More events coming soon.
Nov / 2018

Farai Madzima talks cultural bias – and how to handle it

New York, USA
Farai Madzima talks cultural bias – and how to handle it

Farai Madzima was born in Zimbabwe, but his career has taken him all over the world – from major European agencies, to the experience design team at Africa’s largest bank. Now employed as a UX Lead in a diverse, multicultural team at Shopify in Ottawa, he’s fascinated by the way cultural differences play out in the workplace. And he stopped by our New York offices recently to share his own experiences, insights and learnings.

Farai’s starting point was the story of his long-time hero, jazz musician Hugh Masekela – who grew up playing a second-hand trumpet in a poor, South African shanty town. Despite these humble beginnings, Hugh’s talent and passion for music shone through, leading him all the way to New York and the jam sessions of jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Immersed in this new world of jazz, Hugh began to move away from his African roots and adopt a different, more Americanized style of playing. It was a way for him to fit in, make friends and find bandmates. But he risked losing everything that was special and distinctive about his sound.

It took a word from his friend Miles Davis to get him back on the right track. Miles pointed out that where Hugh came from was a source of power and told him to draw on his differences, not try to bury them.

Image source:

Hugh never forgot this advice and eventually went on to create to his own unique style of afro-jazz. But of course, Miles’ words don’t only apply to music. His message about embracing and celebrating difference has a far wider relevance – especially in today’s world, where many of us live, work and play in a multicultural melting pot.

Certainly at companies like Spotify, we’ve come to expect and accept diversity in all its many forms. We know our colleagues won’t necessarily look, speak or think like we do. And we welcome that, since many varied perspectives give rise to a richer and more exciting end product.

But cultural collaboration is not without its challenges, as Farai himself was quick to point out. He grew up in the strictly hierarchical Shona culture in Zimbabwe. But he landed his first job at a very democratic design agency in London, where he struggled to work peer-to-peer with his senior teammates. Ultimately, he botched up a big project and consequently got fired.

It was a harsh wake-up call for Farai, showing him the extent to which culture informs our values and perspectives and, in turn, how we interact with colleagues. But he found comfort in a book called The Culture Map, in which Dr. Erin Meyer sets out a framework to help understand and advance multicultural collaboration.

In her book, Dr. Meyer plots typical national traits on a series of behavioral scales. As an example, We can see that when it comes to evaluating and critiquing colleagues, it’s more typical to give direct negative feedback in French and Nigerian culture, while diplomacy and softer feedback is more usual in Japanese culture.

By consulting Meyer’s other scales, we can understand how our cultures and those of others approach workplace communication, disagreements, displays of trust, and so on. Farai believes that recognizing these kinds of differences is the best way to identify potential problems, preempt disagreements and allow everyone to work harmoniously together. That’s vital in a global organization like Spotify – which now employs a staggering 90 different nationalities.

Even our flagship offices – Stockholm and New York – are rooted in two very different cultures, with two very different ways of working. It’s plain to see in the way we interact with each other, make decisions and even consider work/life balance. And this cultural clash is something we’re up against on a daily basis.

So how can we embrace our differences and work better together in future?

For Farai, the answer lies in self awareness, mutual respect and understanding. Rather than tiptoeing round the issues, he recommends openness, honesty and a healthy dose of humor. And he sees cultural awareness and diversity training as things that should be integral to an organisation – an ongoing process involving everything from hiring and onboarding materials, to regular team catch-ups, one-to-ones and training sessions.

He’s also a big fan of team bonding, whether that’s swapping personal stories in an organised sharing session, or simply having lunch together in the office canteen. Being part of a tight-knit team, he feels, makes it easier to handle conflict and tricky conversations when they inevitably crop up. It helps everyone to recognize and appreciate their diverse skills, and to celebrate – not stifle – their cultural differences.

Which brings us back to the two men mentioned right at the beginning, jazz musicians Hugh Masekela and Miles Davis. According to Farai, we could all learn a lot from them about remembering our roots, staying authentic and harnessing our differences to make us stronger. Because when you bring people of various nationalities, values and attitudes together, it really is the best of all worlds.

Source: Interaction Design Association