Why is Cultural Awareness Important?

Why focus on culture?

When working with people from different cultures it's critical that you understand differences around rules and expectations.

If you don't, you can make mistakes.

These mistakes can be harmless, or, they can be very serious.

Like, 'billions of dollars' serious or 'cause a riot' serious.

Yes! a foreign manager for a security firm operating in Iraq started a riot due to a lack of cultural awareness. 

The poor guy even got beaten! But he made a really bad mistake. Read more about that story here if you want.

We'll also look at some further examples later in the blog.

Being culturally aware is a valuable thing you can use throughout your life; whether you're travelling abroad for a holiday, or working across cultures.

Rubbing shoulders with people from different cultures has become more and more frequent for many of us and, as a result, more important.

Culture - it's everywhere!

Understanding 'culture' is essential because, otherwise, it's easy for people to underestimate the impact cultural differences can have.

Underestimating culture is the point at which things can start to go wrong!

Although it may be easy to learn facts and do’s and don’ts about different cultures, this is not necessarily what cultural awareness is all about.

If you think of culture as an iceberg, what we see of a culture is tiny in comparison to what we cannot see.

It is the unseen elements of culture such as values and beliefs, that are usually hardest for people to understand and deal with.

When we interact in cross cultural situations, a lack of awareness can lead to bad or poor decisions.

culture icerberg

Cultural awareness helps us reduce the chances of making bad decisions and increases the chance of us making more insightful, considered decisions.

How about we look at an example to explain this further?

Cultural Differences at Work

Here’s a real-life case study for you to think about from a project we worked on for a client.


Image of Mr Rossi, The Italian Manager

Mr Rossi (not his real name of course!) is from Italy and has been moved by his company to manage the office of their subsidiary in the Netherlands.

He is horrified to find that his desk is in the middle of an open plan office seated next to some interns and junior ranked staff.

In his first week he moves himself into his own separate office. Although he feels much better, the local employees are enraged with his behaviour and there is instant resistance to his presence in the office.

Any idea what happened here?

Well, let’s break it down.

Mr Rossi comes from a culture which respects hierarchy and status. Italian management culture is hierarchical.

A boss should have their own office, otherwise they are not worthy of being the boss, right?

In Dutch culture, however, hierarchy doesn't carry the same importance – they prioritise equality and everyone being the same. When he moved into his own office, he essentially signalled to his team that he thought he was better than them.

Again, both parties in this example with a little bit of cultural awareness may have stopped to think about what was going on.

 cultural lens

The Cultural Lens is a good way of thinking about differences - we all wear a pair of invisible glasses that shape how we see things around us.

When we come from the same culture, our colours are closer together than when we come from different countries.

The Importance of Cultural Awareness

These sorts of misunderstandings happen at all levels.

The business world is full of examples of where people or companies have ventured into foreign countries and completely failed to understand the local culture.

[You can explore some more examples here as well as examples from failed M&As here.]

What these sorts of examples clearly show us is how culture can and does get in the way when it comes to how we see others and the decisions we make.

Cultural awareness helps us move beyond this.

An important learning point, that we must stress, is that being culturally aware is not about compromising your own culture or sacrificing your values or identity for ‘another’s’.

It is simply about helping us understand how we can best adapt our approaches, thoughts and decisions to ensure we create positive outcomes in cross-cultural interactions.

It is about respecting others’ cultures as well as our own.

Learn More About Cultural Awareness

Did you know we have a FREE online training course on Cultural Awareness?

Feel free to watch it here, on You Tube or on the course page which also includes free resources and a quiz.


FREE Cultural Awareness Resources

We also have various resources to help you boost your cultural awareness.