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How to improve intercultural relationships at work: five ideas for leaders

Submitted by on July 16, 2020 – 2:46 pmNo Comment | 1,167 views

DC_News_Heading_ResourcesResearch indicates that diverse workplace teams make better decisions, with better outcomes, more often than non-diverse teams. However, diversity can also lead to workplace conflict if not properly managed. As leaders encourage diversity at work, how can they reap the benefits without paying the potential costs? First, diverse teams must work well together, which means leaders must encourage employees to establish strong relationships with team members from different backgrounds.

Research on reducing intergroup prejudice and improving outgroup perceptions can inform organizations on how to build creative initiatives toward inclusivity and better intercultural relationships. One key approach, spanning several fields of social science, is Contact Theory, which suggests that meaningful contact with people of different groups can diminish prejudice and intergroup anxiety. In fact, recent studies indicate that positive intergroup exposure may increase psychological compatibility and connection, perceptions of commonality, cross-cultural empathy, and several other psychological benefits that promote better relationships between members of human social groups.

Gordon Allport, in his book “The Nature of Prejudice” (1954), was perhaps most influential in the propagation of Contact Theory. He argued that the positive effects of intergroup contact would only develop under four conditions: equal status between the groups in the situation; common goals; intergroup cooperation; and the support of authorities, law, or custom. However, a meta-analysis of over 500 studies examining the effects of intergroup contact suggests that although they may enhance the effects, Allport’s conditions may actually not be necessary for positive outcomes. The one condition they did find to be more critical than the others was institutional support for structured programs of intergroup contact.

What this suggests is that if organizations seek to improve intercultural relationships, they must take the initiative, at an institutional level, to design, encourage, and facilitate positive intergroup contact initiatives. And such initiatives must be spearheaded by company leadership. So, with contact theory in mind, here are five program ideas for leaders to consider implementing in order to improve intercultural relationships in the workplace.

1)    Small Team Lunches

Each departmental leader invites small, diverse groups of employees to lunch, and helps lead conversations that encourage getting to know one another. The leader might have two or three main takeaways that he or she would like to get from each individual, including meaningful information that sheds light on the person’s core values and desires. For instance, the most important thing they were taught growing up, what their secret passion is or what they most want for their kids. This can be done with semi-structured questions in mind but ought to feel mostly casual and informal. Try to keep it to no more than three employees at a time, and repeat these lunches as many times as necessary until each supervisor has at least broken bread with every employee who directly reports to him or her. Ideally, such lunches would continue indefinitely and eventually expand to include increasing numbers of team members eating together.

2)    Cultural Cookouts

Every Friday or the first Friday of the month, one individual brings in food for the entire team or department to share. The food is relevant to that individual’s personal background, and before eating, they talk briefly about where they first ate this type of food, who taught them to make it, a story about it from their family or culture, and what it means to them. The “chef” doesn’t just prepare the meal alone, however. The chef is paired with three “assistant chefs”—at least two from different cultural backgrounds and perhaps one from the chef’s culture, if available at your organization. In addition to getting to know one another during food preparation, the chef and their assistants share a common goal that will benefit the entire team.


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Source: Forbes, Jeremy Pollack


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