Cultural and Personality Differences in the Workplace

Cultural and personality differences exist in the workplace. These differences can result in a variety of different types of tension in the workplace as well. In order to eliminate the tension and encourage people to work as a team in the workplace, it is important to have a good understanding of the issues at hand, what causes them to arise, and how to address differences so they do not cause adverse effects.
Social Diversity

The workplace is a slice of society as a whole. As a microcosm, it reflects the concerns, issues, and tensions faced throughout workplaces all over the country. Because of this, diversity in the workplace can elicit deep responses from individuals. Many of these responses stem from the values that people were taught as children or raised with throughout their lives.

Multicultural Society

To understand the different social issues that we face in the workplace, it is important to understand that America is a multicultural society. Unfortunately, the idea of multiculturalism evokes negativity from many individuals. However, it is important to remember that when this country was first settled, we welcomed individuals from all cultures and races. You simply cannot look at the United States as one culture; it truly is a combination of a variety of cultures from around the world.

People from all around the world settled in North America. Although there was a certain amount of unrest among the various cultures, America represented a world where you could succeed in life. To many, it was simply the chance they needed to live a better life and to live without persecution.

The Melting Pot Metaphor

The metaphor of the "melting pot" is not an ideal representation of the various cultures that exist in the United States today. In a melting pot, you place a variety of different metals that melt together over a hot fire to form a product that is stronger than any one metal on its own. However, the melting pot metaphor also suggests that the various cultures in the United States should meld together as one. However, this is not necessarily the case. Although there are those individuals who represent multiple cultures in their families, individuals in the United States have distinct cultures and cultural beliefs that they believe in, and those remain separated from other cultures.

In reality, the United States is not necessarily a combination of different cultures, but a variety of cultures attempting to exist together. Although many people from a variety of different cultures have intermarried and may have drifted from their ancestor's cultural beliefs and practices, other individuals hold to those beliefs and practices.

Americans who have held onto their ancestral cultures have done so for a variety of reasons. One reason is that mainstream America has not allowed them to meld into the mainstream American culture, and they have been excluded because of their skin color or different beliefs and customs. On the other hand, many have not been forced to maintain their cultures, but do so by choice. They have pride in their heritage and the countries that they have come from. They hold onto their native languages, customs, dress, and even food. Many Americans do not want to blend into one culture but want to be a part of a society that has several cultures that are able to coexist in that capacity. Therefore, perhaps a melting pot is not the best metaphor for our society.

The Stew Metaphor

Perhaps a better metaphor for our society is a pot of stew rather than a melting pot of metals. In a stew you are able to combine a variety of textures, but they are all connected by the broth in which they exist. Each ingredient is able to maintain its distinct flavor and texture, but at the same time become influenced by the broth in which it floats. Some ingredients are even softened by the broth, while still maintaining their distinct characteristics.

The broth in which each ingredient exists includes our country's laws, geography, media, and other elements. As a whole, the stew is able to exist with many distinct flavors and textures but depends on the broth to hold the society together so that it functions as a whole.

If the broth is the nation and the government, then the ingredients are the variety of cultures that you find in that nation. Just as a stew is capable of changing, so is a nation. The last 30 years of change in our culture have added to the diversity of this stew pot. The same is true in the workplace. In the past 30 years, a variety of changes in the ingredients have taken place. For instance, gays and lesbians are moving into mainstream society rather than hiding their true beliefs. They are moving from their closets and into upper management. The same is true with people of different races and women.

Attitudes about age have changed as well. More and more people are living to be older and striving to maintain their health, while younger people also are impacting the organizations that make up our society as well. While the old tend to hold onto traditional ideals, younger individuals in the workplace are moving in and challenging the status quo.

People with disabilities once were considered unable to exist in a workplace and maintain productive lives. For so many decades, these individuals were forced to stay in hospitals or not allowed to hold jobs. However, this has all changed. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 now protects their rights and their place in society, which means more and more disabled individuals are moving into the workplace.

American is no longer a blend of cultures, but is a stew of cultures where we are all held together by a common denominator but able to maintain our unique differences.

Eliminating the "isms": Addressing Cultural Differences in the Workplace

As a stew full of different ingredients, it is easy to assume that they should all get along together in that pot. However, when people get together, they do not always get along. This has been evident throughout our history and especially through the variety of "isms" that have been used to describe hate and anger brought upon by these cultures not existing peacefully.

These "isms" are the worst result that you can get when people do not coexist peacefully. In fact, it can be likened to adding too much garlic or pepper to the stew: It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Racism is perhaps the most problematic of these phrases. Simply put, racism is hatred without bounds. It affects all types of organizations and society as a whole. Racism is when people hate others simply because of the color of their skin. Those infected by this hatred cannot work well in a diverse workplace, as they are overcome by this "ism." Most organizations have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racism and, if an employee is proven to be a racist, it is grounds for termination. However, those who are racists do not necessarily have to blatantly advertise their belief, only make life difficult for others around them in the workplace.

Sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and ageism are also other "isms." Although homophobia and xenophobia are not necessarily "isms," they are based on hatred. These forms of hate also are capable of tearing apart an organization, and they cannot be allowed to go unchecked in the workplace. Too often, these types of hate only subtly pop up in the workplace and go unrecognized. This means that an organization's leader must learn to watch out for these "isms" and have a plan for combatting them.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Diversity Training course?

Many of the "isms" are the result of a lack of understanding by the various cultures in society. Many individuals confuse culture with race, and this creates additional turmoil due to this lack of understanding. Culture refers to the system of beliefs, customs, values, and institutions that allow people within that culture to have a common identity. Cultural issues are all too common in organizations. These issues arise simply because of misunderstandings that stem from a lack of communication or knowledge regarding that particular culture.

