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Redefining Jobs for a Culturally Diverse Workforce: Too Much of a Good Thing?


Employees at work reaching in to give eachother a high-five.

By offering employees new challenges and increasing their autonomy and responsibilities, managers and supervisors believe that they can encourage employees to feel happier, more motivated, and become more productive. A new study however challenges this assumption widely accepted in HR practices. Associate Professor Magda Donia from the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management and collaborators suggest that increasing employee’s responsibilities and autonomy in culturally diverse workplaces does not always lead to higher employee satisfaction, performance, and creativity.

Cultural Differences Matter

Our perceptions of workplace dynamics are deeply rooted in our cultural context. When it comes to how we respond to hierarchy, ambiguity, and uncertainty in the workplace, past research has shown major differences across cultures.

In some cultures, employees are more comfortable with hierarchal systems where they follow the lead of a supervisor, whereas, in other cultures, employees appreciate an equal share of roles and responsibilities and enjoy being involved in the decision- making process. In some cultures, employees are less likely to tolerate ambiguity and vagueness in most day-to-day situations in the workplace. In others, employees feel more relaxed when facing unexpected or unfamiliar situations at work. But what happens when our job responsibilities increase in a new and unfamiliar workplace environment?

Professor Donia and collaborators found that the unique perceptions and experiences we bring to the workplace can affect how we respond to the greater responsibilities and increased demands of a redefined position. Their study sends an important message to organizations that employ a multicultural workforce or operate internationally: that employees from certain contexts can even view their new role as a threat instead of an exciting opportunity for professional advancement.

Research Findings

When employees are assigned more challenging tasks and responsibilities, their unique orientations toward hierarchy, ambiguity, and uncertainty in the workplace lead to very diverse responses:

  • Employees who are more likely to tolerate hierarchy and less likely to tolerate ambiguous and uncertain situations may perceive new job challenges as a burdensome and threatening experience, leading to lower employee satisfaction, performance, and creativity.
  • Employees who are comfortable with equal shares of responsibilities and flexible about unclear or unknown situations tend to view an increase in their independence and job responsibilities as an exciting and energizing opportunity, leading to higher employee satisfaction, performance, and creativity.

Practical Advice for Employers

A better understanding of employees’ culturally specific workplace experiences can be crucial in Canada, where organizations employ a multiculturally diverse workforce. When involving culturally diverse employees in more complex responsibilities with the hope of increasing their satisfaction, performance, and creativity, employers must think outside of the box of HR management practices:

“If employers understand that not all employees perceive hierarchy, ambiguity, and uncertainty in the same way and are sensitive to how their unique cultural experiences of the workplace affect their ability to cope with more managerial responsibilities, everyone benefits.”

Professor Donia

Are you managing a culturally diverse team? Are you responsible for modifying their roles and responsibilities? Here is Donia’s hands-on advice so you can help your team thrive:

  • Whenever possible, involve employees in decisions that affect them.
  • Have open and timely conversations with employees about new aspects of their jobs, such as the description of their skills and complexity of their tasks.
  • Develop training in areas enhancing one's job related skills.
  • Allow for some time off compensating for the more demanding work schedule when employees are learning and transitioning into more managerial positions.
  • Make sure you create a fair workplace environment: if employees find the process by which decisions to give them more complex tasks and demanding responsibilities are fair, they are likely to respond more favourably.
  • Provide stress management workshops and seminars to help employees navigate through the challenges created by novel and unstructured jobs.

The results of this study have been recently published in the Human Resources Management Journal. Read the full article to learn how managers can create the favourable conditions for all employees to thrive at work.

Professor DoniaMagda Donia is an Associate Professor of Strategy at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management. Her main research interests focus on individual and organizational giving exceeding formal role expectations. Learn more about her work.