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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

"The problem is Gen X -We cannot talk about sensitive topics with them."

This is what I heard from one participant to the Fit4Work programme during our workshop on developing a global mindset.

Having attended numerous workshops and read countless articles about “What we know about Gen Y & Z" or "How to deal with Gen Z", it was a fresh perspective for a Gen X like me.

Developing cross-cultural competent individuals and teams is not about teaching the world views, values and behaviors of one group to another. It is about providing space for people of different subcultures to engage in meaningful conversations. We want to enable colleagues to practice empathy and embrace diversity, by equipping them with the tools to clarify their intentions and expectations, and learn from one another.

A key take-away for the participants of our workshop was the ability to speak about sensitive topics, with people from different backgrounds in a respectful manner.

This is a key skill to being culturally competent.

Fit4Work was an opportunity to open several meaningful conversations.

What do participants think about working with other cultures?

There was a wide spectrum of attitudes toward working in multicultural environments. Most students found the perspective exciting, but some found it daunting.

Biases encountered in Malaysia

Our discussion shows that all participants have to deal with bias. The most frequent biases remain gender, race, religion and status (age, education, job position...). Yet they seldom take the time to pause and reflect on the impact of their own biases on others.

Embracing diversity and encouraging inclusion starts with acknowledging these biases in others and in ourselves. We need to develop skills and strategies to mitigate their impact in society and in the workplace.

Cultural orientation in the group

First step is to understand some of our biases to gain clarity on our individual cultural preferences. It is important to understand what you bring to the team and how one's individual preferences fit in the company culture.

A good tool to understand our cultural preferences is the Cultural Impact Scan© based on the research by Malaysian scholar, Dr. Asma Abdullah. It enables us to understand our cultural value preferences and how they impact our behaviours and expectations of others.

The group preferences fit the general trends to be expected in Malaysia although we can see some significant differences among individuals. When joining multinational companies, young Malaysian professionals will need to adjust to different cultural norms and expectations in the workplace.

What they can do to broaden the scope of their behaviours

As students and young professionals, the earlier you expose yourself to other cultures, then the more you will strengthen your ability to collaborate and work across cultures.

The research conducted by the Intercultural Readiness Check shows that the key driver to build cross-cultural competences is to develop strong connections and friendships across different cultural groups. Strong friendships are based on trust and make it easier for people to engage in the meaningful and sensitive conversations that we mentioned at the beginning of this post. It was apparent that one of the key challenges that students are facing is the lack of diversity they are exposed to, despite living in multicultural Malaysia.

The programme did open some new windows of opportunities for participants to meet other students outside their normal circles and encouraged them to be proactive in engaging with people from different cultural backgrounds. Here are some of the suggestions they came up with to start their journey on acquiring cross-cultural competences:

House mate with other races

Live in a non-Malay neighbourhood

Follow different communities on social media

Encourage discussions between people of different cultures and world views

Be mindful of your own biases.

They may sound like common sense but it requires a proactive attitude to actually put them into practice.

How they feel about how Malaysians are perceived in the workplace

This was possibly the most sensitive conversation we had.

I don't think that stereotypes are necessarily bad. They are a window into a culture for outsiders and they provide insights on how they are perceived to insiders. Outsiders need to be mindful not to generalise: Stereotypes do not apply to everyone within a group. Insiders can use stereotypes to debunk misconceptions about their own culture to others and reflect on the impact of their behaviours in multicultural contexts.

This is what I asked the participants of the workshop to work on.

They agreed with many of the statements they heard from foreigners, and then provided context on why Malaysian may tend to behave in a certain manner.

Cross-cultural competences are both about understanding others as well as helping others to understand us: Put ourselves in their shoes and help them get into our shoes.

What they need to be proactive

The level of proactivity (or lack of it) of Malaysian employees is often at the heart of conversations that I have with expatriate managers. It was interesting to discuss the motivators and hindrances to proactivity with the participants, and help them understand what drives them.

Looking at the importance they place on their level of competences, it will be important for these young professionals to upskill themselves in order to thrive in a multicultural corporate world. Joining the Fit4Work programme is a first step on their journey.

I would like to extend a sincere thank you to InvestKL for their trust in Cultural Impact.

It was a privilege to conduct this program, meet and engage with all the students.

I wish you all the best in your future careers. .

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