On the benefits of diversity the research is quite clear. When managed and leveraged effectively, diversity leads to greater creativity and higher business performance, according to dozens of studies.
But once you ‘get the numbers right’, you can’t assume diversity will automatically lead to all your staff embracing difference.
In multicultural workforces, ‘tribes’ or in-groups can form that have little or no interaction with each other. These social groupings also then form into informal communications channels in the business, and preclude the formation of a common diverse ‘team’.
For instance, it’s quite easy to end up with the Hong Kong Chinese all together, the mainland Chinese sitting somewhere else, Indians sitting with other Indians and the Aussie-born folk associating just with each other. It’s safe and comfortable to stick our culturally group, and to not socialise, informally interact or share information with colleagues from different backgrounds.
How can we create an environment where everyone has the capacity to contribute and work together harmoniously and productively?
Leaders have a critical role here. Here are some tips to make it easier:
1. Structure it
Leaders need to help start interactions between these groups, and then encourage more of them. One was is to establish a structure – project teams for example – that means people have to work with others they don’t know. At meetings, use a ‘rotating chair’ that means people are equally put in control. This helps minimise dominance from one group.
2. Make sure everyone understands the big picture
Communicate the company’s vision to the entire workforce, and explain why diversity is part of it. If your employees don’t understand the organisation’s goals and how to achieve them, they are at risk of heading in different directions. Come back to this vision from time to time – this reinforces your commitment to it.
3. Emphasise common ground
Cultural diversity should embrace difference. But focusing on shared values and common practices builds trust, and creates better working relationships, collaboration and interaction. Most of us are interested in family, food or sport. That’s not a bad starting point to find common ground. People often need a safe place from which to start exploring their differences.
4. Use intercultural training to help employees negotiate change
Negotiating cultural diversity doesn’t come all that naturally to us; we tend to stick with what –and who – we know. Don’t be afraid to get in an intercultural trainer as coaching and facilitation can help. Promoting intercultural learning among employees will help them to understand different world-views and perspectives, and help develop behavioural flexibility. This will help them to be able to choose, from a position of understanding, how to approach a specific situation to negotiate differences and find common ground.
Tamerlaine Beasley is the managing director of Beasley Intercultural, a leading intercultural consultancy and training company.