Can being African make you bad at design? That was the title of a talk I gave at IxDA’s Interaction 18 conference.

I wrote the talk to convince people of something I had long suspected but had yet to prove — that being African led to me getting fired. But not for the reasons you might think. It was because of cultural friction. Let me explain.

In my Zimbabwean Shona culture, strict hierarchies govern relationships at home and sometimes at work. My seniors and higher-ups have more power than me by virtue of status. Growing up, I accepted and expected this.

Contrast this with the culture during my first UX job in London. My boss made me tea and brought biscuits to my desk. He didn’t even like me calling him “my boss.” I found this flat boss-as-peer culture strange, in a good way. It helped me fit in. Or so I thought.

Image by Mikasa Sonnenberg

Two years in, I was leading a project that was going off the rails. To me, failure meant deep shame, something not easily discussed with higher-ups. So I tried to fix things while awaiting the right time to raise this with my boss.

In Shona, we say: “Rina manyanga hariputirwi.” Roughly translated, it means “That which has horns cannot be covered.” Because, you know, it’s going poke through at some point. This happened when the client called my boss to complain about the project, which kicked off a series of difficult conversations over the next few days. In the last of these, my boss said these words that I’ll never forget: “Farai, we’re going to have to let you go.”

I knew where and how I had failed. But it was only months later that I started to understand why.

The power of Power Distance

My moment of realization came while I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” In it he talks about Hofstede’s Power Distance Index. Social scientists use power distance to describe the extent to which members in organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally, top down.

Shona culture exemplifies high power distance — our higher-ups have more power than us. We do not typically consider them peers and do not expect to share open channels of communication with them in all matters.

A diverse team collaborates against a whiteboard.

Take, for instance, when I decided to get married. As a good Shona son, I couldn’t just tell my parents that I was getting married. No, I had to follow a communication protocol involving aunts, uncles, and cousins. All of this was to ensure that my father received the news from a person of the appropriate standing in the family. This was normal to me.

My Shona culture showed up at work in a way that I neither expected nor understood. My boss treated me as a peer every day we worked together. He put up no barriers between us. Yet, I put up my own barriers because that was the only normal I knew. This is cultural friction at work.

Talent acquisition teams the world over are working overtime to recruit diverse talent to our teams. By working with people who don’t think like us, we can get better at solving complex problems.

When we talk about diversity, however, we often miss the fact that the diverse perspectives we seek are often rooted in national culture. And that culture not only informs our perspectives and values but also how we behave. All this can happen outside of our awareness.

Culture hides more than it reveals and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants.

Edward T. Hall, Silent Language

That’s what happened to me. I say that not to make an excuse for my failure, but to point out that as we build diverse teams, trust and effective collaboration will not happen by default. Team members will experience cultural friction rooted in cultural misunderstandings, which may not be easy to diagnose.

Understanding very different biases in different cultures

But there is hope. In her book “The Culture Map,” Dr. Erin Meyer gives us a simple but useful framework to understand how cultural differences show up at work. Meyer suggests that regardless of your role, your work involves some of the following: deciding, disagreeing, scheduling, trusting, giving negative feedback, communicating, persuading, and leading.

Erin’s framework lets us understand the biases in different cultures when it comes to these  activities.

A sliding graph that illustrates how different cultures perceive giving and receiving negative feedback on a direct to indirect scale.
How some cultures may handle giving and receiving negative feedback (Adapted from Culture Map).

Take, for example, giving direct negative feedback, a critical skill for improving craft and quality. On one end of the scale, Meyer has countries where people value and expect direct negative feedback, even in front of others, such as in Russian culture. At the opposite end of the scale, we have cultures where direct negative feedback is not acceptable and can disrupt the harmony of a relationship, such as in Japanese culture.

Looking at where different countries sit on this scale we can set our expectations on how people from those places might relate and behave. The scale is not a guarantee, but a guide.

Take the case of Mathias, a German designer who attended a diversity and dysfunction workshop I ran earlier this year. After moving from Berlin to his company’s San Francisco office, Mathias was getting feedback from his new peers that he gave “brash and insensitive” feedback during design reviews. For his part, Mathias felt that his San Francisco team often beat around the bush and was too touchy-feely with their critique.

It turns out that in German culture, being direct and objective when giving negative feedback shows that you care about the work done. In America, it makes you a bit of a douche.

Using Erin’s scale, the team’s leadership could have anticipated Mathias’s struggle. They could also have prepared by having the team agree on a critique framework to use during design reviews.

Cultural misunderstandings can lead to real consequences

Farai Madzima smiling headshot.
Farai Madzima

Being African can’t make me bad at design any more than being German makes Mathias a douche. But misunderstandings born of cultural bias are real and can lead to real consequences.

When we build teams of people with diverse perspectives, we increase the likelihood of creating resilient and adaptive teams that solve complex problems well.

But to realize that benefit, we must be aware of potential cultural biases by using frameworks such as Erin’s “Culture Map.” Once we become aware of biases, we must prepare team members and leaders to avoid cultural bias becoming cultural friction in diverse teams.