A culturally diverse work force is considered a critical element in the success of any modern company looking to compete in the global economy.
The accepted theory is that a diversity of perspectives in the workplace allows for better decision-making and brings more creativity and innovation to the table. That, in turn, translates into better products and services and, critically, a healthier bottom line.
But Luciara Nardon, associate professor of international business at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, believes it’s a mistake to assume that just putting people from different cultures together in a room is enough.
Rather, to leverage diversity, “it is important to allow individuals to go through a process of developing enough common ground to act as a foundation for a working relationship,” Ms. Nardon says in an e-mail.
She defines common ground as a set of mutually known, but not necessarily shared, knowledge, beliefs and assumptions about what is acceptable or desirable (and what isn’t).
Creating common ground takes time. It requires developing the communication tools to achieve a mutual understanding of the current purpose. It may mean asking clarifying questions (such as “Where do you want to meet for lunch and at what time?”) or providing more detailed information (“I am having lunch at 11:30 a.m. at the cafeteria downstairs). It can also require the creation of a more formal process of inquiry and advocacy.
But it is critical to understanding what we can expect from one another.
“The more we get to know a co-worker or business partner, the more personalized this common ground will become and the cultural background of that person will become less important. Instead of relying on national stereotypes, such as, ‘Mexicans have a different perspective on punctuality,’ we may know that Carlos tends to be on time for meetings, while Ana tends to be a few minutes late,” Ms. Nardon says.
“Trying to take shortcuts will either eliminate the benefits of diversity because a majority group will impose their views, or we will result in a dysfunctional workgroup that does not reach its potential.”
Ms. Nardon explores workplace diversity in her new book Working in a Multicultural World: A Guide to Developing Intercultural Competence (University of Toronto Press).
The relative ease of global travel, combined with the advent of collaborative technologies such as Google Docs and Google Hangouts that let people connect in real time regardless of their location, have created a new dynamic in how — and how often — we communicate across cultures. For many workers, a cross-cultural experience, whether in person or online, is a regular occurrence.
Yet, so much of the literature and corporate training programs addressing culture are based on an outdated model in which a few executives relocate to work abroad.
“Today, that’s not the reality,” Ms. Nardon says in her book. “You may be going to Japan and working with the Japanese, but you get there and you figure out you are actually working with a Chinese person who is an expatriate in Japan, and you are in a project with somebody from Argentina.
“There are so many different ways intercultural interactions happen.”
It’s important business leaders understand that, without adequate strategies in place, cultural ambiguity can lead to misunderstanding and conflict sparked by culturally rooted differences, such as aggressiveness in negotiation. Among the negative results is that tasks can take much longer to complete.
Leaders, managers and workers alike need a new set of communications skills, Ms. Nardon says.
The book lays out the steps to creating a workable strategy. But not every change is as tangible.
“It’s about learning more about ourselves. We can develop an acute awareness of how our own culture influences our thoughts, perspectives and behaviours,” Ms. Nardon says.
That self-awareness will allow us to develop the skills we need to communicate our own views and perspectives in ways that are constructive. And that, she says, promises big returns for everyone.
“When you are in a highly diverse environment, your performance will be dependent on you interacting with people from different cultures, so developing the competence to interact with different cultures will help you do your job.”