By Dr Steven Kiely MAPS, consulting psychologist and Professor Alex Main, cultural psychologist

Cross-cultural psychology is often considered to be a specialist discipline within psychology. As a result, other specialties within psychology sometimes neglect cultural factors when researching or implementing interventions. Clinical psychologists may, for example, assume that depression manifests itself in the same manner in Indigenous or non-Indigenous clients, or developmental psychologists may look for the same age-related skills in every group of children, irrespective of ethnic background.

Cultural diversity in the workplace still does not feature prominently in the training of organisational psychologists, nor do cultural variables get significant consideration in organisational psychology research in Australia. This is despite the extensive coverage given to cultural issues in Volume 4 of The Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology published in 1994.

Australia is one of the world’s most diverse nations, manifest by the rich cultural diversity of our First People, the large-scale immigration that has been encouraged by Australia’s multicultural policy and our contribution to international humanitarian programs. In addition, several commercial factors have led to a significant increase in migrant workers in recent years. Much of Australia’s economy now depends on the activities of multinational companies (especially at this time of the mining and resources boom), and mergers and acquisitions of large companies doing business in Australia often bring in managers, supervisors and employees from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Moreover, an ageing workforce and skill shortages in many areas have led to large scale overseas recruitment. This means that the scope of the work environment in the business, health and community sectors has changed from local to global and international perspectives, and has highlighted cultural differences in attitudes and approaches to work.

The role of organisational psychologists in education and training

Increased cultural diversity in organisations leads to augmented complexity of communication, decision making and workplace relations. DuPraw and Axner (1997) highlight the source of such complexity as coming from differences in:

  • Verbal and non-verbal communication styles
  • Attitudes towards conflict and disclosure
  • Approaches to completing tasks
  • Decision-making styles.

These differences potentially give rise to confusion within the workforce, uncertainty in management and supervision, and consequent reduction in effective communication. Tackling the consequences of such workplace disparities is a major task which organisational psychologists are well suited to undertake. Organisational psychologists, through their training and their employment contracts, apply psychological principles to assist people to do their jobs. Specifically, this is achieved by helping employers to treat employees fairly, assisting in making jobs more interesting and satisfying, and facilitating workers to be more productive with safer practices. Psychologists are more likely to reach these goals in a multicultural society if they are aware of the influence that culture has on human behaviour.

Cross-cultural management programs are already in existence in Australia, for example the Australian Multicultural Foundation has developed a program called ‘Managing Cultural Diversity’. However, such programs seem to be designed on a top-down model, which often alienates individual workers and prevents effective team-building. They are also often offered by ‘cultural specialists’ or ‘management trainers’, who frequently do not take a whole-of-organisation approach. A successful shift from monocultural organisational practices to one which recognises diversity requires inputs right across an organisation. The specialty of organisational psychology has practitioners who work at all levels within organisations, with the capacity to bring cultural awareness not only to management practices, but also to areas such as motivation, goal-setting, team-building, job design and evaluation, quality control and reward allocation.

Influence on organisational policies and practices

Project Scotland Yard

The aim of the project was to ensure that the organisation was managerially and operationally capable of serving a culturally diverse population of eight million people. It was coordinated by a police officer of the highest rank, advised by a very experienced psychologist and executed by a team of organisational psychologists. The psychologists who undertook the facilitation of research, development, training and change management were all culturally aware organisational psychologists and not cross-cultural psychologists.

The psychologists’ tasks involved:

  • Evaluation of public attitudes towards policing, to provide a basis for work-tasking, revision of job descriptions, duty statements and accountability practices
  • Evaluation of police capacities, to assess what tasks could be realistically undertaken by the organisation within its political and social setting
  • Examination of the organisational ethos of Scotland Yard, to generate realistic policies and procedures acceptable to government, workforce and the public
  • Evaluation and re-construction of selection, training and development relevant to all levels of work in an organisation of 29,000 people.

The successes that were achieved were largely due to the close working relationships between organisational psychologists and serving police officers at all ranks throughout the Force. This was maintained by a dedicated team, in which mutual understanding and respect for both policing and psychological skills, knowledge and attitudes were central to everyday working and planning.


