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Is There Inequality in the Workplace Because of a Lack of Understanding About Culture?

By Mui Li, Muika Leadership

June 12 2012 - In my experience, there is often a lot of confusion and massive assumptions about what culture means. Some organisations talk about working towards being one culture, because they want to achieve consistency in customer care, leadership and management styles, and ensure all employees demonstrate behaviours, which are professional, considered, and do not wittingly or unwittingly discriminate.

In other words, they want to ensure that they comply with the equality legislation and their duty of care to promote good relations between all groups, prevent all forms of unlawful discrimination and provide equal opportunities. This does indeed require a shared understanding of what culture means.

The term culture refers to the system of assumptions, beliefs and perspectives, many of them unconscious and taken for granted, which members of a group have in common. There can often be an overlap with religion; more so, should one religion be predominant in that area/country. This can sometimes lead to confusion, where people claim that they are following some belief, because it is part of their religion, whereas it is in fact something which has grown up traditionally from their culture, and may not be practised by people of the same religion and beliefs but who have a different culture.

Most, if not all cultures are in a state of change and development, and are affected and influenced by other cultures.

For example, there are statements which are culturally conditioned and which individuals / groups believe to be true, such as:

  1. You should always be on time
  2. If someone upsets you, tell them
  3. Women should not wear make-up
  4. You should always refuse an offer the first time
  5. You should choose your own partner
  6. Polite men will allow women to walk through doorways first
  7. Individuals have the right to make decisions about their future, regardless of what their family wants
  8. A mother should not seek paid employment until the children are in full time education
  9. Having a lighter skin tone is preferable
  10. Men don't/shouldn't express their feelings
  11. Speaking loudly in public isn't polite

"All culture and all communication depend upon the interplay between expectation and observation, the waves of fulfilment, disappointment, right guesses and wrong moves that make up our daily life." E.H. Gombrich (1960) Art and Illusion.

Eleven Point Guide to Successful Cross-Cultural Communication
  1. Acknowledge that every human being has emotions, needs and feelings that are as sensitive as your own
  2. People are different, and will have their own perceptions of what they believe is normal, acceptable or unacceptable
  3. Understand and appreciate your own culture
  4. Be cautious about how you interpret other people's body language, in terms of your own values and beliefs, and personal and professional experiences
  5. Learn to cope with uncertainty. Avoid making assumptions about people who are different
  6. Looking different, not expressing the same preferences, does not mean being odd or to be avoided - there may be times when people need to agree to differ
  7. Don't make the assumption that what you are saying is received in the way you wished for. It is important to check it out, in a positive and supportive manner
  8. Take care not to use jargon or phrases, which are understood only by certain people and, therefore, can be misunderstood
  9. Be aware of your own body language and facial expressions, and how these might be interpreted
  10. You may need to adapt your behaviour, in response to the feedback you are getting
  11. 11. Ask questions for clarification, in order to prevent misunderstandings

At Muika Leadership, we have developed The Cultural Competence Inventory, which is an online 360 degree feedback tool, for assessing leadership, diversity and inclusion within a company, which, while providing overall scores, is completely confidential for individual employee participants. There is currently no other feedback tool that deals specifically with cultural diversity and inclusion.

Within Muika Leadership's new Cultural Competence Inventory, there are 12 assessment categories and 84 questions. The categories include: recognising and valuing difference; leading the culture; communication; personal effectiveness; strategy into action.

Confidential feedback is given to each individual, and key themes that emerge from the process across the business are used to design training interventions.

Business Benefits of Using the Cultural Competence Inventory
  • Enables the business to review leadership 'bench strength', and how leadership talent is fit for the future
  • Provides teams with invaluable insight into intra-team dynamics
  • Helps international teams to understand key cultural differences, via an understanding of the dimensions of culture and own heritage
  • Companies can use the results, to focus investment in key areas of low scoring, saving business time and money

About the author

Mui Li

Mui Li: Mui is considered to be one of the leading experts in the field of diversity, inclusion and equality, and has been involved in consultancy and training for the past 20 years. Her recently published book 'Ever Say Die' has been described as "Political Correctness Gone Sane", written to help the reader better understand the minefield of diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace. It seeks to debunk any myths around this subject matter and is a great easy read! Details at



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