Do certain strategies lend themselves better to the management of a diverse team? Could these strategies improve our interactions and relationships with people from cultural backgrounds that are different from ours? Would these strategies help to bridge cultural differences that affect productivity in our organizations? The answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes!”
What then, begs the question, might these strategies be?
As someone who has committed her fair share of intercultural mishaps and who has been at the receiving end of quite a few, I am going to describe some pertinent anecdotes to shed some light on the matter.
- Check your habits and assumptions
When I was an international student at university, I met several people – students, instructors, etc. who told me, as a compliment, that I spoke English very well. They assumed I had learned English as a second language, because they knew I was a foreigner. As it turns out, English is my mother tongue and so, I didn’t appreciate the compliment or the assumption. Despite their good intentions, the “compliment” stung, especially after I had heard it for the umpteenth time.
In contrast, there was a university professor who insisted I possessed high proficiency in the English language, because I had learned it in England, and not in my native country. Regardless of my assertions, he refused to believe and accept that English was my mother tongue, because he had never met anyone like me before. Naturally, I was outraged, and that exchange left me with a poor impression of that university professor and the institution he worked for.
The lesson here to remember is that cultural backgrounds and identities can be complex and ambiguous. Refrain from putting people into rigid categories or boxes that only you are familiar with.
You can possibly avoid inaccurate and offensive assumptions by, for example, asking open-ended or general questions, or by modeling an introduction that may encourage the other party to do likewise. If you have already made an error inadvertently, and someone does you a favor and points it out, be humble, accept it, and apologize. Most importantly, do not argue with the other person, deny, or contradict the cultural information you have been offered, but accept it graciously as if it were a special gift.
- Avoid underestimating talent because of cultural differences
In my humble opinion, I have had a successful career as a professional that has spanned more than twenty years. I also have about eight years of post-secondary education, including a graduate degree, and I am now an intercultural development consultant and a certified professional leadership coach. I am thankful I have had these opportunities, but I am also proud of my hard work and accomplishments. Last year, I was honored I had the opportunity to give a presentation at a conference to professionals who worked in a variety of sectors. I prepared a detailed proposal as required and my proposal was accepted by the conference organizers.
After the presentation, I had a brief exchange with one of the audience members during which she questioned me about my background. She wanted to know if I had professional experience in the field, which organizations I had worked for, and how long I had worked there, etc. It was as if she had placed me under a magnifying glass or microscope. My affirmative answers not only surprised, but also silenced her. I inferred that she had been unsure if I were qualified to give the presentation and she wanted to satisfy her concerns. I realized she had missed the introduction about my background, because she had arrived late. Nevertheless, I found it disheartening that her underestimation of me had created a mental block that prevented her from focusing on the value of my presentation. Unfortunately, in my career, this has not been an isolated incident.
Transfer this kind of exchange to a work place and imagine the consequences of leaders underestimating the potential and capability of their employees because of cultural differences. For one, it can be very damaging to employee morale. It can also result in disengagement if employees are assigned to and end up performing work that they are overqualified for. Ironically, this can lead to underachievement on the part of employees as they become disillusioned and dissatisfied with their jobs and the organization. In the end, the organization’s productivity suffers. Disengaged employees, especially those of quality, are likely to quit their jobs in search of organizations that have the leadership caliber to value their expertise and potential, or they may just fall into the cycle of absenteeism. I am reminded of a saying that sometimes, employees quit and leave; sometimes, they quit and stay.
- Be flexible with regard to cultural practices
In one of the organizations I worked for that had a high level of ethnic diversity, employees were directed – no exceptions were allowed – to dress up for a fundraising drive scheduled for Halloween. Some employees, who did not support the idea, decided to demonstrate their dissension in an indirect way. Without informing the leader of their intention, they banded together and dressed up in their traditional outfits instead of Halloween costumes on the day in question. This action effectively disqualified them from participating in the fundraiser, but that was the point. Unfortunately, the fundraiser could have been more successful if these employees had been included.
In organizations where there is a dominant majority and many minorities, such as the ones I have worked for, the culture of the dominant majority is expected to be accepted by all employees as the status quo. Members of the dominant majority expect minorities to fit into this status quo by complying with the norms, a statement I have heard on quite a few occasions. Majority members may expect minorities to do so by imitating their cultural practices, such as dressing up for Halloween, even if the minority members do not understand or identify with these practices. Majority members use imitation as a strategy to include minorities in the dominant culture without realizing that it can backfire and produce negative effects.
In such situations, imitation is hardly the sincerest form of flattery. Instead, leaders may need to reflect on the following questions: are they being flexible and creative about how different groups may participate in prevailing dominant cultural practices? On the other hand, are they restricting interpretations of dominant cultural practices that may alienate and isolate others and breed resentment?
- Know your real capability with cultural differences
Some leaders may pride themselves on having a positive or progressive attitude to cultural differences. In fact, until they are professionally assessed in this area, they cannot really know for sure how capable they are. That was my experience. I come from a multicultural family and heritage, have traveled widely, lived in three different countries, and interacted with people from many different backgrounds. I took for granted that I had a high level of capability to manage people from cultural backgrounds that were different from mine.
Until I completed the assessment of my intercultural competence, however, it was as if I had been wearing a blindfold. I was not aware of how I was bridging cultural differences or whether I was doing so appropriately and effectively. Such a lack of self-awareness can cause confusion in leaders about their performance in intercultural relationships and situations. They might wonder and become frustrated about why they have experienced intercultural problems or conflicts and why the desired outcomes are not being achieved.
In conclusion, leaders need to be honest, if not with others, then at least with themselves, about whether they are as competent in bridging cultural differences as they think or hope they are. If leaders are struggling in this area, it is the responsible thing to do to seek appropriate help.
Moreover, leaders’ lack of self-awareness about their intercultural competence can have serious implications and limitations for diversity and inclusion strategies and initiatives. The organization would be only as progressive and its strategies would be only as effective as the leaders’ level of development in intercultural competence. The more intercultural and adaptive leaders are in bridging cultural differences, the more appropriate and effective their strategies would be. Otherwise, leaders would be perplexed about the slow rate of progress and questionable success of their strategies despite investments in resources such as training.
If you have questions about the content of this blog, or would like help with bridging cultural differences between yourself and your team members or clients, please contact me at [email protected] or you could fill in the contact form on this website. I look forward to engaging with you!