Creating constructive relationships between cultural subgroups

Innovation thrives on creative tension, but conflict can equally destroy productivity and make life miserable. The different perspectives that people bring to a problem often stem from a culture long-established in their organisation or specialist community. Tensions can arise across different ways of seeing the World. Here are some practical ideas for maintaining constructive relationships between groups with cultural differences.

If there was only one kind of problem in the world, there would only be one kind of job. Thankfully, the world is more interesting than that. The problems we face are complex and diverse. Organisations need people to specialise in all kinds of different things—and for those people to work together.

In today’s digital World – which is pretty much everywhere – there is a trend towards the devops paradigm, where work is done in multidisciplinary teams. Practices like business analysis, development, user experience and operations are being dismantled so that work can be handed seamlessly between people with these specialist skills. No longer among their kind, people in these teams must maintain their professional identity while closely with people from very different professions.

Perhaps the greatest cultural challenge we face is the relationship with customers. As markets become more complex and dynamic, it becomes more difficult—and more important—to look beyond our way of seeing the world and see it through the eyes of our users, customers and other stakeholders.

In all these cases, value is created by harnessing the difference between two or more groups. It takes multiple skill sets and perspectives to solve complex problems. With each specialist discipline, region or other subgroup, there is a difference in culture. Each group has its own values—things, whether tangible or intangible, that are important. Each group has its own beliefs about the way the World works and the ways to solve problems. Each has its own habits and practices, its “way of doing things around here”.

The culture in any particular group often has deep origins. Professions, even new ones, have long histories—with prominent figures, defining moments and internal tensions of their own. Regional groups have shared stories and ways of doing things that are rooted in the geography, economy and culture of where they live. Culture is often not discussed or even overtly recognised. It just is, and it emerges in the way people interact with each other—especially under pressure.

Tension between cultural groups can be constructive or destructive

When things go well between cultural subgroups, synergy can be achieved. Ideas bounce between the groups and develop in ways that neither could achieve alone. When tensions develop between groups, their ability to achieve results together declines. Not only that, working together becomes unpleasant for members of both groups.

These are self-reinforcing cycles. The same dynamic occurs between groups as between individuals. When one group behaves in a positive way to another, the other group is more likely to respond in a positive way to the first. When one group is hostile to another, the other group is more likely to be hostile in response.

When trust is high between different groups, problems get solved quickly and creatively. When communication is clear and constructive, diverse aspects of a project can be aligned. Decisions are based on combined expertise, making projects more likely to succeed. People thank each other, volunteer information and invite input from each other. Both groups win and everyone has a good time.

With each positive experience, the people involved learn a little more about the contribution that each other can make. And they learn to expect a positive response from others. Each positive experience builds a little more trust, which makes it easier to communicate and strengthens working relationships.

When things go less well, the tensions between different occupational groups can create challenges. Poor communication between these groups can lead to decision based on false assumptions. The contributions that each group makes don’t fit together or are at odds with each other. Projects go badly. Poor results further erode trust. One group can get the idea that the other is trying to undermine them. Often we do this reciprocally. A gulf can open up. Before long, people do start to try to undermine each other.

Unfortunately, the negative cycle is more vigorous than the positive one. We humans are attuned to danger and many of us trained to respond to it negatively. When we receive or even perceive a negative response, we feel fear or pain or both. At that moment, we have a choice of how to respond, but it is difficult to take charge of ourselves. Most of us are not used to openly expressing pain or fear, and often there is not someone ready to hear about those feelings. Instead, we warm up to anger—which is even more difficult to express in a constructive way.

As pioneering psychoanalyst Karen Horney described, people respond to pain and anger in coping responses. Coping responses can involve moving against, moving away or moving towards. Examples of coping by moving against include criticism and blame. Moving away often looks like failing to communicate or consult. Moving towards often takes the form of attempts to persuade.

All of these responses are likely to touch sore spots in the other group, triggering even stronger responses. This cycle can escalate until relations are outright destructive, with mutual sabotage and complete failure of communication.

