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Work Ethic

An expat cultural disconnect at the office

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

Work Ethic suggests a manager stop pointing fingers and accept some blame. (Thinkstock)

Work Ethic suggests a manager stop pointing fingers and accept some blame. (Thinkstock)

Q. One of my direct reports is an executive who transferred here from another country. I think I treat her just like any other top manager, but she recently said she thought I was talking down to her because she's a woman and a foreigner. I like and respect her, and I think she's good at her job. However, it's true that because she's from overseas, sometimes she misses the cultural context in our market. What should I do?

A. The problem here is that you have a different view of your leadership than this particular employee. You think you’re being even-handed and treating all your direct reports the same. But she believes you’re not treating her well. You owe it to her to try and patch up this rift.

It’s your job, as her boss, to help her negotiate her work in a new country. “It seems you have failed to coach her so that indeed she can be a better fit,” said Yih-teen Lee, associate professor of managing people in organisations at the IESE business school in Barcelona. When you noticed that she wasn’t getting the cultural subtext, you should have said something and helped her navigate. An expat can benefit from help on reading social cues. As her boss, you are in the best position to assist her.

Treating her just like your other top managers is also a red flag, Lee said. “People from different cultural backgrounds hold very different values and preferences, and often have different needs at work,” he added.

It’s admirable that you are trying not to give any of your direct reports special treatment, but people come to work with their own set of skills and assumptions, and you have to understand them to be an effective boss.

Be aware of how people from different cultures expect to interact with their colleagues. Workers from places with a strict hierarchy may anticipate that their relationship with their managers will be distant and respectful, while those from more egalitarian countries may expect a less formal workplace, Lee said. This may be at the root of your direct report’s view that you are speaking to her in a patronising way.

You also have a perception problem. Perhaps you’re not hearing the way your words sound to others.

“If what makes her feel being talked down to is not simply a matter of differences in cultural norms, you may not have noticed that, unknowingly, your behaviour has revealed your implicit judgement on her cultural inadequacy,” Lee said.

You can fix this issue. Lee suggests you have a frank conversation with this direct report. Thank her for coming to you with her concerns. Let her know that you’re sorry for neglecting to coach her adequately and failing to help her learn about your local market. Tell her that the problem stems from her misunderstanding about how to do business in your country, not because she’s a woman or a foreigner. Together, come up with a plan for developing her skills in this area.

Next, get some coaching for yourself, Lee said. Clearly you could do with some practical instruction on how to lead your troops so they fit better within the organisation. You also could stand to learn more about how to manage people from different cultural backgrounds, he said.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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