Cultural Challenges in the Workplace

Working in the Middle East was a fascinating education on trying to get things done in a multi-cultural workplace. This story describes what often happens.

My wife was invited to speak to some high school students at a private high school in Kuwait. We arrived a half hour early, just like any good Canadians would. We met the facilitator who was organising the event and she took us to the auditorium. Much to our dismay the room was obviously not prepared for the event.

So the facilitator gets a bit upset and starts phoning people, soon the technician responsible arrives. Then an argument begins, because he was never told this was happening and therefore it was not his fault the room was not ready.

They start going in circles arguing back and forth and meanwhile the room is still not ready. The facilitator tries just asking him to turn on the projector, turn on the sound, lower the screen and turn on the wifi, but the technician is still stuck on the point that nobody told him he was supposed to do this.

By now the hallway is full of high school students waiting to come in. Can you hear the rumblings? Some of you have probably been there and are thinking, I don’t care about who told you or didn’t tell you, the point is we need you to turn things on! Meanwhile the technician is phoning his superior because in his culture, it is very important to have permission to do everything and anything.

He just keeps repeating, “Nobody told me.”

Finally the Principal arrives, slightly irritated and tells the technician to prepare the room. Now, with permission, he pushes some buttons and we got started.

My wife did an amazing present2014-11-12 10.54.01ation which was actually able to engage a few hundred teenagers for over twenty minutes. She Rocks!

When you work in a multi-cultural setting this scenario is a common occurrence. It is difficult to get things done when you are a middle manager. The technician would only respond to instruction from the person who protected him. As a foreign worker who supported other people with his income, he was careful to not upset his Protector by doing something without permission. To him, job security is more important that actually doing his job.

This story highlights one of the differences between the use of power in the Middle East and the West. Easterners use power to protect people, this leads to loyalty and Westerners use power to drive activities, which leads to productivity. The different perspectives on how to lead people can be difficult to navigate when you work in an intercultural environment.

Many Western leaders expect initiative and a high measure of self-management from employees. But those expectations only cause anxiety in an employee with a higher need for job security. The people who work for you may have an expectation of protection from you that is clashing with your expectation that people ‘just do it’ and produce something without being told.

Our world is shrinking, our employees, clients and customers are often people from other cultures or generations; therefore inter-culture skills are a necessity for today’s leaders. This is one of the areas that Executive Coach Bill Schuilenberg helps leaders improve. To learn more connect with him at

Talk amongst yourselves...

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