Right, Wrong, or Just Different?


Last week I was on the edge of a conversation full of complaints about an employee. It seemed that he wouldn't speak up when things weren't right. He would only alert his boss to mistakes, if he was asked directly. Apparently he showed no initiative at all. His manager was frustrated and ready to start performance management.

My ears pricked up, and I began asking questions. The employee was a migrant, recruited from Thailand, for a particular role. The lights went on!

In New Zealand, with our western emphasis on individual responsibility and accountability, such a different cultural perspective is difficult to understand. So, what's behind it? For this staff member, it would be unthinkable to criticise his boss, directly or implicitly, by drawing attention to mistakes for which the boss is ultimately responsible. In hierarchical societies, with his status well down the line, he wouldn't have been listened to anyway, and would have shown himself to be entirely disrespectful.

Quite a different position to the whistle-blowing encouraged here in New Zealand.

So, what can a manager do?

This cultural difference will be much more evident in a largely mono-cultural team, and changing cultural norms is difficult to do when they are simply part of who you are. Rather, it's conversation time. An opportunity to explore, guide and explain. A combination of learning about, and from, all parties. Of figuring out how the employee can offer suggestions, while seeing that there are no negative consequences. Remembering too, that when you first take on a new habit, the first steps can be clumsy, with many stumbles. Neither way is right or wrong, it's just the way things are done, in whatever place you happen to live.

Jenny Magee



Trainer, coach and consultant, Jenny Magee (BEd, DipTchg, DipSLT) works with organizations to raise awareness of diversity in all its richness and has over 25 years experience as a champion of diverse workplaces and positive, productive partnerships.

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