Career advice

We neglect the role of culture in the workplace

When employees from different cultures work together in a global business, misunderstandings or even conflicts can emerge. And if you fail to recognise the role of culture in your working life, you’ll find it difficult to avoid conflicts – or solve them when they arise.

Around 60% of IDA’s members work in a global context. You may have colleagues from various national backgrounds, a manager working from London or work in a Danish branch of a global organisation where English is the corporate language, and the HR department is situated abroad.  

Marisa Matarese is a change manager for international companies, and her job often revolves around multicultural collaboration. According to her, cultural awareness is worth it’s weight in gold when it comes to securing a well-functioning global workplace.

It doesn’t matter whether you work for a small Danish company with only a few international colleagues – or for a large company with a well-established global mindset and activities and employees across the globe.

I often encounter organisations that ignore the challenges of culture and say that it is just because people and organisations are different and do not recognize the cultural dimension of the challenge," she says.

And that's a shame, says Marisa Matarese.

Because when the cross-cultural collaboration works, you can experience that productivity increases to levels that homogeneous teams do not reach. When diversity is used to one's advantage, and one listens to each other's different suggestions and openly enters into a dialogue about doing things in a different way than usual, it can also provide more creative and innovative solutions.

If, on the other hand, you fail to acknowledge that there are cultural differences between you and your colleagues of other nationalities, it may become more difficult to solve the challenges. Because then you might end up in a personal conflict where you no longer listen to the other or acknowledge the other's suggestions and ideas.

Such challenges can be avoided if you understand where your colleagues are coming from and what the work culture looks like in their country of origin.

“It has nothing to do with ill will or that they are trying to make life difficult for others. It is because of their autopilot that they do things differently. That is one of the big challenges: that we neglect that culture plays a role," says Marisa Matarese.

Detached Danes

Marisa Matarese says that she’s experienced a neglect of the cultural differences at both organisational and individual levels. As an example, she mentions a rapidly growing startup that she worked with. They started out being 10 Danes in an office, and suddenly there were 50 employees from all over the world.

“It very quickly became 'us and them'. The expats entered a company where there was a solid Danish culture. A simple example was the meal times, where the Danes ate at 11.30 and everyone else ate at 1 p.m.,” she says and continues.

"It quickly became the case that "the others" have a different perception of time. "The foreigners come later". And the non-Danes say about the Danes that they are not committed, and if you ask them to do something in the afternoon after 3pm, they can't".

So, according to Marisa Matarese, divisions can quickly be formed based on our behaviour and how it is perceived by others. And this is a poor framework for a good collaboration.

Respect isn’t just respect

Cultural clashes arise easily when a larger organization buys a smaller with a different corporate culture. The larger company will often bring a culture that they will try to impose on the smaller one, and this can also be a challenge when large organizations have very strong values.

"I advocate that, in connection with an acquisition or a merger, you set aside time to interpret the organisation's values ​​in the new context: How are they expressed and what behaviour is behind them?" says Marisa Matarese.

She gives another example of the cultural conflicts that can arise from an organisation's values. In many global companies, the organisational values ​​are already presented in the lobby or as a central element on the website.

"It can be a value like "We Respect Each Other", and that is a nice value to have. The challenge is simply that respect in one culture is not the same as in another," she says and explains.

"For example, I do not show my French manager respect by challenging him in a meeting. But I might get points in a meeting with a Danish manager if we have a discussion about whether his point of view is the right one".

According to Marisa Matarese, the flat hierarchy predominant in Danish companies and society in general can also be difficult for a foreigner to understand. A simple example can be parking lots. You respect the leaders in a classic hierarchical organisation by giving them other privileges. Such as via an allocated parking space.

And then there is the Danish culture, where you might respect employees by giving parking spaces to people based on whether they have a long or early commute. And it can cause some friction if the manager from a more hierarchical culture doesn't get a parking space because she lives right around the corner.

"If you want to merge smaller organisations into a large organisation with fixed values, then you owe it to yourself and the organisation to have a conversation about what the values ​​look like and how they are reflected in the company’s practices," she says.

Our culture is the best!

Another of the biggest challenges, according to Marisa Matarese, is that all cultures have the basic attitude that "our culture is the best".

"The problem is that if everyone gets together and says that mine is the best - I don't want to move, then we won't get anywhere," she says.

Danes are also very good at saying that it is only a matter of time before others find out that the Danish culture with a flat hierarchy and a high degree of trust is the best way to work together.

"The only problem is that it works in Denmark. But you can't just transfer it to Saudi Arabia or Russia or China or the United States. Because it just won't work there," says Marisa Matarese.

Define how you work together

One of the challenges that Marisa Matarese says she encounters on an almost daily basis is regarding meetings. At the moment, she works in a workplace with many Danes and French employees, and both nationalities are often represented at meetings.

"But we don’t talk about the framework for the meetings and the decision-making process," she says and explains that in Danish culture we are used to making a decision by sitting down and discussing what the best solution is. The French come in and often bring a decision with them which is dictated "from above".

"Then imagine that a French employee comes to the meeting and says that a decision has already been made. The Danish employees feel left out of the decision-making process if they can’t be heard. In the end, no one at the meeting has been speaking the same language, and everyone ends up feeling frustrated,” says Marisa Matarese.

The French will see the Danes as stalling and ineffective. And the Danes will say of the French that they don't listen and that they don't make the best decisions.

"So already when you go into a meeting, it's a good idea to have defined how you work together, so you avoid those challenges," she says.

Create your own behaviour index

Marisa Matarese has some simple, basic advice for employees in companies operating in a global context. The first, however, can seem like a relatively big challenge.

Because according to Marisa Matarese, if you want a working environment with minimal friction in an international environment, you cannot avoid changing a little how you are programmed throughout your life.

"If we just keep doing things our own way, we can run into a lot of conflicts and misunderstandings. So sometimes we just have to do things in a different way,” she says.

The second piece of advice is a bit of a continuation of the first. Because how do you change behaviour in a good way?

“We need to develop an index of different behaviours that you use in different situations. This is what we also call cultural intelligence," she explains.

The third piece of advice is that you should be curious about the differences and strategise what you do in your working life.

For example, French or Nigerians may sometimes prefer to have more context before meetings. And then maybe you should think into your meetings that there is time to give them that context instead of being frustrated that some cultures need it and that the meetings can therefore be longer.

"It is important that we remain curious instead of expecting others to just absorb our way of doing things. Be curious about whether things can be done in a different way," says Marisa Matarese.

Further inspiration

If you are interested in learning more about the labour market in a global context, you can find additional information in the following books:

  • Did you get the point? by Signe Ørom
  • Global Perspectives by Anette Dahl

Or via this comparison tool that clarifies the differences between different countries and their culture: Country comparison tool (