When you think about cultural bias at work, what comes to mind? In Silicon Valley, which is a huge melting pot, perhaps nothing at all. But in other more culturally homogeneous areas, perhaps quite a lot.
Burcu Subaşi, a post-doc researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands has come up with some interesting information, reported in “Research: People Share More Information with Colleagues of Similar Cultural Backgrounds.”
With two colleagues, Subaşi created 60 teams of three people: two Dutch and one Chinese or German member. To be successful, all team members needed to get information from each member of their team. What the researchers discovered was interesting. The team with German members shared information and, as a result, the German member did as well as the Dutch members, because information access was equal.
The conclusion? “ … minorities with the most cultural difference are often attributed a lower status and information is withheld from them. This withholding can cause those from ‘low status’ minority groups to underperform and never reach their full potential.”
What to do?
Subaşi and colleagues Dr. Wendy van Ginkel and Prof. Daan van Knippenberg make several recommendations. The first is third-party observation of team performance. This may make teams more accountable and cause them to assess a team member based on merit, rather than cultural stereotypes. Next, managers should encourage knowledge sharing and create an environment “where team members feel comfortable sharing new ideas, asking questions, and giving feedback to one another.” I add that there should be no such thing as dumb questions. Without doubt, some people may be faster than others, but we all have strengths and shaming, subtle or otherwise, should have no place at work. Third, managers should help team members—from the beginning—get to know each other’s areas of expertise, because the perception of expertise helps boost status.
Some of the most rewarding times I’ve had at work have been being part of a culturally diverse team. And I hasten to say that this holds particularly true of teams with female members. All of us bring something to the table, and women who don’t allow themselves to be drowned out bring a lot.