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Managing Cultural Differences

Karen likes to spend a half-hour each week privately with each of her
employees to sound out their concerns about the office. David, her
colleague in another work unit, thinks this practice is not only a
waste of time, but also is unwise. “Why take the lid off Pandora’s
box?” he asks.

Guillermo, 32 years old and married with four children, recently
declined a promotion that would have required moving to a city 800
miles away. He explained the he does not want to leave his seven
brothers and sisters and their families who live nearby. Luther, who
works closely with Guillermo, thinks it is a sign of immaturity that
his Hispanic colleague would give up this career opportunity for
reasons that he should have grown out of by this age. Luther’s respect
for Guillermo is reduced one notch.

James, who grew up in an inner city black neighborhood, is being
interviewed for a sales position by Lisa, who is white. Lisa notices
that James does not maintain eye contact while listening to her. She
forms an immediate impression that James lacks assertiveness, and will
probably not be able to handle important clients.

Some facts

The Hudson Institute in its landmark study Workforce 2000: Work and
Workers for the 21st Century (1987), and again in Workforce 2020
(1997), has documented the rapid cultural diversification in American
workplaces. Considering these facts along with the warp-speed
globalization of business, only the most myopic observer could fail to
conclude that the days of white male hegemony in the arena of the
workplace are over. Workers comprise an increasingly rainbow
coalition. The challenge of managing culture-based differences at work
is upon us.

In reply to this challenge, “managing cultural diversity” has become
one of the hottest topics in the training industry. Many presentations
at annual national conferences of the American Society for Training and
Development and other human resource professional associations address
cross-cultural issues. Consulting firms specializing in helping
organizations manage cultural diversity abound.

Facing the challenge

The usual response is to conduct programs designed to raise the
awareness of dominant-culture employees about the values and norms of
other groups:

  • David seems unaware that women tend to focus on relationship issues
    more than do men.
  • Luther seems unaware the Hispanics place a higher value on extended
    family relationships than do most Anglos.
  • Lisa seems unaware that blacks from some subcultures within the
    United States keep eye contact while speaking but not while listening,
    the reverse of the pattern typical of majority-culture whites.

Information like this is typically conveyed in cross-cultural training
programs for dominant-culture employees. The assumption underlying
such “awareness” training is that, after completion of the program,
participants are supposed to not only understand minority cultures
better, but also to change how they behave toward their members.

But is awareness enough? Does awareness training work?

Reasons for concern

Simply informing members of today’s organizations about cultural
differences is an incomplete strategy for helping workmates bridge the
gaps that impair cooperative work. To achieve maximum benefit,
information should be supplemented with behaviorally specific skills or
“tools” that equip trainees with practical techniques for solving
workplace problems that derive from culture-based differences.
Awareness is a first step, but alone is insufficient.

Consider these factors:

1) Resistance to change

Majority-culture trainees may perceive that some personal shortcoming
is being “fixed” by the training. Or, they may feel personally blamed
for creating the inequities often encountered by minority-culture
employees. Or they may perceive, perhaps accurately, that the
political power they enjoy as dominant-culture members is in jeopardy
of being eroded by cross-cultural training. In short, they perceive
that their self-interests are threatened.

When self-interest is threatened, defensiveness is automatically and
instinctively aroused. When we feel defensive, we naturally resist the
threat. Resistance can take many forms. Resistance to cross-cultural
training can take forms such as:

  • Refusing to allow insight into one’s own behavior and motivations to
  • Doubting the validity of the information presented
  • Criticizing the quality of the training program
  • Perceiving the seminar leader, especially one of a minority culture,
    as being self-serving or prejudiced against the dominant culture
  • Simply forgetting or not using the information provided.

In any case, resistance undermines awareness-building efforts to bridge
culture-based differences in the organization. To be sure, cultural
awareness training can be a powerful and enlightening experience for
those who wish to learn. It may not be so for those on whom it is

2) Inherent bias

By conducting training primarily for the “benefit” of dominant-culture
employees, providers of cultural diversity programs place the onus of
responsibility on members of the dominant culture to accommodate to the
needs of other groups. The program design may imply that
minority-culture members already know plenty about the dominant
culture’s norms and values. Or, seminar designers may feel that
members of minority groups do not have as much responsibility for
bridging cultural differences because they are the low-power or
victimized party in the cross-cultural relationship.

