Excerpts from Debbie Narver’s Book How to Manage Culturally Diverse Work Teams

What is Cultural Diversity?

Before we talk about how to manage culturally diverse work teams, we need to get a better understanding of the term diversity.  In general, it means that members of a group are not all alike.  But there are many levels to that.  Consider that each human being is unique, and therefore, all groups have diversity.  However, we expect people of similar backgrounds and heritage to share similar characteristics.

In social and work environments, diversity often refers to visible differences.  People may be categorized by gender, age and ethnicity (such as visible minorities).  Taking it a step further, we can group people by education, professional designation, language, religious beliefs, interests (i.e. runners, dog lovers), etc.

Let’s start with understanding what we mean by “Culture”

Culture is a complex term, which is used in different ways.  It generally refers to a set of shared values and beliefs that have evolved over time.  These values and beliefs become deeply ingrained, often at a subconscious level.  We sometimes use the term “culture” when talking about art, music and the finer aspects of civilization.  There is also the notion of “Corporate culture”, which defines the values and behaviours of a business or organization.

National Culture describes the values, beliefs, customs and behaviours that are generally associated with people from a particular country or region.  Consider how the nature of the physical environment greatly influences the social development and structure of communities.   For example, geographically isolated communities have little outside influence, and therefore, develop their own social norms.  Parents teach their children what behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable.  It is passed from generation to generation.

Is Culture the same as Ethnicity?

Cultural diversity and ethnicity are often confused, but they can be quite different.  For example, you may observe two people that appear to be Asian.  Let’s call them Sam and Tracy.  Sam’s parents immigrated from China to Canada before Sam was born.  He attended public school and made friends with other Canadian children.  On the other hand, Tracy is an exchange student from China.  This is her first time travelling abroad and interacting with Canadians. Although Sam and Tracy may share the same ethnicity, they are very different from a cultural perspective.

So as you can see, cultural diversity is a fairly complex thing!  In my book, I will focus predominantly on diversity of national culture, as this is a fairly new and less understood concept.  There are many books and courses on general diversity.  But these miss a great part of the differences and needs associated with people of different nationality.

Why is it Important for Organizations to Manage Culturally Diverse Work Teams?

Simply, our world is now interconnected.  As organizations are facing challenges with rapid technological change, globalization and demographic shifts, effectively leveraging human resources and creating synergy seems an essential strategy for survival.  While there may be the rare niche business that is confined to a small geographic area, unchanging customer base and no need for new employees – most of us are faced with the fact that we must adapt to a rapidly changing business environment.

Statistics Canada reports that by 2031, almost one-half of Canadians will be foreign-born, or have one parent that is foreign born.  That portion of our population is increasing four times faster than the rest of our population!  Do we understand what they need and expect as workers?  As customers?

And also consider the increase of foreign investment into Canada, and from Canada into foreign countries.  Joint Ventures, Mergers and Acquisitions – employees from different companies in different countries must now integrate and work together.  Sometimes there is physical movement of people between countries (either intermittent or permanent).  But often it requires communicating and developing long distance relationships through technology.

Does cultural diversity provide advantage to business?

Organizations that are proactive in developing a diversity strategy will have advantages in recruiting and retaining skilled employees, developing relationships with foreign partners, and gaining new local customers from the increasing immigrant population.  Those organizations that chose to continue as usual and try to make diversity “fit” their current models may be surprised to find a lack of customers, employees and partners that are willing to be “fitted”.

Another important aspect is that when you manage culturally diverse work teams, it can bring new knowledge and networks to your organization.   Other countries or regions may have already dealt with problems that are just now surfacing in our area.  Your new team member may be able to show you the solution and train others.  On the other hand, your new team member may recognize the need for your product or service in their home country.  They may just have the connections you need to establish your business in a new market.

And consider how diversity helps teams to produce unique and exceptional results.  Through diverse view points and experience, creativity and innovation are enabled.  You can avoid the dreaded “group think” that has lead many teams and organizations down the wrong road.  That is, people that are too similar and comfortable with each other just automatically agree and fail to look at other alternatives.  Solutions are mediocre at best, and can be disastrous if the team fails to recognize an important risk.

What does this mean for Managing Culturally Diverse Work Teams?

The good news is that managers can learn specialized skills and techniques to manage culturally diverse work teams more effectively and efficiently.  The key is to develop Cross Cultural Leadership competencies.  It does take some time and focus, but the investment is definitely worth it!  And once you become more culturally aware, it will naturally improve your overall leadership skills.  After all, leadership is about our ability to influence others.  The more we can broaden our awareness and understanding of individual differences, the more we are positioned to lead in a complex and dynamic environment.

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