When Difference Becomes Exhausting – Cultural Fatigue and its impacts in today’s workplace.

Many of us are familiar with the great benefits that diversity offers for learning and forging creative solutions — personally and at work. It invites us to go beyond what we know to experience a different lens on the world. But what about when enthusiasm for differences wanes and overwhelm and exhaustion set in?  If we feel under-equipped to manage our intercultural interactions, cultural fatigue may result.  In this state, individuals are unable to effectively adapt their thinking and behaviour to engage positively with intercultural differences, resulting in a range of negative personal and organisational outcomes.

Cultural Fatigue

Cultural Fatigue is a term fist coined by Egner and Dillon several decades ago and first used to refer to the overwhelm experienced by expats who were immersed in a foreign culture. It was noted that their initial enthusiasm for engaging with cultural differences soon wore off and was replaced by a more negative attitude characterized by an overreaction the range of adjustments they were required to make while living and working in their new cultural context.

Our research suggests that the experience of cultural fatigue is not limited to those on expat assignments but applies to many individuals in the multi-cultural workplace of today.

Results from a pulse survey of mid to senior managers we conducted in the UAE in 2017 showed that 60% of respondents admitted to experiencing cultural fatigue and a further 45% of these admitted that the way that they deal with this fatigue is to withdraw from interaction with those who are different.  Only 1 in 4 said they had sought support when feeling culturally fatigued. This means most sufferers wrestled alone with this experience without seeking appropriate help.  Anecdotal evidence abounds for the organisational impacts of cultural fatigue in the UAE: Functional silos within organisations, in-groups and out groups, conscious and unconscious biases driving hiring and promotion decisions and so on.  Further research is warranted to understand the specific implications of cultural fatigue on engagement and performance.

So, what does it feel like to experience Cultural Fatigue?

We have outlined several stages that individuals experience when dealing with differences. It is interesting to note the fluctuations in motivation that go along with each stage. To make it simple, let’s imagine a new employee (Joe) moving from a family owned organisation into a multinational.

Stage 1: Attraction:

This stage is characterized by a high level of motivation for engaging with difference, usually driven by personal interest or the realization that there is value to be gained from doing so. As he begins his role, Joe will likely feel curious and excited to engage interculturally, recognizing the opportunity he has been offered to grow his capability in a new and more diverse organisation. He may encourage himself to apply some of their strategies learned from his previous role in the belief that the people he will be engaging with are not fundamentally different from those in his previous organization, so what worked there will likely work here too.

Stage 2: Ambivalence:

Let’s assume Joe experiences a few challenges interacting with the differences in his new environment.  It may come about because some encounters Joe has with diverse team members do not go as expected.  He is starting to sense that perhaps he needs to re-clarify his assumptions and expectations as it appears that all team members are ‘not on the same page’ after all. His initial excitement in working with differences is tempered by some uncertainty. He has a hard time trying to understand if the differences he is encountering are due to personality dynamics or organizational culture dynamics and has to rethink his strategy in dealing with them. His initial confidence in his ability to work effectively with the differences he is encountering is giving way to some uncertainty.

If Joe does not reach out for appropriate support at this critical time, he may progress to the next stage:

Stage 3: Alienation:

Let’s assume a misunderstanding between Joe and his project team, means that an important deadline has been missed.  Joe’s reputation is on the line.  His attempts to discuss the problem with his team have resulted in a further deterioration of the relationship as his direct approach was not appreciated.  He is at a loss as to how to manage the situation. He begins to feel overwhelmed and is struggling not to pile all the blame on his project team for the missed deadline. Logically he knows that what is happening could simply be a result of a misunderstanding, but his emotions betray the fact that he is taking this personally.  He tries to manage his negative emotions by keeping his interaction with the team at a minimum.   However, this avoidance is making matters worse. When he is forced to work with them he finds plenty of evidence to confirm his negative biases. He feels bad about the situation, but doesn’t want to ask for support in case he is accused of underperforming or worse still, being a bigot. He has come to the conclusion that the differences between him and his team are too great to overcome, and resigns himself to living with this dynamic as best he can, or else looking for another position. His confidence and motivation to engage with differences is at an all-time low.