This bias may or may not be intended. Even when intended, it may not
be explicitly stated by the seminar leader, hoping instead to bring
change in a Trojan horse. But if dominant-culture employees are
discriminately selected for training, or if training is directed at the
“culture blindness” of the dominant-culture group, it is a message
heard clearly by trainees.

Further, organizations that focus cross-cultural training on the
awareness deficiencies of dominant-culture employees do a disservice to
their minority and female employees: Dominance of the dominant-culture
is perpetuated. How? By being given primary responsibility for
change, members of the dominant-culture remain in the driver’s seat –
they are still in power, they are still the ones with options.
Minorities are kept dependent on the choices of dominant-culture
members – if a white male trainee chooses to do nothing different after
attending the training program, then discrimination continues. So,
awareness-based training may actually backfire. It may maintain the
very power imbalance that it seeks to alter.

3) No tools

In spite of these factors, let’s grant that information about cultural
differences is presented, and that it is learned. Awareness is
achieved. Then what? What is the program participant expected to do
with it? What practical behavioral tools are provided that will enable
him to manage those differences with minority colleagues more
effectively? Too often, trainees are left in the dilemma of the
automobile mechanic who knows how to fix the problem, but lacks the
tools to apply her knowledge.

An alternative

So, what alternatives exist to training that is based only on building
cultural awareness? How can we achieve a more integrated multicultural
workforce in which differences arising from cultural values and
behavioral norms are not only recognized, but are also effectively

While disseminating information about cultural values and norms is a
well-intentioned effort, real organizational change requires that
training include behavioral tools – tools with which both majority- and
minority-culture employees can initiate problem-solving dialogue.
Tools that are equally powerful, no matter whose hands are at the
controls. Tools that make no value judgment, explicitly or implicitly,
about whose side of a difference is more right. Tools that work.

“Do-it-yourself mediation” is such a tool – indeed, it may be regarded
as a core competency of a multicultural workforce. It empowers
individuals of any ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and of either
gender, to initiate dialogue in search of common ground with others.
Our cultural backgrounds are one source of differences, an important
one. But differences that impair workplace productivity arise from
many sources. As individuals, we are more than just our cultural
identity. Mediation is a tool for managing differences regardless of
their origin – cross-cultural or “cross-personal.”

Do-it-yourself mediation

Do-it-yourself mediation is a communication tool that any individual
may use to resolve common conflicts with others. It consists of four
simple steps:

1) Find a time to talk.
A professional mediator first “gets the
parties to the table.” When we mediate our own disputes, without a
neutral third party, we must do the same. Have a brief conversation
with your Other to identify the issue that needs to be discussed and to
establish willingness to join in dialogue about it.

2) Plan the context.
A professional mediator ensures that the time and
place of the meeting will allow extended, uninterrupted dialogue about
the issue. As self-mediators, we must do the same.

3) Talk it out.
A professional mediator keeps the parties engaged in
sustained dialogue about the disputed issue, prevents power-plays that
would impose a one-sided solution, and listens for an attitude shift
that signals that a breakthrough may be possible. As self-mediators,
we do the same.

4) Make a deal.
Once this attitude shift occurs, a professional
mediator helps the disputants design a balanced agreement that
specifies expected behavior that will ensure that the problems of the
past will not be repeated in the future. As self-mediators, we do the

Your own cultural diversity program

Whether you are of African, Asian, European, Hispanic, Native American,
mixed, or any other ethnic origin, and whether you are female or male,
you can empower yourself to implement your own individual “cultural
diversity program.” Use do-it-yourself mediation to engage colleagues
with whom you clash in dialogue to seek mutually acceptable solutions
to workplace problems. If you perceive your other’s behavior as
arising from culture-based stereotypes or prejudices, those perceptions
can be part of your dialogue.

Your differences on disputed workplace issues may reside in
culture-based values and styles of behavior, and it is certainly
worthwhile to learn how your other differs from you in these ways.
But, beneath our culture, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation, and
our gender, we share fundamentally human qualities. Do-it-yourself
mediation draws on our basic human nature to bring us to common ground.


Daniel Dana

Holding the Ph.D. in psychology, Dan Dana served for several years as a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Hartford (Connecticut) Graduate School of Business, and has held faculty appointments at Syracuse University and several other institutions. (A former student once called him "Doctor Conflict," and the moniker stuck!) Dan… MORE >

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