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Creating A Flexible Workplace Welcoming of Cultural Diversity

Keith Kennedy, director of diversity at Hallmark Cards, is regularly quoted as saying “a diverse organisation and an inclusive organisation are not necessarily the same thing. A diverse environment has people at the decision-making table and allows them to participate.” Such a comment is a powerful reminder that a diversity is not just about employment numbers and inclusion in teams; but rather it is about focussed recruitment measures, organisational and team development, as well as upward mobility for all within the organisation.

To explore diversity in the workforce we need to explore diversity as a concept. The Oxford Dictionary defines diversity ‘as a range of people or things that are very different from the other.’ What this means for the modern workplace is the combination of individuals who come from different backgrounds working on a common goal…

We no longer have a clearly defined “typical worker.” Thanks to globalisation, along with immigration advances; changes in the economy and population; growing numbers of women and other minorities in the workforce; ageing baby boomers continuing longer in the workforce and working along side younger more university qualified colleagues; as well, thanks to technology advances and changes to government policy providing greater participation opportunities for people living with a disability to join the workforce; the days of the average employee have gone.

Such moves in society create management challenges, as no longer are we managing such a homogenous workforce where one can rely upon methods of communication and motivation that inspires the majority of the team. In stead managers have to find ways to motivate, inspire and dialogue with a heterogeneous group, calling upon a variety of skills and techniques to reach out to a collection of individuals.

Leading from Difference: Productive Diversity

Managers and leaders of organisations do well to recognise that difference is a strength and to build on individuals differences can help unite the team with their similarities. Taking time to reflect upon ones own culture value; that is what we believe to be right because our cultural identity tells us it is so; is a powerful way to become aware of our own management limitations.

Take some time to reflect on what is your cultural value. Ones cultural value is shaped by a great range of influences including, but not limited to, our ethnicity, gender, age, education, religion, sexuality, interests and hobbies, economic background (or class), media consumed, physical abilities, intellectual capacity and much more. Once we take time to recognise this we can begin to see that amongst our teams there are many things that make us culturally click (harmonious) and culturally clash (diverse).

Productive diversity is based on the concept that there are benefits to be gained (both economically and organisationally) from valuing different experiences, perspectives, skills and the cross-transfer and integration of these into the organisation and market economy.

Citibank exemplifies the value of productive diversity on a commercial level well, taking time to recognise the complexity of culture and modify their marketing strategies as consequence. Ana Duarte McCarthy, vice-president of Diversity Management at Citibank explains “we have become more sensitive to our marketing approaches recognising that there are many difference within market’s that have traditionally been viewed as one.” We can give witness to this when you fly across the Asia Pacific region and observe a similar product being sold by Citigroup using different images and language styles (not language phonetics) in various airline magazines and airport signage.

American Express demonstrates the value of productive diversity on an organisational level with their family friendly, employee flexible policy of ‘Sunshine Friday’s’ – this benefit gives all employees the chance to leave at an earlier hour on Friday. Leaders avoid scheduling meetings after 4:00 pm and ensure that meetings finish by 5:00 pm. Sunshine Friday is greatly appreciated by Amex teams around the globe, as it identifies employees who are involved in weekend activities such as sport and particularly religious communities often have extra time to be a part of their communities and can easily volunteer to give to such important values for them.

Productive diversity makes good business sense in a modern economy where local diversity and global interconnectedness play a critical economic role.

Why harmony is important?

Working with the harmony to enhance the strengths of the diversity can be highly beneficial for companies. In a time when the world around us seems to be every changing, people will seek familiarity and stability, in doing so employees will turn to their companies to provide them with a sense of security beyond financial; a place where they can go and know how things are done, what to expect in a day. However, we also know that diversity means that the era of one-size-fits-all management (which has in the past been a way to create a sense of stability) has passed.

Motivating teams from cultural clicks (the similarities) while encouraging them to extend outside of their boundaries of comfort is great way to grow an organisation. Terry McGuire, director of workforce issues and executive in residence at The Conference Board explains “People tend not to choose to put themselves outside their comfort zone.” If as a manger your objective is to give people greater cross-cultural competence, you must encourage them to step outside their comfort zone by creating opportunities for them to work with people they are not used to working with; but may share some cultural connectedness. For example teaming up busy working mothers from different religious and ethnic identities; the harmony is present in the understanding of motherhood.

Creating a Diverse Workforce:

To create a truly competitive and strong diverse workforce leaders must be aware of the cultures that are at play within their working environment and encourage a culture of flexibility and a learners mind. By recognising in an office every day there are three forces at play:

The ‘ME’ and ‘YOU’ circles refer to individual’s mindsets and beliefs. It is important to remember as we reflect on these circles that it is only natural to believe one’s own culture is normal, and perhaps even a little superior to others. The danger of this mindset is that we believe people believe what we believe, know what we know, act and react as we do – for this is all ‘common-sense’… The struggle is the missing commonality to our value of sense. The ‘COMPANY’ circle refers to the corporate culture of the organisation, it is company policy, company values, company behaviour expectations.

In the diagram you will note that at times each circle can operate harmoniously from the others; just as at times each circle will clash with one of the other circles and in some situations all three collide. It is the points of collision that we call ‘culture clashes’ this disharmony is a powerful place; by working with the conflict we can often see the strengths of individuals and areas by which the corporate culture may need to grow.

The secret to this lies in the words of Jack Deere, the vice-president of diversity and work-life strategies for Nortel Networks “we are not cognizant of culture most to the time. You have to stop and think about it.” By taking time to reflect on our culture values we can prepare ourselves for clashes and begin the journey to change which is a reflection of flexibility. Courtland Burton the director of Global Diversity for EDS reminds us “we have to develop a ‘learners mind’ by seeing cultural difference as a development opportunity...”

This article was first published in Access Asia by AustCham Singapore

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