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GLOBAL DIVERSITY SERIES - Embracing Cultural Differences: Key Success Strategies for Hospitality Professionals

Aug 14, 2023
A collage of four pictures depicting a hotel room, a  conference room, a buffet, and a clerk handing a key to a customer.


This article will provide invaluable insights and strategies to navigate the delicate balance between cultural differences and operational excellence. In addition to presenting readers with a cultural incident, I will discuss two key challenges those leading a culturally diverse workplace have to address and provide solutions to these problems. At the end of the article, I will also discuss solutions to the cultural incident.


Cultural Incident

Imagine this communication dilemma between a hotel supervisor and an employee:

 In your role as a supervisor in a large hotel with a culturally diverse workforce, you encounter a challenging situation involving an employee, Javier, who comes from a background where it's considered culturally inappropriate to directly disagree or say "no" to a supervisor. This cultural norm creates a problem when it comes to setting realistic expectations for task completion.

Javier is a diligent and dedicated room service attendant who takes pride in his work. You have a critical upcoming event at the hotel, and it is essential that the room service operations function smoothly and effectively to handle this increased demand.

 You approach Javier and ask him if he can ensure that a specific set of tasks, including restocking supplies and coordinating with the kitchen, will be completed by the upcoming deadline.

 Javier, not wanting to disappoint you or appear disrespectful, nods and smiles, indicating that he will complete the tasks by the deadline. You do notice a hint of hesitation in his expression and body language but despite his nonverbal cues, you assume that he's on board in meeting the deadline.

 As the deadline approaches, you realize that the tasks assigned to Javier haven't been completed as expected. The room service is struggling to keep up with the event demands, and you're faced with an operational setback.

 Why would Javier behave this way?

What could the supervisor have done to prevent this situation?


Recent data from the National Immigration Forum show the hospitality industry employs over 14 million people and that immigrants account for 31% of workers in the hotel and lodging industry.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of the hospitality industry, managers and supervisors are now overseeing teams that hail from a multitude of cultural backgrounds. Because of increased immigration and workforce demands, they now have to embrace the intricate task of navigating a culturally diversity workforce.


Two Key Problems Supervisors in Culturally Diverse Workplaces Are Facing and Possible Solutions

As the global workforce continues to evolve, supervisors find themselves navigating uncharted territories while grappling with unique challenges.

Below, I will explore two key problems these individuals encounter in culturally diverse work environments, and more importantly, unveil potential solutions to these problems.


Problem 1:     Differences in Cultural Norms and Expectations

In today’s workplaces, the fusion of cultures is bringing together unique perspectives that can lead to innovation and creativity. However, beneath the surface of this cultural mosaic lies the intricate challenge of reconciling distinct norms and expectations that individuals bring from their respective backgrounds. These differences can profoundly impact team dynamics and overall productivity.

At the heart of this challenge lies the need for supervisors to act as bridge builders, fostering an environment where cultural diversity not only coexists but thrives harmoniously.

Understanding and appreciating these differences is crucial, as it enables supervisors to navigate potential pitfalls and harness the strengths that cultural diversity offers. For instance, while one culture might emphasize direct and assertive communication in decision-making, another might value a more consensual approach. If not addressed effectively, such differences can lead to misunderstandings, misalignment, and even conflict within the team.

Solution. Those supervising a culturally diverse workforce need to understand that differences in cultural norms and expectations represent both a challenge and an opportunity in the modern workplace. By acknowledging, understanding, and actively addressing these differences through regular team discussions and workshops delving deeper into cultural differences, supervisors can lay the foundation for a cohesive team where cultural diversity is not only celebrated but leveraged to achieve remarkable outcomes.


 Problem 2:     Differences in Communication Styles

In the intricate tapestry of a culturally diverse workplace, effective communication forms the backbone of successful collaboration and harmonious interaction. Yet, as diverse as our backgrounds may be, so are the potential pitfalls that can hinder clear communication. Language differences, non-verbal cues, and distinct communication styles can all contribute to a labyrinth of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, affecting relationships, productivity, and overall team cohesion.

Non-verbal cues, while often overlooked, speak volumes in intercultural communication. A smile, a nod, or a gesture can vary significantly in interpretation across cultures. What might signify agreement in one culture could symbolize hesitation or disagreement in another. These unspoken signals form an integral part of the communication landscape and can either fortify or disrupt the message being conveyed.

Adding another layer of complexity are the distinct communication styles prevalent in different cultures. Some cultures value direct and succinct communication, while others prefer more elaborate and contextualized discourse. Such differences can lead to unintended bluntness or perceived ambiguity, inadvertently shaping how information is received and interpreted.

Solution. Addressing communication barriers in a culturally diverse workplace requires a proactive and holistic approach. The journey begins with recognizing that effective communication extends far beyond language proficiency. Language differences, non-verbal cues, and communication styles can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Both employees and supervisors need to receive cross-cultural communication training to enhance their understanding of different communication styles. This training should also offer practical tips for effective communication both as a listener and as a speaker.


Cultural Incident Revisited

A key cultural difference the supervisor should have picked up on was the fact that in some cultures, it is inappropriate to say “no” to an authority figure.

So, the solution for the employee is to “soften” a negative answer or statement. For example, they may avoid saying “no” by answering a question with another question. Yet others may say: “Maybe I can do it, I’ll let you know,” even though they know it is impossible. There is also the possibility that “yes” simply means “Yes, I understand you” and not necessarily, “Yes, I agree with you.” 

This type of behavior may be misconstrued, despite the fact that Javier was employing this method as a means of avoiding confrontation or as a sign of respect toward his supervisor.

When working with culturally diverse employees, a more effective strategy would be to avoid asking employees “yes” or “no” questions. A more effective strategy would be to provide employees with options so they can reject what they do not want without feeling they have offended you or disrupted the harmony of the supervisor/employee relationship.




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