How to improve intercultural relationships at work: five ideas for leaders

posted on June 24, 2020

By Forbes

Research indicates that diverse workplace teams make better decisions, with better outcomes, more often than non-diverse teams. However, diversity can also lead to workplace conflict if not properly managed. As leaders encourage diversity at work, how can they reap the benefits without paying the potential costs? First, diverse teams must work well together, which means leaders must encourage employees to establish strong relationships with team members from different backgrounds.

Research on reducing intergroup prejudice and improving outgroup perceptions can inform organizations on how to build creative initiatives toward inclusivity and better intercultural relationships. One key approach, spanning several fields of social science, is Contact Theory, which suggests that meaningful contact with people of different groups can diminish prejudice and intergroup anxiety. In fact, recent studies indicate that positive intergroup exposure may increase psychological compatibility and connection, perceptions of commonalitycross-cultural empathy, and several other psychological benefits that promote better relationships between members of human social groups.

Gordon Allport, in his book “The Nature of Prejudice” (1954), was perhaps most influential in the propagation of Contact Theory. He argued that the positive effects of intergroup contact would only develop under four conditions: equal status between the groups in the situation; common goals; intergroup cooperation; and the support of authorities, law, or custom. However, a meta-analysis of over 500 studies examining the effects of intergroup contact suggests that although they may enhance the effects, Allport’s conditions may actually not be necessary for positive outcomes. The one condition they did find to be more critical than the others was institutional support for structured programs of intergroup contact.

What this suggests is that if organizations seek to improve intercultural relationships, they must take the initiative, at an institutional level, to design, encourage, and facilitate positive intergroup contact initiatives. And such initiatives must be spearheaded by company leadership. So, with contact theory in mind, here are five program ideas for leaders to consider implementing in order to improve intercultural relationships in the workplace.

1)    Small Team Lunches

Each departmental leader invites small, diverse groups of employees to lunch, and helps lead conversations that encourage getting to know one another. The leader might have two or three main takeaways that he or she would like to get from each individual, including meaningful information that sheds light on the person’s core values and desires. For instance, the most important thing they were taught growing up, what their secret passion is or what they most want for their kids. This can be done with semi-structured questions in mind but ought to feel mostly casual and informal. Try to keep it to no more than three employees at a time, and repeat these lunches as many times as necessary until each supervisor has at least broken bread with every employee who directly reports to him or her. Ideally, such lunches would continue indefinitely and eventually expand to include increasing numbers of team members eating together.

2)    Cultural Cookouts

Every Friday or the first Friday of the month, one individual brings in food for the entire team or department to share. The food is relevant to that individual’s personal background, and before eating, they talk briefly about where they first ate this type of food, who taught them to make it, a story about it from their family or culture, and what it means to them. The “chef” doesn’t just prepare the meal alone, however. The chef is paired with three “assistant chefs”—at least two from different cultural backgrounds and perhaps one from the chef’s culture, if available at your organization. In addition to getting to know one another during food preparation, the chef and their assistants share a common goal that will benefit the entire team.

3)    Story Forums

Ever hear stories from The Moth? It’s a popular non-profit organization that records and promotes everyday people telling interesting stories about their lives. It is popular not only because the stories are entertaining and well-written but, perhaps even more so, because listeners can relate to these experiences on a basic human level. An organization can do this with intercultural relationships in mind. Once or twice a month, the organization holds an hour long story forum. Each forum allows space for five individuals to stand in front of the team and tell a personal story, which lasts for no more than ten minutes. But here’s the twist: the story is written by one individual and then read to the group by someone from a different cultural background. The story is written in the first person, and although everyone understands it is not the reader’s story, the true author is not revealed until the end of the story. This interesting exercise is not only entertaining, it may also cognitively flip personal histories and stereotypes, indicating that all team members share commonalities as human beings and that many individual stories could have just as easily been lived by one another.

4)    Discovery Games

Gather small teams of individuals from different backgrounds and provide them with a couple of prompts. The first prompt can list all things you do not know about a particular culture. The second prompt can be to go find out more about said culture. Each individual then has to ask team members questions to learn what they do not know about the other’s culture. This can be made into a game, with timed rounds and a reward system for individuals who discover the most.

5)    Diversity-Based Team Building

The more often people from different backgrounds work together toward shared goals that are supported by the institution, the better their relationships will become. So, come up with any tasks or projects that the company needs doing, put together small teams of individuals from different backgrounds, and have them work together. Sharing common goals may enhance the positive effects of intergroup contact because it helps individuals focus on what psychologists call superordinate groups or shared group identitiesRecent research suggests that people of different ethnic groups, who belong to the same nation, may establish more positive intergroup attitudes when they focus on their shared nationality. The same goes for people of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds who, instead of focusing on their differences, concentrate on their shared identity as members of your organization. You may even have these small project teams choose team names, create a team symbol or flag, and write a team mission statement. This way, the concentration is on their shared group identity, which helps individuals get to know and like each other more easily.

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