How to enhance cross-cultural understanding in the global work environment

Muhamad Sidiq Fanani shares his perspective on work and business habits in an era of increasing globalisation. How do Australians and Indonesians compare to the rest of the world?

Working for a multinational company is becoming increasingly common in the contemporary business environment, especially in a global era when businesses connect with and are engaged by other businesses across the globe at a swift pace. It has also become common for companies to use business-to-business or even government-to-government relations when expanding overseas. Indeed, the ability to work with people from other cultures is increasingly necessary in our global work environment.

The big question is this: How do we adjust our cultural habits and business strategies to suit the differing cultural and business identities of others? How can we handle these situations effectively? What is the best way to understand and respect the differences between us and use them to build an ideal work environment?

As an Indonesian, I have had some experience working in a Korean company with my friend from Australia, and I would like to share my thoughts on that cross-cultural understanding. I believe a basic understanding of cross-cultural differences in the work environment can be divided into five main aspects, as below:

Equality vs. Hierarchy

The marshmallow challenge being conducted to simulate communication between people of different cultures. Photo: Muhamad Sidiq Fanani

When working, for example, for a company in Korea, employees are exposed to a strong hierarchical culture in which they commonly prefer to take direction from their boss who enforces regulations and provides guidelines.

Australia and Indonesia of course have a slight tendency to resemble this culture, but this is not substantial as we both are influenced greatly by a culture of equality, whereby each employee has flexibility in the roles they play on work and relative freedom to challenge the opinions of their boss.

Directness vs. Indirectness

Australians prefer a direct style, speaking assertively and expressing their views in a frank manner. Indonesians, on the other hand, have a more indirect manner of interaction (in a similar fashion to Korea and Japan), focusing on not only what is said, but on how it is said, in order to be diplomatic and trust in the listener’s ability to accurately interpret their intended meaning.

Individual vs. Group

Image: adapted from Cultural Intelligence (Deborah Mackin, Brooks Peterson)

The USA is a country that exhibits a very individualised culture, whereby people prefer to use their initiative as individuals to make decisions on their own and move in and out of groups as needed.

Australia and Indonesia share some similarities with this individual culture in their respective work environments, but with globalisation and the spread of cultural values from Asia, we have been impacted by the group-oriented culture, when each employee acts cooperatively to establish group goals, maintain loyalty to friends as a high priority, and determine their identity through group affiliation.

Task vs. Relationship

Canada is an example of a country with a task-oriented culture – Canadians generally define others based on what they do by getting to business immediately; they keep most relationships with co-workers impersonal. In some cases, Australia and Indonesia are the same, but generally, we both have relationship-oriented cultures, whereby employees like to consider others based on who they are as people, aiming to establish comfortable relationships and a sense of trust with colleagues before getting down to business.

Risk vs. Caution

Australia is similar to New Zealand on this point in that both nations are influenced by a risk-oriented culture. Employees prefer to make decisions quickly without fear of any risk, and in their focus on the present and future are comfortable in changing their plans at the last minute. On the other hand, Indonesia is similar to many another Asian countries as we have a more caution-based culture in which every employee collects a considerable amount of information before making a decision, follow rules and guidelines, and dislikes changing plans at the last minute.

What’s the point?

Each of the above points is based on general research conducted within several multinational companies. The conclusion is that we should challenge the notion of an impenetrable barrier between our own culture and that of others, and that we should find a solution to synergise and create perfect cross-cultural working conditions.

I believe there are three main ways to enhance our cross-cultural understanding:

  1. Prior to doing business with a foreign company, get to know our own culture first before examining it in light of another country’s culture – this means we build positive dialogue at an early stage with a focus on the similarities that exist between the two parties. You will also learn more about your own habits and culture!
  2. It’s important for us to alter our communication depending on the culture in question, such as speaking slower or faster, or avoid the use of slang in our sentences.
  3. Developing social awareness of other cultures is important too. Every employee who starts a career overseas should develop a comprehensive understanding of the different cultures of their new home so they can begin to practice new cultural habits for the benefit of all.

Looking for work in Australia or Indonesia? Check out AIYA’s Opportunities page, updated regularly!