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Working Through Cultural Differences

If you work in a diverse culture, and especially with people located in different countries, cultural differences must be factored into your work. The biggest difficulty I’ve experienced is discovering the differences. As each person is raised in his or her culture, expected and acceptable behaviors are learned. Differences in customs vary widely. Determining acceptable behavior is a challenge, since it’s not always clear what another person considers to be appropriate. It can be very easy to offend someone—without knowing you’ve done so. This is an unfortunate situation, because you can’t begin to apologize for behavior you didn’t realize was offensive. Following are some examples that have revealed cultural differences for me.

Once a project I was managing was going through a testing crunch time, and an employee seemed tired and irritable. After a few days, she told me that she was struggling with fasting during the day as a temporary offering in observance to her religion. She briefly explained her Islamic beliefs and told me about the period of Ramadan. To better accommodate her needs, we temporarily rescheduled her work hours. From that one particular situation, I’ve made a point of being aware of the period of Ramadan and in general trying to be aware of other people’s religions. I also now talk directly with each person I hire, asking him or her to tell me when personal or religious needs exist.

In another experience, I was working with a woman from a culture where women are raised not to question people in authority—particularly a man in a position of authority. Unfortunately, as part of her role as a tester, this employee needed to defend defects to several men in the development team. She had difficulty with these conversations. Since we were physically located in different cities, it took a few failed communications for me to dig in to figure out the issue. Why would a skilled tester not be able to answer and stand her ground on reported defects? When questioned gently, she was able to articulate her challenge, and we worked out ways to ease the situation for her. As the number of conversations she worked through increased, the frequency with which she needed my help to pave the way decreased. So the cultural difference that was a barrier was reduced.

Another employee of mine wouldn’t offer suggestions or criticisms of our test automation. Her skills in automation were excellent, the best in the group, but she wouldn’t openly critique any work that was being developed. Eventually I noticed that she wouldn’t ask questions, but instead would develop whatever I assigned with no modifications. I realized that, if I assigned test automation tasks to this employee without instructing her to consider or seek better designs where possible, that the task would be executed directly without being questioned—in fact, her cultural training was not to question authority, but to execute as asked. After this, I set ground rules with all the automation testers (as well as with manual testers) that all designs could be questioned, and that the better strategy should prevail regardless of whose idea it was. I encouraged this employee and everyone else on the team to look for better design ideas and to speak up.

If you’ll be working in a specific country, research the cultural habits and etiquette of that place. Even if you won’t be traveling personally to that location, but instead will work with the people of that country over the phone and through email, research the cultural differences. The more you read and learn, the more you open yourself to understanding.

A general tip I want to share is to be careful using humor with people you manage, or with coworkers. Humor can easily be misunderstood. I’ve learned to refrain from making humorous statements in nearly all business communications. No humor is worth alienating another person.

Each situation has presented new challenges for me as a manager and as a coworker. Working with people from different cultures has been fascinating. Trying to learn about other cultures has been a gradual change as my work and the people with whom I work spread to other countries. Become aware of other cultures and honor the differences you find in other people.

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