Give Them Their Voice


We begin our story with Sarah*, a Senior Manager at a large and long established management services company, one that consistency appears in the Fortune 100 list. Sarah is highly educated having graduated from Harvard, is driven, charismatic, and by all accounts has the world at her feet.

Sarah is also a 3rd generation North American yet grew up in a very traditional Asian household, where adherence to cultural norms provided the basis for an orderly and peaceful upbringing. Within Sarah's household, as with the Asian community, values of interdependence, building and maintaining strong relationships and living as a single harmonious entity were more important than self-expression and pursuing personal gain.

In Japan, for example, if an individual choses to live or work without continuing and maintaining previous relationships, that person is perceived to be immature and not culturally sophisticated. (1) It is generally felt that a person is an expression of a much larger group, where knowing your place within the societal hierarchy is critical to avoiding chaos within the community. As stated by Hazel Markus, a social psychologist and professor of behaviour sciences at Stanford University, "In Asian cultures, your cultural task is harmony not self-expression."

When a traditional Asian household intersects with North America culture many elements of the 7,000 year old Asian culture will dominate.

Sarah, a highly educated successful Senior Manager, brings her strong cultural norms into her workplace. Despite being a Harvard graduate full of brilliant ideas, Sarah rarely spoke up in large group discussions, particularly if another colleague in the meeting was higher on the hierarchal ladder or older. Sarah's potential to fully contribute to the success of her organization was hampered by personal and cultural influences.

"Your cultural task is harmony, not self-expression."

Organizations must realize that it is not only biases within the workplace that limit innovation and creativity, but also an individual's cultural upbringing that can severely restrict expression. When Sarah's organization introduced Powernoodle into their decision making process, collaboration was enabled through 'smart anonymity'. Employees were able to voice their own opinion and ideas without cultural restrictions or feelings of cultural betrayal. Consequently, Sarah's ideas and thoughts were allowed to thrive and were consistently evaluated by her peers in the top 2 or 3 overall. The organization was finally able to benefit from Sarah's amazing intellect and reasoning skills and she felt more valued and connected to the strategies being developed.

There are many factors that inhibit people from adding their valuable insights and knowledge to the important decisions that occur every day in an organization. Sarah's cultural influence is only one example. Great leaders, those who want to hear from the edges of their organization, those that are looking for collaboration and innovation, will create a safe environment for discussion and debate. A place where all voices can be heard.


* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the client.

  1. Individual Vs. Group Decision Making. (2014). Avoid the Pitfalls. Get the Best Results. Retrieved July 20, 2015.