The key to success in the global workplace is being culturally fluent

No need to blend in anymore.
No need to blend in anymore.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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It’s time for a paradigm shift in our understanding of culture. At a time when so many businesspeople live and work in multiple cultures, categorizing people based on their passport or birthplace just doesn’t ring true.

So says Michael Morris, a professor at Columbia Business School and the lead author of a study that suggests that traditional ways of approaching office culture are out of date and the modern workplace will be rooted in a new form—which Morris and his team call “polyculturalism.”

Traditionally, offices have taken their cues on culture from one of two paradigms, the researchers say. In the 1960s, there was universalism, a belief in colorblindness and uniformity in the treatment of all people, which counteracted racism but forced employees to suppress any individual cultural characteristics. Later in the 20th century, as the world became more globalized, this evolved to multiculturalism, which sought to acknowledge other cultures, preserve them, and not demand that people subordinate themselves to one type of code or behaviour.

More recently, the Columbia researchers argue that workplaces are fostering inter-cultural interactions–the precursor to polyculturalism, which rather than stop at the mere acknowledgement of the diversity of staff, seeks to stimulate intercultural dialogue between people.

“Cultures are linked to other cultures via individuals, and individuals’ responses to foreign ideas and the social movements that often ensue from those responses can spark cultural change,” the study’s authors say. “Cultures often change by borrowing or adapting useful ideas or practices from a foreign culture, but they sometimes change in the opposite way, in reactionary contrast to foreign ideas. Polyculturalist research identifies factors that predict when each of these dynamics is most likely.”

With many companies operating in a more global world than ever before, the idea of encouraging cultural fluency is taking hold. More people want to work abroad and workers are constantly comparing not just companies but countries to see what’s best for them.

This is perhaps why companies are trying new things—from Chipotle’s revamp of its internal systems so that “each person at Chipotle will be rewarded based on their ability to make the people around them better” to Zappos’ embrace of holacracy. And more companies than ever are looking hard at their diversity (or lack thereof) and what it means for companies and the world in general.

Morris counsels that polyculturalism may not always be the best approach for every business—just that it should be considered. ”These three basic cultural policies all have important roles in diverse organizations and societies,” he says. “Corporations may find that some aspects of human resources are best handled through colorblindness, others through multiculturalism, and still others through interculturalism.”