Racial and cultural issues are confused all too often because they often are related to each other. Racial and cultural issues tend to exist because a particular race has a culture that a non-member does not understand. These misunderstandings often are associated with whites not understanding African Americans but can include even cultures such as Native Americans. It is important to understand that all cultural groups have their own set of beliefs.

For instance, some Native Americans are raised in a tribal group that does not permit compliments in front of peers in public. Therefore, a Native American individual may exhibit displeasure at a public compliment. The Native American may not want to associate with that person giving the compliment, but only because it is against his or her beliefs. However, if the person extending the compliment does not understand that, that person may take offense.

Immigration, including legal and illegal aliens, and similar areas of politics also may create issues within organizations. These issues often involve individuals in the workplace that do not speak English or have poor English skills. This often leads to issues of cultural misunderstandings, as well as issues of loyalty in the workplace. This lack of misunderstanding often leads to xenophobia, a fear of that which is foreign or unknown.

Personality Differences in the Workplace

Another source of conflict in the workplace is varying personalities. Everybody has a different personality, but how others react to your personality can cause conflict, either verbally and physically or emotionally.

In some instances, a person's personality is simply not compatible with the organization as a whole. In other instances, a person's personality simply conflicts with that of team members. The fact that we all possess unique personalities is something that adds to the diversity of the organization. Many managers choose to hire a particular individual, not solely on qualifications as an employee, but because she or he has a personality that is upbeat and motivating. They integrate these individuals into the workplace to change up the work environment. It is also human nature to seek out people who have a different personality from ours. This is because these personality differences can often bring out the best in us, but when your personality conflicts with someone else's, it can easily bring out the worst and create tension.

You can examine a variety of human relationships and view how people seek out personalities different from their own. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in married individuals. One person in the relationship can be very laidback, while the other person is highly emotional. Additionally, it is common for people to have "holes in their personalities." For instance, many people have structured personalities that attract people who go with the flow. Logical and practical individuals tend to be attracted to emotional partners, while extroverts are drawn to the silent types. This is because we tend to be more comfortable when our partners are at ease in situations we find difficult.

This occurs in the workplace as well. We try to take advantage of the personalities that are different from ours. We recognize that in an effective organization, people who are detailed work well with those who have a grasp of the big picture, and creative individuals work well with analytical ones. Therefore, organizations diversify by hiring a broad spectrum of personalities.

Addressing Personality Differences in the Workplace

Unfortunately, the diversification of personalities also can lead to intolerance in the workplace. This is typically the case when one person's personality and approach is much too different from another's. People who have a structured personality are then thought of as "inflexible" and those who are empathetic are labeled as having "bleeding hearts."

In this situation, it does not matter what race or culture you are from, differences in personality begin to cause conflict and the labeling of others. This labeling leads to perceptions that people are behaving differently because they harbor unfriendly intentions toward us and we fear that they are blocking us in our careers.

When we are affected by this type of thinking, our attitude toward our jobs and coworkers begins to change. We attribute everything that our coworkers do to their trying to move ahead of others on the promotion ladder, or we perceive those who are quiet as being secretive and snobbish. If someone is emotional, then that person begins to believe that those analytical personalities do not care about the well-being of others. In other words, we perceive everything those individuals are doing as unfriendly intentions rather than realizing that the person is just different from us.

In the workplace, differing personalities cause a substantial amount of conflict. Because you cannot alter a person's personality, you must educate yourself and realize that these individuals are not "out to get you," but they are simply being who they are. By understanding the various personalities that can present themselves in the workplace, you can create a more enjoyable work environment that is free of tension and fosters the cooperation of those with different personalities.

Improving Relationships in the Workplace

The following scenarios are examples of events and situations that have taken place in various organizations. These scenarios highlight the issues listed above. By understanding these scenarios and relating to them, you are able to have a greater understanding for the differences between people and how to build better workplace relationships with your coworkers.

Cheuh-Kuang has been working in the same office for several years now and, although he is well-liked among his coworkers and they find him to be very friendly, they often offend him. Jokes about his name or questions about where they can find the best Chinese restaurants may be innocent, but they deeply offend him.

Don had always been a person that got along well with his coworkers at his previous job, and he expected the same to be true when he moved to be a department manager for a large charity in his community. He is open about being a homosexual and has talked to his coworkers about his partner. However, his new coworkers have not responded well to his sexuality and his mentions of his partner. They snicker about him being gay when he is around and make him the center of their jokes. They also avoid working with him on projects. Don now feels isolated in his new position.

Sandy is an active Christian and participates in her church's functions regularly. However, it distresses her when she hears her coworkers cursing and joking about their sexuality. When Christmas approaches, she enjoys decorating her office with Christian symbols but is afraid the company's emphasis on multiculturalism will mean she should no longer wish her coworkers a merry Christmas. Because she is a devout Christian, this disturbs her and it does not seem fair.

Randi works as a chemist with a team full of men. The men on her team find her hard to relate to, and they find her not to be a very warm and feminine person. They also believe she does not have a sense of humor. To her face, they call her nicknames, such as "The Iceberg," and refer to her as "the bitch."

Gene is an older male in his 60s, and he refers to the women he manages as "honey," "sweetheart," and "dear." These were common ways to address women when he was young and in the same position, but the women he works with today take offense to these comments. They complain, but he shrugs them off and says, "I'm just from an older generation."

All of these scenarios show how people are different, have different beliefs, and interact with people differently. By putting yourself in the shoes of these individuals, you can see how you may offend others or others may offend you. The ability to recognize the offenses you may cause others allows you to change how you relate to your coworkers and allows you to build better relationships as well.