It’s been 18 years since I left my hometown in the Netherlands to work on the other side of the world. Shanghai was my first stop at the end of the 90s and of course the cultural differences couldn’t have been bigger. In China, disagreements were in the details – which was different than what I was used to. Since then my exposure to work and live in Vietnam, Singapore, Pakistan, U.A.E. and almost every country in between (including a couple of stints in Africa) have given me wonderful exposures to the way of working in different countries and cultures.

Before I highlight the key ways of managing different cultures at work, I would like to make three disclaimers!

Firstly I’ve learned that the longer you are submerged in a different culture the more you realize that you’ll never completely and truly understand its nuances. I have now been living, working and loving Pakistan for 12 years and I probably know the culture and the way people work pretty well. Having said this I realize that there’s still so much I don’t know. Whether it is the subtlety of its music and/or art or whether it’s to do with the differences between ethnic groups and their intricate relations. There’s always so much more to learn.

Secondly don’t ever make general claims. Of course there are trends and patterns in each culture that are pervasive and approaches that work better in some cultures than in others. However, it never means that one solution will work for everybody in the same cultural group. There are huge difference in personality that always makes it necessary to calibrate your approach and adjust it to what works for that individuals or group of individuals.

Lastly despite all the talk about different cultures, humans will be humans, and some of their basic needs, desires and ambitions are similar. So it’s always good to ground your approach in these universal truths.

Working with different cultures and people from different backgrounds isn’t easy (it’s much easier to work with people that share the same background, hobbies, view points as Lauren Rivera pointed out in her NYT Op’ed on Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In At Work). But the fun in collaborating with different nationalities in getting them to work, share, express their views, learn and disagree with each other, is extremely rewarding.

So from my experience, this is what works in managing different cultures at work:

  • Build A Relationship
  • Create A Shared Need
  • Build A Safe Environment
  • Give Equal Talk Time

I’ll be covering all of these in detail next week – I hope you’ll stay tuned and start thinking about how you’ve succeeded in getting people from different background to work together.