Navigating the Difficulty of Blending Cultures

Culture is defined by the norms, values, and behaviors that determine how disparate people working together do things. It is shaped by all the past experiences we bring to the community. That is why there can never be a ground zero for culture. When we want to work productively on any given project with others we have to blend each of our individual perspectives to form a unique culture together. But how does this blending of unique perspectives work to develop a culture?

Blending Cultures Together

This is how it looks like in our house… I am German. My husband is American. And for our kids we combine and blend just those two cultures. Sometimes that works well — we just drink a lot of German beer while we celebrate the 4th of July. But when the end of November arrives we find ourselves in a hairball of culture.

It starts very harmless with St. Martin’s day, when Germans build lanterns for a nightly parade and bake special Martin’s men. Then we celebrate Thanksgiving, which I learned to love as a wonderful family celebration time of gratefulness. And here is where things start to speed up. Only days later I weave a bunch of pine branches together to build our German advent wreath, decorated with ribbons and four candles. All over the house we put up imported pyramids, angels, smokers with incense, and colorful american ornaments. By December 1st, the Advent calendar with 24 useful, wonderful, affordable little toys needs to be ready. By the way, did I mention we have four kids? The calendar competes on a daily basis for attention with the mischievous elf on the shelf — whose nightly adventures are a creative challenge for every parental brain. On December 5th the kids have to put their boots in front of their rooms so St. Nicolas can come by at night to leave a couple MORE small presents and a few Lebkuchen, gingerbread goodies from Germany. Unless the tooth fairy is called on duty we have a few normal days, bouncing between the elf and the calendar until December 24th arrives. Well, besides arguing when it is time to get the tree. Germans put their tree up on the 24th, which my family considers unacceptable. We typically compromise by getting the tree around the 18th, which comes with an additional price: getting a dry, needling Charlie-Brown-tree that nobody else wanted to buy the last 3 weeks.

Christkind vs Santa - Difficulty of Blending Cultures

Then, finally, Christmas is here. Which means that in the afternoon Christkind arrives. She (or is it he?) looks like a child-angel with golden hair and leaves presents. The kids hear a little bell ring, they then know it is time to enter the Chris

tmas room that Christkind has just left. After opening the presents we gather around a scrumptious multi-course Christmas dinner. But then, instead of collapsing with our maxed out bellies, we have to help Santa do his job. So the next morning all six stockings abov

e the fireplace are filled, Santa will have drunk and spilled his milk, and left a couple of cookie crumbles beside another pile of — presents. After that we fall into a deep coma. Ugh, culture is hard!

You might be shaking your head about the lack of the obvious: you can’t have it all. You have to pick, choose, and select. Culture is not just a long list of everything added together; forming a culture means to sift through all the options and select what serves you best.

The same holds true for corporate culture. Everyone brings previous experiences to the workplace — not just work experiences, but also interpersonal relationships. At the workplace we need to form these experiences into one culture, a way of how things get done here. What makes forming an organizational culture even harder is the fact that in many cases culture is not visible. Culture is like the wind — you can’t see it but everyone can feel it. The invisible part of culture often lays in unwritten rules, traditions, and assumptions.

Making Culture Visible

Therefore, the first step of intentionally creating a corporate culture is to make the existing culture visible and tangible. In the workshops I give to help organizations build a culture of innovation we create that visibility in two ways.

First, we visualize values. Instead of just operating with labels like “trust,” we develop images that explain in a visual and artistic way how we, as individuals or as a team, envision the concept of trust.

Second, the way in which team members approach this new (painting) challenge reveals their behaviors in regards to innovation in general. Who is willing to step outside of their comfort zone? Is ambiguity perceived as stimulating or paralyzing? The specific way we paint allows us to observe behaviors like risk taking almost as if under a magnifying glass. It helps that these exercises are not linked to any specific daily work task to detect the behaviors that form a team’s culture. From that baseline of recognizing the status quo, a team can then develop steps to transform culture in the desired way.

The Power of Diverse Teams

Diverse teams — including people from different cultural backgrounds, with different work experiences, having different personalities — have shown to be better in developing innovative ideas, as a survey published by Harvard Business Review proves. On the flip side, the more diverse a team is the more challenging it is to form a common culture. In a diverse team norms and values don’t align automatically. Creating a culture needs to be a conscious effort that determines who we are, what we want to accomplish, and how to get there.

Last month I became an American citizen. People from over 50 different countries were naturalized the same day. The name of every country was called out, and the people from these countries stood up — one by one. The idea of the US as a melting pot became visual for everyone in the room. The district judge, the Honorable Robert Pitman, pointed out in his speech that the United States is a country of immigrants — a blend of cultures. And he added further that this diversity is what makes our country unique and strong. The United States has been forming their own values out of a wild mix of different cultures for over two hundred years. That diversity is one of the biggest assets of the United States.

It might be easier to create a corporate culture with people from similar backgrounds, but diverse teams have shown to be more powerful and potent once they were able to form a shared culture. A Forbes survey testifies, diversity is a key driver of innovation and a critical component of being successful on a global scale. Senior executives are recognizing that a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds is crucial for innovation and the development of new ideas. Navigating the difficulty of blending cultures and building a unique culture that unites the diverse backgrounds is an investment that pays off.

Difficulty of Blending CulturesBlending cultures in our family meant that we actually did cut out a bunch of the traditions I mentioned at the beginning. While I miss the celebration of St. Nicolas’ and St. Martin’s Day, which I loved as a child, the life in our family is enriched by the unique blend of different cultures. We formed our own culture that defines who we are as a family. Our kids have started to leave the nest and live now across different states and continents. I believe it is partly the uniqueness of our family culture that makes our kids determined not to miss any of our Christmas celebrations. Our blended culture is our identity. It has become who we are.


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