When in Rome… Why senior managers need to understand social cultures

Colin Ellis
4 min readOct 11, 2023
It’s a small world afterall

Sociocultural anthropology, shortened to social culture for the purpose of this blog, is the study of traditions, customs, laws, politics, family structures, lived experiences, belief systems and gender studies in relation to global societal diversity.

Through research, anthropologists are able to demonstrate ‘that different people living in different environments will often have different cultures.’

What this means for senior managers, in a work context, is that they need to understand the social conditions in the country within which they operate. However, given that many organisations now employ humans of all nationalities, whose lived social culture experiences are quite different from those within which they are working, managers need to understand these too.

Without an understanding of these differences, it’s very easy for managers — and their organisations — to get drawn into the mistaken assumption that just because an organisation is based in the UK (for example), then everyone understands the customs, beliefs and experiences of living there.

As a UK citizen myself, I understand that putting the kettle on and making a cup of tea is the answer to all of the world’s problems (regardless of size or severity), however, this is not the case if you were born, raised or work in Ethiopia, Australia, Thailand, Denmark or Brazil!

Here are some examples from some other countries:

In Japan, it’s common to participate in after-work social drinking with coworkers. This ritual of “nomikai” helps build social bonds and team cohesion. Bowing and exchanging business cards in a ritualised manner are also important in Japanese business culture.

In India, greeting colleagues with “namaste” and a slight bow is a respectful ritual. Status, hierarchy and formality are important in Indian workplaces. Bringing sweets to share during festivals is a workplace tradition.

In the U.S., water cooler chats, potlucks, birthday cakes, and workplace sports teams are common social rituals that build camaraderie.

And so on.

It feels like an obvious thing to write about, however, most senior managers simply don’t understand this, instead thinking that it’s up to other people from other cultures to simply adapt to the way that ‘things work here’.

This is not how a multinational culture operates and many diversity and inclusion programs miss this too.

And if that’s not enough, senior managers also need to ensure that they retain a full awareness of what is happening within their social culture environment too. This is crucially important if they are to build a purpose and set of values that speaks to the ‘way of the world’ today and attracts the kind of people they need to maintain and evolve their current culture.

By failing to understand the cultural and political shifts, managers run the risk of becoming irrelevant as they stay wedded to the way things used to be, not the way things are. You’ll often hear managers say things like:

  • ‘It wasn’t like that in my day’
  • ‘It used to be different back then’
  • ‘You can’t say anything these days’
  • ‘I’m always getting told off for the things that I say’
  • ‘It doesn’t work like that here’
  • ‘I don’t understand this generation’.

People are attracted to work for organisations where they believe there is a purpose and values match. This values match is only possible if candidates see that the organisation and its management are relevant in the current global or national climate but without losing the sense of local relevance that a prospective employee might be drawn to.

Global organisations (that is, those with subsidiaries in countries around the world) need to be mindful of not imposing the ‘head office’ culture on each country. Forced assimilation will only lead to resentment. Each country manager should be empowered to build their own working culture that aligns with the shared considerations.

And of course, there’s the rub, as senior managers are not taught how to do this, yet, it’s one of the most important aspects in building a respectful culture of connection and collaboration.

Whenever I teach this in organisations, managers understand that when they are actively aware of social cultures in the workplace they are better able to:

Foster Inclusion — Understanding cultural backgrounds and norms helps create an inclusive environment where all employees feel welcomed and valued. This boosts engagement and retention.

Avoid Miscommunications — Social rituals and unwritten rules that are obvious to some may be unclear to others. Being aware prevents awkward situations and miscommunications.

Build Trust and Rapport — Respecting and participating in team bonding rituals shows employees they care.

Smooth Cross-Cultural Collaboration — Bridging cultural gaps and taboos enables easier collaboration with international partners, clients, and multi-cultural teams.

Boost Productivity — When employees feel comfortable being themselves at work, they are more productive. Understanding cultural needs creates a better work experience.

Celebrate Difference — Showing interest in their team’s backgrounds and participating in rituals sets the tone for mutual understanding.

Avoid Conflict — Being aware of potential cultural landmines prevents unnecessary tensions, disagreements or unintended offences.

Teaching senior managers (all managers for that matter!) about social cultural differences ensures that there is an understanding of how to build a sense of belonging for all team members, not just those who happen to be ‘local’.

It builds empathy and respect, ensures that diversity and inclusion are things that are done (not just talked about) and for many, removes bias they may have around people from different backgrounds.

To build diverse cultures that work harmoniously to get things done requires that you teach managers how to do it. What are you doing to help managers bridge the cultural divides?

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com