Navigating Unfamiliar Terrain

This past year was one of divides — economic, political, and also cultural. Navigating these divides successfully requires one to be more aware of difference, even when it’s beneath the surface. Over the course of 2016, Donny collaborated with the Jerusalem Intercultural Center and Mosaica and has been teaching Israeli police officers a workshop on cultural competence, providing them with skills for working in a heterogeneous and challenging environment.

Police officers interact with all elements of society, including men and women, elderly populations and youth, Jews, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular communities, immigrants from Europe and Africa, refugees, and native born Israelis.  Enforcing the law while being cognizant of and sensitive to how their actions are perceived by these diverse groups can be quite challenging.  For example, searching a Muslim home with a dog can be offensive to some Muslims; entering the master bedroom in an Ethiopian home can be seen as violating; navigating single sex spaces with officers of different genders can also be tricky.

It’s impossible to learn the ins and outs of every cultural permutation.  And while acquiring cultural knowledge of the specific populations with whom an officer interacts is important, there is a more fundamental skill that these officers must acquire.  In order to successfully balance fulfilling their mission while remaining sensitive to the citizenry, officers need to adopt a learning mindset, one that allows them to recognize the cultural factors that may be at play in a given situation.

The same is true in the corporate world. Consider the following anecdote.  Brad, a banker with 15 years of experience in hedge funds, took his seat at the table with the other senior leaders of BigBank, which he had joined three months prior.  The team was discussing the firm’s priorities, and there was vigorous disagreement.  At one point Brad responded to a peer’s comment by saying “Are you f***ing kidding me?  There is no way that will work.”

The silence was deafening.  All turned to look at Brad in surprise, and he realized that he had crossed a line that didn’t even know was there.

In Brad’s previous work at a hedge fund, coarse language was the norm and bluntness was valued. Not so at BigBank, where collegiality was expected, and decorum and hierarchies were enforced.

Brad hadn’t yet mastered the culture at BigBank, and he wasn’t even aware that he hadn’t. That’s what led to his faux pas.  If he had started his new job by asking himself about the unspoken culture of his workplace, he would have been better armed to navigate that meeting.  Like the police, who constantly enter high stakes situations in which they don’t necessarily know all of the cultural nuances of a particular community, he needed to adopt a learning mindset.

Being aware that culture could be at play is an important first step.  Then, if you can remain open-minded and curious, rather than judgmental, you can be light on your feet as you step through the cultural landscape.