Assuming that organisational psychologists have a valuable place in organisational development, they are much more likely to influence policies and practices which recognise cultural diversity. This requires the practitioners to be culturally proactive at every level where they have an influence. In the Australian business context, organisational psychologists can influence not only the health and wellbeing of the workforce through strong cultural awareness policies and practices, but also the competitive advantage of organisations in both the domestic and global market. Moreover, such policies and practices will also meet social (i.e., inclusiveness), legal and compliance (e.g., health and safety) responsibilities.

Two illustrative examples are included here to demonstrate the benefits of culturally aware organisational psychology. To become a more globally competitive organisation, a multi-national company needs to make the management of cross-cultural diversity a strategic objective. A team of organisational psychologists would oversee this change process and focus on the key areas of organisational development (i.e., organisational mission, recruitment and selection, learning and development, and knowledge management) to achieve this goal. This strategic shift to becoming a more diverse organisation increases not only the company’s social reputation in the business world and community, but it also becomes an employer of choice for talent worldwide. Additionally, the diversity of talented people in the organisation means that it now has the capabilities to predict and rapidly adapt to market trends, along with developing innovative products and services on a global level.

In another context, a manufacturing company with a culturally diverse workforce may seek the services of an organisational psychologist to reduce workplace accidents. The organisational psychologist would coordinate the redevelopment of the Occupational Health and Safety strategy to ensure that communication and training procedures are appropriate for all workers, particularly those whose first language is not English. This would result not only in the use of qualified interpreters to communicate verbally and in writing what is required of employees, but also – more importantly – in the development of training packages to ensure that the entire workforce clearly understands their responsibilities, regardless of culture. Such an act would meet not only social and compliance responsibilities, but also reduce the potential legal ramifications resulting from avoidable workplace accidents.

These benefits are often more obvious in the business and commercial sectors, where income and profit are central driving forces for the efficiency and effectiveness of the workforce. However, there are non-fiscal benefits also for government and non-government agencies when cultural issues are adopted as a priority in service delivery. The recent Working Together report sponsored by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing shows ample evidence of the improvements in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing policies and practice that are possible through concerted effort of government agencies and the psychological profession.

One of the outstanding examples of how applied psychologists influenced the culture of a major organisation and altered its relationship with its clients is the decade-long overhaul of training and development of the 29,000 officers in London’s Metropolitan Police Service during the 1980s. Organisational psychologists, with collaboration from educational and cultural specialists, played a central role in re-organising training and management styles towards meeting the needs of the increasingly diverse population of a major world capital city. It was in essence a project with explicit cultural intention. It recognised that enormous changes in the ethnic composition of the metropolis had led to confusions about values, roles and responsibilities for the management of law and order in London, and also in the management of the police organisation itself. The tasks involved are briefly summarised in the boxed information. Reports of the work are scattered over several dozen major government and internal documents, but an overview of the outcomes can be obtained from the second author of this paper, who was centrally involved in the design and coordination of the project.


The increasingly culturally diverse nature of the Australian workforce highlights the growing need for culturally aware psychologists in this country. For this change to occur, greater emphasis at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels of training is needed to ensure that psychology graduates are well equipped to deal with the inevitable cultural changes in Australia. Moreover, additional cross-cultural training for organisational psychologists and other consultants would be a valuable addition to an already specialist skill set. Finally, the organisational psychology community should consider forming strong alliances with cross-cultural psychology to strengthen their skills and to benefit from cultural research relevant to industry, business, government and the public sectors.
The principal author of this article can be contacted at .


Dunnette, M. D., Hough, L., & Triandis, H. (Eds.) (1994). Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (2nd Edition), Volume 4. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

DuPraw, M., & Axner, N. (1997). Working on common cross-cultural communication challenges. Retrieved in May 2011 from

Purdie, N., Dudgeon, P., & Walker, R. (2010). Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental helath and Wellbeing Principles and Practice. Barton ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.