Culture goes in the same way it comes out

In groups, we tend to adopt a response as a group. We look to those we trust for leadership and respond in kind. We draw on our cultural history as a group, but we also reinforce new culture as we interact. Culture is a thing that manifests in the way people act, and it also created by the way people act.

Enacting all of these responses requires effort. Being on the receiving end of negative behaviours drains energy further, which has a negative impact on productivity. Being on the receiving end of positive behaviours makes us feel better—it replenishes our energy. Positive behaviours are subtly, but also powerfully, self-reinforcing.

If you deliberately choose how you act, you can influence the culture around you. If you are a leader, whether informal or formal, you have greater influence on culture in your organisation. For this reason, the first place to initiate a constructive culture is the relationships among the leaders. If leaders are not responding constructively to difference, no one will.

Of course, there are other factors that come into play when things go badly. People may lack certain skills, such as customer service. The structure may be unsuitable for the work patterns that are needed. Incentives and performance management may be misaligned. Business processes or project management may be lacking or perhaps leadership development is required. All of these things are important, but if leaders are reinforcing destructive responses to difference, none of them alone will be effective.

This works no matter how bad things are, but the worse the starting point, the harder it is. Just start. Act in the way you aspire to. Be the person with the most integrity in the room.

The key to building trust with others, no matter how different they seem to be, is empathy—the willingness to see things from other people’s point of view, to enter their world and to communicate in their language.

It is not easy to act with empathy when you are not certain of yourself. Empathy rests on a foundation of self-acceptance and self-awareness. I often facilitate workshops that develop these things between cultural subgroups. There are also some steps you can take on your own.

Practical ways to build a constructive approach to difference

Explore your own culture

The first step in appreciating another culture is appreciating your own. In workshops, I use a set of questions to elicit information about the culture in different groups. You can use these questions on your own, or with others to create awareness and appreciation of the culture in your group:

  • Who is your role model and why?
  • What is the most important factor in the success of a project?
  • What is the taonga (thing of great value) that you bring to a project?
  • Complete the sentence “the world works best when …”
  • What slogan would we write on our placards, or get printed on our tee shirts?

Explore another group’s culture

Often in workshops I invite groups to listen in on each other as they explore their own culture. Sometimes, I invite them to reverse roles and try out each other’s culture as if it were their own. It is important to express the values of the other group authentically, and without stereotyping. You may also have a chance to exchange the results of cultural exploration between two groups. And it may be helpful to complete the exercise for another group in your own group, as long as you do this with a constructive intention. If you have the chance, sit with the members of the other group. Try saying aloud their answers to these questions.

Express appreciation

When I am working with co-workers, I often use the clear communication dialogue process from the Imago Relationship Therapy process, developed by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. One of the most powerful Imago techniques is one of the simplest: appreciations.

To give appreciation, simply complete the sentence “one thing I appreciate about you is …” When I facilitate appreciations, I ask the other person to mirror the appreciation back, verbatim. They can change only “I” to “you” and vice versa. The mirroring lets the first person know that their appreciation was heard accurately. It provides positive feedback in response to the risk they took.

I often facilitate appreciations between groups. To do this, I ask the members of one group to discuss among themselves what they appreciate about the other group. Then I ask them to stand, facing the other group and share their appreciations. I ask someone from the receiving group to mirror each appreciation. Then the second group takes a turn sharing appreciations.

This process creates a palpable air of wilful constructiveness. You can use it to initiate a constructive culture at pretty much any time.

It’s just difference

At times the difference between cultural subgroups can be terrifying. The temptation to view the other group as wrong or inferior becomes overwhelming. At these times, I remind myself over and over: it’s just difference. There is no right or wrong. Those people are trying to get by in the best way they can, just like me.

It is easy to say that it only takes one person to initiate a constructive response to difference. Acting on that is a lot harder. When others do not appear to reciprocate, it is tempting to resort to blame. At these times, I remind myself of the values that are important to me, and the responses that I aspire to. Culture is not easy to change, especially in a positive direction. It is changed in small steps, each building on the last. Even if I cannot see the progress, I know that I prefer this to contributing to a deteriorating relationship.

 This post was adapted from an article published in Employment Today.