If Joe had been appropriately supported in stage 3, he could have been helped to develop the understanding and the skills to resolve his intercultural challenges and progress to stage 4.  Let’s imagine what that outcome would look like for Joe.

Stage 4: Adaptation: 

With appropriate support, Joe is enabled to process the experience of cultural fatigue in an atmosphere of empathy and build his skill to interact interculturally.  Through talking through his challenges in a confidential and constructive way in coaching,  and by receiving training, Joe is able to build his cultural intelligence.  Joe discovers how to make sense of behavior by understanding how cultural values drive behavior.  He is equipped to use conversational skills that enable him find Third Space Solutions - outcomes which preserve the core values of both groups, whilst achieving win-win outcomes for the organization. Thus enabled, he experiences an upsurge in motivation and confidence to interact interculturally as his experience and capabilities grow.  Joe is beginning to understand that motivational ups and downs are part and parcel of the learning process.  However, he now feels more supported and equipped to keep developing his cultural intelligence and to share his learnings with others.  The process of cultural adaptation has been normalized for him, and he no longer feels like a failure.

Why Motivation Matters

Joe’s story reminds us how debilitating cultural differences can be and how appropriate and well-timed support and capability building are critical to those required to engage with differences.  Differences can be as challenging as they are interesting and motivational swings are a common experience.

Cultural drive or motivation can be understood as our interest and confidence in functioning effectively in culturally diverse settings – whether that diversity is based on ethnicity, generations, gender, functional areas, organisational culture or any other diversity dynamic.  If our drive is naturally high, it will support us to remain interested and curious as we engage with the myriad of opportunities and challenges that diversity offers us.

Those with high motivation will likely engage positively with difference because they possess the following qualities in various measure:

1. Intrinsic motivation – The willingness to engage with difference because it aligns with your personal values.

2. Extrinsic motivation – The recognition that engaging positively with difference creates other benefits e.g. success in the workplace

3. Self-Confidence – a level of belief in their own ability to effectively engage with difference.

Isolating the above three factors has enabled researchers to measure motivation for engaging with diversity and put in place specific strategies to support individuals experiencing motivational challenges.

Action Points

So what can you do when cultural fatigue sets in and your motivation to engage with differences begins to drop?

1. Recognize what is happening. Become conscious of your thinking and behaviour with regard to different groups.  Are you using humour to diminish a certain group?  Have you developed strategies for avoiding a certain group?  Are you generalizing or stereotyping e.g. are you less inclined to trust people from a certain group?

2. Don’t beat yourself up.  To be biased is to be human.  We all feel culturally fatigued at some point.  The skill is to recognize and deal with your cultural fatigue by making your unconscious thinking and behaviour conscious, so that you can own it and develop strategies to address it.

3. Understand your own motivational drivers.  How motivated are you to engage with differences? Can you identify an intrinsic value that could support you to engage positively with difference?  How about extrinsic motivation – can you see the benefit to your performance if you engage positively with differences?  How confident are you of your ability to work effectively with differences?

4. Ask for support. Do you need to speak to others who are more successful in this area?  What learning can you gain by sharing your challenge in a confidential and constructive way?  What resources can you draw on to support a successful outcome? What skills do you need to develop to support you?

5. Consider the impact. Cultural fatigue is characterized by negative biases, which offer us a quick and easy (albeit skewed) way of making sense of difference. Are you willing to challenge your negative assumptions and develop the ability to engage with differences positively to find win-win solutions?  What are the personal and organisational impacts of doing nothing?

Closing Thoughts

Diversity bring challenges as well as opportunities. In todays diverse workplace there is a clear mandate for us to further develop our capability to work constructively with differences.  Cultural fatigue is a 21st Century reality. To minimise the negative impacts of cultural fatigue we need to acknowledge that it exists and develop appropriate personal and organisational strategies to address it where and when it occurs.

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