workplace. Here are two basic practices essential to both.
Check your assumptions.
Here in Spain, I sometimes bump into basic assumptions I do not even realize I hold. Amusing case in point: I recently ate a restaurant where there is no printed menu and the waiters decide what dishes diners are offered. This experience turned an assumption I had on its head. How often do you see co-workers act in a specific situation as if there is a shared principle or belief underpinning their interpretations of events when there is not? In one extreme case I consulted to, a group of key leaders were operating with assumptions about roles and authority that were opposed to those of much of the board and staff. Only after a period of chronic conflict was the organization as a whole able to drill down to examine these assumptions, forge a set of shared principles and redefine a structure and decision-making processes that allowed the organization to move forward.
As a perpetual student of Spanish language, I am fascinated about what language reveals about culture and socially expected – and accepted – norms. For example, I recently traveled with a big group of Spanish friends and watched how they negotiated tensions that emerged – how they used language and humor to protect treasured relationships in the stress of travel. How groups handle conflict is very much a function of culture but you only can understand this if you know what is most valued in the culture and learn to spot the social and linguistic cues. The same applies to learning about working with diverse individuals or in different organizational cultures. How do you learn if you don’t get curious? As a coach and consultant, I regularly observe how people develop complex, interpretations about their co-workers’ intentions or actions without checking them out. But when my clients allow themselves to be curious and ask questions of their colleagues (or bosses or direct reports), they surface essential information and unexplored options for action and positive change.
Deal with differences effectively.
Differences and conflict are part and parcel of life in organizations. Recognizing or anticipating tensions and being able to address them are key skills. Strategies for Change Now has helped many diverse groups deal with differences and integrate multiple perspectives into new agreements for working together. Read more.