One important aspect to having a healthy work environment, is having healthy relationships with those whom you work. We are now more globally connected than ever before. Our social and professional circles can grow quickly and connect us with people of all walks of life. We can meet more people like ourselves and more people who are nothing like us. Yet we don’t usually get to pick everyone we have to work with. So how do we ensure that the relationships with those different from us are just as strong as the ones who are like us?
The answer lies in in two vital skills: respect and curiosity.
Note: This article takes a slightly different approach from my other articles as I use personal examples. I have done this to help simplify the message. It is not a trivialization of what can be a hot and emotionally charged topic. It is breaking the concepts down into their simplest form so that the focus can be on the message and not the emotions we tend to connect to the terminology.
Respect in Relationships
I was in a small team meeting when the person facilitating asked my male colleague to explain his view to a female colleague. He paused for a moment and then slowly began to speak. When he finished, the female colleague then waited a moment before providing her response. The facilitator then thanked them both for expressing what was clearly a difficult issue for them. My colleagues both looked at the facilitator blankly.
These two colleagues had worked together for several years and they both had a great deal of respect for each other. They had a high level of trust and could converse openly and honestly. Because they respected each other, each took their time in to speak thoughtfully and coherently to make sure that their message was clear. These two colleagues had very different upbringings and were culturally different. Therefore, they gave extra thought to the conversation to limit assumptions and confusion. They were making sure their word choice was appropriate, accurate, and respectful.
On the flip side, the facilitator exhibited disrespect of their relationship by immediately jumping to conclusions about their behaviors.
We’ve all heard Aretha Franklin sing about it: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And we all know the hurt feelings when we feel that we’ve been disrespected. But do we actually know how to define what it means to be respectful of someone else? Respect is all about honoring other people for they are. It doesn’t mean that you agree with them or that you are going to change your ways to match theirs.
It does mean that you acknowledge the differences and provide the same amount of value to the differences as you do the sameness. In other words, you recognize and appreciate what the person brings to the table (and everyone brings something). You provide equitable time for all the views – without prejudgment or overtures that indicate a positive or negative valuing of the view. This is how you demonstrate respect.
“Knowledge will give you power, but character respect.” Bruce Lee
Curiosity in Relationships
I remember starting a new job and I was in the small kitchen area preparing my lunch. One of my new colleagues was in there as well. She was a conservatively dressed woman about 15 years older than me who had a wealth of knowledge to teach me as she had been with the company for almost 20 years in several different positions. I was eager to learn from her, yet here in the informal kitchen, I watched her in fascination and horror.
She was doing something with her food that I have never seen before; she was putting mayonnaise and salt on her banana. I asked for clarification, making sure that what I thought I saw was really what was happening. It was. I explained that I had never seen that before and asked her how it tasted, how long she had been doing that, and if she knew of others that did this. This was something new and I was interested in learning more. I was curious.
“Curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Walt Disney
Turns out that this new job had led me to move somewhere new, and I was experiencing a popular cultural tradition that was different from my own culture.
Curiosity is all about being open to new ideas, new thoughts, new ways of doing things. It is what opens the door to learning and creativity. Being curious about your team members and what they can bring to the table is what will help the team develop into a high functioning and productive group. Leaders that demonstrate and encourage curiosity open the door for dialogue. Whether that be on the professional side or more personal side, the team will be more strongly bonded. The professional side will set the tone for innovation. The personal side will set the tone for cultural understanding.
Putting It All Together
Cultural awareness is frequently ranked among the top skills that companies want from all their employees, and especially from their leaders. When you break it all down, being culturally aware simply means that you have the ability to effectively interact and work with people of various cultural backgrounds. The key to working with various types of people is respect. If you can respect people for who they are, regardless of their background or beliefs, you have a much better chance of forming a good working relationship with them.
Cultural understanding takes the respect of awareness a step further. It shows a curiosity and desire to learn from and about another person. It involves having open communication in order to ask questions and receive learning from each other. When we are comfortable with the people, we feel free to inquire about their habits. What we need to develop, is our ability to ask questions even when we don’t the person that well. That is how we get to know them and become comfortable with them. We just have to remember to ask our curious questions in a respectful manner.
“Tolerance only for those who agree with you is no tolerance at all.” Ray Davis
As a leader, facilitator and coach, respect and curiosity have taken me a long way in developing meaningful relationships with various people. It has been the cornerstone to my success. The combination of genuine respect and curiosity has also served me well in breaking down cultural barriers and opening communication as I’ve traveled around the world. In leadership and in life, these are critical skills for success.
Revised April 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in Januaury 2019.