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Maria Pearson says understanding cultural diversity in the workplace is critical. Satish Kumar / The National
Maria Pearson says understanding cultural diversity in the workplace is critical. Satish Kumar / The National

Cultural conflict looms at work due to Middle East age gap

The Life: Grow.ME, a consultancy that offers courses on cultural diversity, warns that more young people in the workplace will be a major source of friction over the next few years.

When the financial crisis hit Dubai in 2009, the construction industry contracted and staff were let go. Often, it was not the architects or engineers of those firms that were made unemployed, but marketing employees.

As the economy picked up again, firms realised they had nobody to interact with clients. So they sent the architects and engineers to client meetings instead. This was not especially successful, says Maria Pearson, who co-founded Grow.ME, a learning and development consultancy that offers courses such as understanding cultural diversity in the workplace.

“Culture isn’t just about nationality. It can be about different professional groups, age, gender. People need to understand [each other’s] mindset.” The engineers had a “black-and-white” approach and Ms Pearson noted their tendency to focus on facts and figures to the exclusion of other issues.

“Their world is about being exact because if it isn’t exact, the building will not stand,” she explains. “We tried to help them understand that when you are engaging with a client and trying to connect with what’s going on in their mind, it’s not all about right and wrong.”

To this end, she set up a training programme to develop client relationship managers. Some of the participants were unable to make the mental shift, but for others a whole new world opened up. At one company, the staff who had been on the programme delivered 400 per cent above the targets they had been set in the first six months.

Originally from New Zealand, Ms Pearson has been in the Middle East for 20 years. She moved to the UAE from Bahrain to work for Emirates Airline. It was there that her interest in culture in the workplace developed.

“A big part of the safety side of airlines is dependent on culture,” she says. “The biggest airline accident ever was [partly] caused by cultural misunderstanding.” In 1977, two 747s collided on the runway at Tenerife, killing 583 people. The disaster was partly caused because of the workplace culture that made it unacceptable for a newly qualified co-pilot to challenge the senior pilot’s decisions.

In the UAE and Middle East, Ms Pearson predicts cultural differences resulting from age will be a major source of friction in the next few years because of a demographic shift that will swell the proportion of people under the age of 30 in the workforce.

“The people who are graduating from college about now, they have grown up with the internet,” she says. “So instead of asking parents or their manager for advice, they Google. For them, knowledge doesn’t equal power or respect.”

On the other hand, though, “we’ve got managers here with 20, 30, 40 years of experience. For them, it’s all about what [they] know. That’s what [they feel] gives them the edge. So there is going to be real conflict between the two. The internet is about collaboration and sharing. Most people who haven’t had masses of exposure to it don’t quite get that. Again, it’s about developing that mind shift.”

The solution she proposes is getting the older generation to assume the role of coaches and sharing what they know with younger people coming into the workforce who may have PhD and MBA degrees, but have little practical experience and implementation skills.

Ms Pearson says it is encouraging that a recent survey she had read showed that in the next couple of years businesses planned to spend the largest amount of their training budgets developing workers’ “people skills” rather than management’s leadership skills.

Because of the large number of different nationalities living and working in the UAE, Ms Pearson says it’s especially important here for employees to develop an understanding of their colleagues.

One example she cites is eye contact. For many in the West, making eye contact demonstrates respect and shows one is paying attention. For a large percentage of the population in the Middle East, making eye contact is impolite. “There needs to be an understanding that it’s not wrong, it’s just different,” she says. “It’s like an iceberg: this is what you see, but this is what is driving it from underneath.”

Grow.ME will be exhibiting at the Training and Development Show in Dubai on December 4 and 5.


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