How to Value Multi-Cultural and Diverse Organizations

Sections of This Topic Include

Cultural Diversity Has a Huge Affect on Perceptions of Leadership
Basic Guidelines to Culturally-Specific Interactions
How to Learn Basics About a Culture
Hints for Talking with Others About Management Activities
How to Talk About Management and Leadership in Diverse Environments

Additional Perspectives About Valuing Diversity
General Resources About Valuing Diversity

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Cultural Diversity Has a Huge Affect on Perceptions of Leadership

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD

In today’s highly diverse organizations, the ability to work in diverse cultures is extremely important. An organization’s culture is driven by the values throughout that organization. Employees need to feel that their values are recognized, understood and respected. They need to feel that their ideas and concerns are being heard. Those conditions create strong motivation and momentum for strong performance in their jobs. Also, to help your employees to make meaningful decisions – and to understand decisions that they may have made already – it is extremely important that you have some understanding of the culture and values of the organization.

It can be a major challenge to work in multicultural environments where others have values, beliefs and certain conventions that are distinctly different from yours. Differences between cultures can lead to increased resistance to leadership because others might not understand and trust you. Those differences can hamper the effectiveness of leadership, if not stop it altogether.

For example, Western cultures tend to be highly rational and value things that are very useful in meeting a current need. They value rugged individualism and competition. Some cultures might value patience, a sense of community and getting along with others, and still others might value direct authority and privacy. Some cultures may be overly deferential to the leader. Some cultures are deeply guarded about private matters.

You and your employees might not even realize that you all have very different values. There are no universal laws to ensure conformity in each culture. Because of complexities in continually learning the cultures of your organization, it is critical for you to continually be open to differences and ask for help from your employees.

Although leading in multicultural organizations comes with its own unique challenges, it comes with many benefits, as well. There are few other such powerful experiences in which you can learn so much about people and organizations and also about yourself. The following guidelines are intended to focus on the most practical suggestions for working in multicultural environments.

Basic Guidelines to Culturally-Specific Interactions

The following guidelines might be useful, especially if you are new to the organization.

1. Be aware of your personal biases, style, preferences, lens and focus.

This is critically important for successful leadership in any type of culture. You make a major difference in your organization, whether you know it or not, just by exposing it to your own nature and style of working. Thus, you need to understand your nature.

2. Realize that each part of an organization probably has a unique culture.

For example, the secretarial staff might interact with each other in a manner quite different from that of the marketing staff. In larger organizations, there are often several differences, for example, between senior management and support staff.

3. Promptly convey to employees that you want to be sensitive to their culture.

You should start in your first interaction with them. State that you recognize that different people might work differently depending on their own personalities and the culture of the overall organization. Ask them how you can understand the nature of their organization.

4. Consider getting a mentor, or representative, from the organization.

Attempt to get someone from the organization to help you understand their culture and how to work in a manner compatible with the culture of the organization. This request is not a sign of weakness or lack of expertise; rather it is an authentic request that better serves you and your employees.

How to Learn Basics About a Culture

Consider asking others to help you understand how each of the following aspects might be unique in the culture of the organization. Key cultural aspects that might affect your leadership include:

  • Assertiveness Are members of your organization comfortable being honest and direct with each other? If not, how can you still be as authentic as possible and help them to be as authentic as possible, as well?
  • Body language Are there any specific cues that you can notice to help you to sense how others are experiencing you?
  • Communication styles and direction Is communication fairly direct and specific or more indirect and general? Does information flow mostly “upward” to executives or is it widely disseminated?
  • Conflict Is conflict considered bad and avoided? Or is conflict accepted as normal and directly addressed when it appears? Eye contact Are members of the organization comfortable with sustained eye contact during communication or not?
  • Gestures Are there any specific gestures that can cause members of the organization discomfort or confusion?
  • Humor Is use of humor in the organization rather widespread? Is there anything about the use of humor about which you should be aware?
  • Information collection Should you be aware of any potential problems or use any certain precautions when conducting interviews or using assessments?
  • Physical space For example, are members of your organization quite conscious of having a minimum amount of space around them when they work or speak with others?
  • Power Are members attuned to certain people of power when solving problems and making decisions? Is power based on authority and/or respect?
  • Silence Are members uncomfortable with silence during communication? Or is it a common aspect of communicating in their workplace?
  • Time Is time a precious commodity that seems to underlie many activities, or can activities take as long as they need to take to be done effectively?
  • Wording Are there certain words or phrasings that cause discomfort when people from different cultures interact?

How to Talk About Management and Leadership in Diverse Environments

It is not uncommon for people of any culture to experience confusion or engage in protracted arguments about activities only to realize later on that they have been in agreement all along – they had been using different definitions for the same terms. Therefore, it is important to ensure that all of you are “speaking the same language” about activities. The following guidelines are most important when ensuring people continue to understand each other when talking about management activities.

Recognize Difference Between Terms That Refer to Results Versus Activities to Produce Those Results

It is common for people from different cultures to become confused because different people are talking about results and others about the activities to produce the results. For example, some people refer to the “plan” to be the document, and others refer to the “plan” to be the activity of developing the plan. It is usually most clear to use the term “plan” to refer to the document itself, and use the term “planning” for the activities that produces the plan.

Here is another example. Inexperienced leaders sometimes assert that, because employees do not have a tangible plan/document on the shelf and do not explicitly reference the document on a regular basis, the employees are not doing planning. That assertion can alienate the leaders from employees who believe that they have been doing planning all along (but probably implicitly) and also have a good plan – they just have not been calling their process “planning” and have not produced a written plan document. Therefore, it is important for you to recognize if your employees have their own form of a certain activity and how that form is carried out in the organization.

Be Able to Separate a Term from the Meaning of That Term

If your conversations with others about management seem to get stuck or mired in confusion, it often helps to separate terms from the intent of those terms. For example:

  • Rather than talking about “vision” or “goals,” talk about “what” the business wants to accomplish overall.
  • Rather than talking about “strategies,” talk about “how” to accomplish “what” you want to accomplish overall.
  • Rather than talking about “action plans,” talk about “who is going to do what, and by when.”

Hints for Talking with Others About Leadership Activities

The topic of leadership has become so prominent and passionate with so many people that it sometimes causes great confusion. Here are a few tips to help people to “stay on the same page” when talking about leadership.

1. Be clear about whether you are talking about leadership roles or traits.

When people talk about leadership, they might be talking about traits of leaders, such as being charismatic, influential and ethical. However, when others talk about leadership, they might be talking about roles of leadership, such as the Board Chair or the Chief Executive Officer. Both discussions are about leadership, but both are about quite different aspects.

2. Be clear about the domain of leadership about which you are talking.

For example, when talking about leading yourself, you might be talking about leadership skills, such as being assertive or having good time and stress management skills. When talking about leading other individuals, you might be talking about skills, such as coaching, delegating or mentoring. When talking about leading groups, you might be talking about skills, such as facilitation or meeting management. When talking about leading organizations, you might be talking about skills, such as strategic planning or business planning. In each of these four cases, the term “leadership” refers to different sets of skills.

Various Perspectives About Diversity

Overviews

The Value of Diversity in the Workplace
Communicating Across Cultures
Communicating Across Cultures

Assessments and Exercises

Workplace diversity: leveraging the power of difference for competitive advantage
Working with Others (assessment on how I relate to others and how others see me)

General Resources About Valuing Diversity

Diversity Management
Gender
Extensive List of Links to Human Rights Organizations


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