How Cultural Diversity Can Drive Your Company Forward

Matthew MacLachlan

26 Jan 2016

Modern-day organisations are sitting on a wealth of talent.  But do they know what to do with it? International employees bring different viewpoints, attitudes and a wealth of knowledge that, when harnessed, can become a powerful force of creativity and change.

A diverse workforce enables an organisation to understand its international customers better, penetrate existing markets or even open up completely new markets. Some organisations are successful in recognising and utilising this talent.  Others waste the opportunity by either ignoring or dismissing it.

The key to an organisation successfully harnessing this multinational talent is down to many factors.  However, workplace culture is of paramount importance.  An environment where employees feel free to express their ideas and opinions is essential if creative thinking and innovation are to succeed.

What are some of the pitfalls that organisations face and how can they overcome these challenges?

1. Viewpoints

Some cultures are comfortable with instructions on what to do and how to do it.  Others like a more holistic view of the project so they understand the vision and perhaps goals as well as how to achieve them.

Are you giving employees a chance to look at the big picture as well as the small picture?

In addition, some cultures like to understand context and theory.  Others are orientated to the practicalities and find non-practical information superfluous.

Are you providing the right overview to your employees?

Some cultures may have another point of view but may be reluctant to express it.  Some cultures are uncomfortable with challenging authority, and in particular avoid contradicting their immediate superiors.   Others might be afraid of any challenge to their idea or counter argument as they might perceive this as causing a loss of face.

Do your employees feel empowered to express their opinion without feeling threatened by how it might be received?

2. Attitude

It may be the case that a percentage of your employees believe that their native culture is inherently correct and thus know the ‘right way’ to do things.  They may distrust anything NIH, i.e. Not Invented Here.  Arrogance and cultural superiority stifle creativity very quickly, causing organisations to miss out on opportunities.

Lack of respect on both sides also endangers the stability of the workforce as many employees will be motivated to move on to another employer if they do not feel valued or worse, feel degraded or dismissed.

This is further complicated by the fact that in some cultures there is a strong preference to work with those you have a good relationship with. Is your attitude open and inviting to a variety of ideas that originate from many different places?

3. Knowledge

Cultural ignorance can be a minefield.  Making cultural faux pas can cause offence, especially if core values are violated.

Drawing on the wealth of knowledge already in-house can eliminate most cultural sensitivity issues.  Learning about religious and social values will be appreciated by those who hold them and are also appreciated by employees who wish to be culturally sensitive toward others.

Too often, organisations only recognise the value of in-house knowledge when a crisis occurs.  One group of employees may have an attitude of ‘How could we have known’, yet the other group may have been thinking ‘We knew this all along but nobody asked us our opinion …’

What are you doing to harvest the wealth of knowledge your organisation already has?

4. Approach

Cultures often think and plan differently. Some like to take time to reflect; others are great planners, others still like to jump in and adapt as they go along.

Do you know to leverage the best ways for your employees to think and plan?

Different employees function better in different environments.  Some thrive in a noisy and chaotic environment that gives them an opportunity to multi-task.  Others can only work effectively in a quiet and ordered environment, where they can be focussed and methodical, and where distractions can be avoided.

What work environment do you offer your employees?  Have you considered whether your employees are more creative working in an office, from home, or a combination?

In addition, many organisations are wasting language skills that many employees have.  An attitude that English is the language of international business may be true on the surface for many organisations, but it may also be an attitude that is blocking your access to a wider market.  If you were able to empower your staff to do so, you could take advantage of new opportunities and markets.

Do you know what language skills you already have and how you could use them effectively?

Workplace creativity is hard to measure but easy to suffocate.  Think about how you can improve your organisation’s cultural knowledge and how to convert this knowledge to your bottom line.  After all, cultural ignorance is expensive.

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