Date posted: 13/04/2017 2 min read

Culture shock holds back Asian employees

How can businesses close the cultural gap between their Australian and Asian employees?

In brief

  • Immigrants from east Asia are finding cultural differences in the workplace challenging.
  • Employers need to improve communication with their Asian employees to improve performance.
  • Empowering employees from different cultures will increase productivity.

By Betina Szkudlarek.

Cultural misunderstandings are holding back east Asian employees from reaching their full potential in the workplace. This is a problem for employers because employees from east Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and China now make up a sizeable portion of the workforce.

In the Australian workforce, 17% of employees identify as Asian. Immigrants from east Asia are the fastest growing group among immigrant populations in Australia. Yet, only one in five Asian workers are very satisfied with their career prospects or believe that their company highly values diversity. 

The cultural gap linked to differences in communication, attitudes and behaviours between east Asian and the Anglo-Celtic employees results not only in misunderstandings, but also a loss in performance for companies. This means being aware of the conventions of other cultures is an important part of operating a business in Australia.  

Too often Australian organisations apply the highly simplistic, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” approach, encouraging Asian employees to “Westernise”if they want to succeed. As part of my ongoing research with Australian organisations, I identified four areas of misunderstanding where cultural differences create an obstacle to effective performance of diverse teams.  

Do east Asian employees have an opinion?

East Asian employees are often accused of being reluctant to speak up in group meetings. The pace of conversation and turn taking is highly culture-contingent. Many cultures, such as those of Australia or Italy, value the dynamic and fast-paced rhythm at which a conversation takes place. One person might still be finishing a thought when another, anticipating the end of the sentence, starts talking.  

Such dynamic exchange requires implicit knowledge as to when to enter a conversation without disrupting it. This knowledge is acquired in very early childhood and is extremely difficult to decode for a foreigner.  

For example, in many east Asian cultures a person waits for someone to finish their thought – and sometimes even takes a while to think it over – and only then responds. This is particularly important, when speaking in a professional context or operating in a foreign language. 

Such slower pace of conversation demonstrates respect for the other person but also allows time for reflection and formulation of the most appropriate response. Silence enables people to think things over as opposed to thinking out loud.  

An overly fast-paced speed of conversation prevents valuable contributors from joining in, and could be also overwhelming in a monocultural context. For example, research suggests that introverts might prefer other types of idea-generation approaches over omnipresent, high-intensity brainstorming sessions. 

Do east Asian employees take the initiative?

Leadership is a highly culture-contingent process. This means that what is perceived as a highly valued leadership behaviour in one context, might be very different in another context.  

In Anglo-Saxon cultures such as Australia, a leader is often seen as a person who happens to be in a superior position to oversee and supervise a process, but employees are expected to take their own initiative. In many East Asian cultures, leaders are seen as those who give direction and the employees are those who execute.  

Skillful execution of an assigned task is seen as a sign of regard for the leader, whose experience and knowledge is seen as superior to those of the followers. Areas of self-initiative are clearly defined as to minimise errors and mistakes.  

As such, lack of self-initiative is often a sign of respect paid to the supervisor and not a sign of incompetence as interpreted by some. Predefined areas and scope of self-initiative could empower employees in decision-making and prevent miscommunication at the workplace.  

East Asian employees lack self-confidence

Why do your east Asian colleagues never brag about their superior skills? There is a huge difference between cultures in how individuals establish their sense of worth and self-esteem. 

People in individualistic societies, such as Australia, establish self-worth focusing on intrinsic attributes such as personality, ability or intelligence. Early on, children learn not to take personally other people’s negative feedback and instead focus on positive sense of self.  

Cultures such as those of China and Japan see their cultural identity as embedded in interpersonal relationships. The group is considered more important than any one individual and members of the group are encouraged to act in the interests of the group. In these societies, personal attributes are less important in establishing self-worth.  

At the end of the day, people are always a part of various communities, workplace being one of them, and it is within these communities that their self-worth is assessed and put under continuous scrutiny. It simply translates into modesty and a principle that others should speak highly about a person and their achievements. Speaking highly about yourself could be seen as arrogant.  

East Asian employees can’t take or give feedback

The majority of individualistic societies (such as Anglo-Celtic Australia or the Netherlands) implicitly assume a clear difference between someone’s idea and who they are. This means that the criticism of an idea won’t necessarily affect a person’s self esteem.  

However, the boundary between the idea and the person is not that clear in collectivist societies of east Asia. After all, the person who shares an idea must have assessed it as good enough to share it. In this regard feedback is never impersonal and people who come up with bad ideas are judged personally for it, as much as writers’ quality is judged based on the quality of his novels.  

Moreover, the majority of east Asian cultures rely on high-context communication. This means there are things that don’t have to be spoken because there is a sufficient amount of contextual knowledge and clues. So the listener knows the message without being told. For example, you would not need to tell someone their idea is bad. Lack of enthusiasm or silence is often sufficient feedback for the receiver.  

What you need to do

These four areas of misunderstanding are interconnected, making communication more difficult. Lack of understanding of cultural differences can come with a huge price tag for an organisation. In fact, one in three Asian employees is likely to leave their current employer in the next year. 

What organisations need are culturally sensitive workplaces, with globally minded leaders who understand and appropriately support their diverse employees.  

For example, one senior Westpac employee realised that the “Westernisation” of its Asian workforce was not the answer to managing cultural diversity. Instead, he offered cultural sensitivity training to a management unit, aimed at opening up a conversation about cultural assumptions and biases and to collaboratively work on common workplace practices.  

While the Anglo-Celtic members of this management unit valued the training for the insights it gave them into Australia’s multicultural workforce and into themselves, the training was also highly appreciated by the Asian managers whose perspective was acknowledged and validated.  

These sorts of intra-organisational dialogues empower both groups to more openly discuss their differences and work together on creative solutions.  

Betina Szkudlarek is a senior lecturer in cross-cultural management at the University of Sydney.  This article was first published by The Conversation.