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Managing Cultural Diversity


Last updated 7/17/2014

The typical American office has never been so diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity and culture. In response, modern managers and HR professionals must come up with new solutions that embrace this growing diversity and learn how to manage cultural diversity.

Between 1994 and 2005 over half the U.S. work force was made up of minorities. Currently, one third of new immigrants to the U.S. are from Asia. Although these immigrants are classified broadly as “Asians,” they include a melting pot of nationalities—Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Malaysians, Koreans, Pacific Islanders, Japanese and Indians—each group having its own language, traditions and belief system. In addition, other workers—Hispanics, Europeans and African Americans—bring their own unique beliefs, traditions and languages to the workplace.

Different cultures embrace different perspectives on important workplace issues, like time management, respect for authority, teamwork and responsibility. Conflicting interpretations of transparency and ethics, methods of communication and reluctance to give and receive feedback may also arise. When clients and co-workers operate based on diverse belief systems with conflicting attitudes, it creates barriers to on the job bonding. These barriers need to be broken down in order for an organization to run efficiently and harmoniously. The responsibility falls on the organization's leadership, and particularly HR professionals, to ensure that these issues are addressed and managed. To goal is to make each worker feel valued—and that their needs are being addressed and considered.

I have spent the past 15 years promoting diversity management in global Fortune 500 firms headquartered throughout Asia. I found the following strategies to be particularly effective in managing and integrating diversity into the workforce.
  • Take a culture inventory. What are your company's demographics? How many different nationalities, cultures and ethnic groups are represented? Publish the results internally. Regularly post updates to show your workforce that you are making progress consistent with your statement of intent.

  • Craft a statement of intent regarding diversity and cultural positivity. Make sure that it is co-created with buy-in from top leadership. Post it publicly. It is okay to have a gap between where you want to be and where you are, provided that you are moving towards the ideal and not away from it.

  • Provide mentors cross culturally. This will help senior leadership relate to and understand people of other cultures as well as provide them with an experienced guide. Simply assigning a mentor is not enough; the mentoring relationship must be active. Senior leaders are not always comfortable with mentoring and may lack mentoring skills and motivation. Provide training to both mentors and mentees and institute a regular process for monitoring their progress.

  • Hold leadership accountable for harnessing diversity and cultural positivity. In the world of organizations, what gets measured gets done. Build these systems into a performance metric and regularly review the results.

  • Circulate notices/news/videos of other international offices. Profile them in the employee newsletter. Let Iowa know what's happening in Indonesia and vice versa. Focus on the people aspects more than performance.

  • Encourage leaders to prepare and present a cultural profile of their people. One of my clients uses a PowerPoint presentation to introduce his diverse team and their local environment. He plays this as a scene-setter before his main presentation.

  • Use icebreakers based on a positive view of cultural diversity. For example, ask meeting participants to introduce themselves as a descendant of their particular cultural group(s); share experiences from “the old country"; relate stories of parents' or grandparents" challenges.

  • Facilitate dialogues around values and aspirations. Focus on identifying people’s existing interpretations rather than rushing towards convergence.

  • Refrain from using culturally biased competencies in leadership development models. Keep in mind that initiative and risk-taking have very different boundaries across different cultures. To suggest a single, dominant style perpetuates the dominant culture.

  • Choose for talent, not quota. Leaders are grown, not born. If you don’t have enough of a talent pool from which to select emerging leaders, then grow the pool. This means actively recruiting more diversity candidates for their leadership potential. Also provide training and developmental opportunities, augmented by personal leadership coaching.

Avoid conflict while managing cultural diversity by signing up to our webinar on creating a friction free relationship in your workplace.