Harnessing diversity

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With businesses facing some of the toughest market conditions we have seen for some years, the need to improve efficiency through achieving greater staff productivity has never been more important. Yet many firms are overlooking the one key asset that may just help them get ahead of the competition: the diversity within their staff.

The fact is diversity is the norm within UK business. Look around the room and you will see people who are different ages, genders and from different cultural backgrounds. All have alternative perspectives and different approaches to dealing with issues. In the UK, we are an ‘inclusive culture’ and tend largely to ignore, or politely ‘overlook’ differences. Although this approach is commendable compared with one of discrimination, it does preclude us from recognising and harnessing the talents of a diverse group of people.

However, if diversity is ignored, there can be an unspoken pressure to ‘fit in’. People tend to fall back on stereotypical behaviours. If we get out of our comfort zone of the middle ground and give staff permission to contribute safely, surprising insights on tackling common business problems can be gained.

From a HR perspective ‘difference’ is often seen as something which requires sensitive handling, and frequently it does. Most organisations have ‘diversity policies’ but these are often more about managing issues rather than taking advantages of benefits.

To succeed in harnessing diversity, I think it’s necessary that staff first appreciate that their own culture is invisible to them. In other words, staff need to be encouraged to be aware of the processes we go through to function in our own world before attempting to be effective communicators with a different or new culture. It must be acknowledged that there is an infinite variety and diversity of people and corporate behaviour.

If we refuse to recognise this and interpret our colleagues’ words, tone and body language using our own national yardstick, this will lead to a clash of invisible cultures. The result of such employee interaction is a negative spiral of disappointments, erosion of potential trust, damage to relationships, perhaps even before they are formed and a breakdown in communication. The consequence can be apparent overreaction, blame and resentment of the corporate entity.

The most effective way to approach cultural difference is therefore to understand the context of any alternative culture by looking at aspects of the country the staff originate from, such as history, hierarchy and even diet and climate and then deriving for ourselves the likely beliefs and values. A good exercise for staff is to imagine what is automatic in the home country and then questioning: is this really the case? Why is it automatic? Will it be the same in another country?

In Britain, for example, we may have a preference for orderly meetings with open discussion and frequent use of humour to break deadlock and tension. We proceed, sticking to an agenda, trying not to interrupt each other and finish the meeting with action points. However, this approach will not work elsewhere. Strict timekeeping is likely to be impossible to implement in Latin cultures. Direct criticism of staff in front of others in Asian cultures will cause the recipient embarrassing loss of face and the use of indirect language to soften the impact of what is being said will be met with annoyance by Germanic people who prefer a direct approach. At this point it is important not to be judgmental and label the values of other nations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Once this understanding is achieved, staff can be actively encouraged to recognise the positives of working with different cultures. ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ - this is the principle behind team working in any professional context. When different nationalities and cultures are brought into the mix, potential synergies are magnified as different cultures all bring different views and perspectives on solving issues and, in this way, diversity can be harnessed.
 
 
 

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