Katheren Leitner, director of TrainingPlus, answers questions about cultural diversity in businesses.
What is cultural diversity?
Put simply, culture is the way people act and react to the experiences they have in life. We live and breath through it. Every decision in business or at home is impacted by the culture we are most familiar with. Cultural diversity comes about when different cultures come together, often resulting in an interesting mix, as often you end up with a variety of perspectives. Culture is so deeply ingrained in each of us we hardly notice it's there - until we come up against someone who looks, thinks or acts differently from us.
Isn't cultural diversity just about race issues and related matters?
While it's easy to think of different races having different cultures, this is an oversimplification. With different races travelling and living across the world, race is becoming less of a yardstick for culture. Cultural diversity goes beyond race relations. It includes issues on gender, education, sexuality, religion, upbringing, nationality, occupation, personality, customs, beliefs and values. A person with a different culture is anyone who is different from you.
Why should I be concerned about cultural diversity? How does it relate to business?
Culture drives actions. Great business leaders understand human relationships are crucial to business success and to get good action (which in turn creates good results), the right culture must be cultivated. It sounds obvious, but in reality it can be very difficult.
As Fons Trompennaar wrote in Riding the Waves of Culture, "Culture is like gravity: you do not experience it until you jump six feet into the air".
As nature has laws, so do different cultures, and when we ignore these laws - traditions, customs and so forth - then there's potential for trouble. Institutional and individual prejudices can undermine teamwork and productivity and drive away customers.
Different cultures will view and approach problems differently. What is important to some cultures has little importance to others. Prejudices and stereotypes are easily learned and can be difficult to unlearn.
How can business benefit from being aware and skilled in managing cultural diversity?
By making the most of what each employee has to offer, a business gains the benefits of a diverse workforce, including: unique talents and perspectives to help grow the business; a widespread pool of skills and experiences on which to engage in internal consultation; a stimulating workplace not made up of a dominant drone culture; a constant supply of fresh ideas and viewpoints; cultural sensitivity to meet customer needs with local knowledge; language skills to communicate with local and international customers; and the potential to grow local and offshore markets or discover new niche ones that culturally diverse employees can identify.
When managers take workplace cultural diversity seriously, the message to staff and customers is that they are valued as individuals and as part of a team. Employees who are valued feel happier and work better; customers who are valued are eager to come back.
What can I do to promote cultural diversity in the workplace?
Foster a culture of open communication and make the time to actively learn more about the different cultures in your environment.
A good cultural diversity programme should focus on developing the communication skills that will improve the ways employees work together.