Strength through diversity

by External30 Apr 2012

A quick glance around any office space will reveal a broad representation of people from different cultural backgrounds. People of all beliefs, values and cultures are communicating on a regular basis, while multinational organisationswith teams dotted around the world are collaborating together to brainstorm ideas and to make projects happen.

Whether we realise it or not, cultural intelligence is one of the most essential skills for HR professionals to effectively run their organisations.

Partner at the Culture Resource Centre, Kees Hoefsloot, says that handling cultural differences is becoming more relevant when working in a global workforce, and HR professionals need to have a deep cultural understanding.

“HR plays the most important role. HR has to facilitate knowledge transfer about cultures to different people across the organisation, and how you do that is by training people,” he says.

He believes it is important to understand other cultural perspectives and stresses that one culture should never be dominant over the other. Together, people of diverse cultures must work on compromising and discussing the best ways to work with each other to ensure objectives are achieved.

Director of Quantum Management Indicators, Dr Des Tubridy, adds that diversity training is critical, and says the two most important ways to manage diversity are to provide diversity coaching and to ensure the organisation has good policies and procedures on cultural awareness and management.

“One of the main issues that arise from different multicultural groups is a lack of trust and communication. If it’s not managed well by a team leader or HR manager, this can lead to negative consequences for the team,” he says.

Cultural barriers

It’s well recognised that cultural barriers play a major role in hindering effective decision making and can even form the bedrock of conscious and unconscious bias. Yet the myriad of research on cultural diversity demonstrates that it’s our lack of understanding and closed minds that prevent us from accomplishing the best possible results.

“It’s important to identify cultural communication barriers in the workplace and overcome them. It will not be possible to understand every culture in the world; however, it’s important to start by looking at your own values and worldwide perspectives and the impact that they have on your interaction with diverse individuals,” Tubridy says.

It can also be observed that cultural differences occur within the same country, city or even social group, he says.

For example, Australian managers are known to value honesty and creativity. However, if they work in India, they will realise that Indian managers place a stronger emphasis on values such as obedience, loyalty and trust.

Before entering into a diverse workplace or travelling abroad, managers are encouraged to increase their cultural intelligence, or CQ, which is constituted of a number of competencies. A cross-cultural-competent manager will display some, if not all, of the following:

  • Awareness that they are not fully informed about any one culture
  • Preparedness and coping strategies for cross-cultural situations
  • Ability to develop respectful and cooperative relationships with individuals from diverse backgrounds
  • A strong tense of their own value system and recognition that other people and nations have their own unique values
  • Patience and understanding of other’ values and behaviours

Tubridy also notes that a cultural stereotype of Australia is its democratic approach to doing business. We call our bosses by their first names, and generally, everyone is treated equally. We also personally take on a lot more responsibility for our work. However, countries such as India and Malaysia have a more hierarchical culture and bosses possess a great deal of authority and demand respect. In these circumstances, accountability often falls on the manager.

“If working with these people, you have to be very aware of that. Or if you’re working with a multicultural team which has Indians and Malaysians, you need to know they think differently to Australians,” Tubridy says.

Most importantly, managers need cultural sensitivity. Making just one mistake can undo a lot of hard work in building team rapport.

“You’ve only got to make one mistake to get offside in managing diversity,” Tubridy says.

He outlines the following coping strategies that can be used in cross-cultural situations, to ensure HR managers or team leaders are better equipped:

  • Ensure you read up on the cultures you are dealing with
  • Ask questions in a non-threatening and non-offensive manner
  • Check meanings and confirm the messages of the sender
  • Avoid slang
  • Most importantly, manage your humour

Aside from genuine differences blocking the paths to greatness, Hoefsloot believes one of the main cultural barriers we have is making assumptions that other people have similar work behaviour and norms to ourselves.

“We need to have training and knowledge transfer to make people aware that yes, we are different from each other and these differences are not dangerous; these differences are actually fantastic. I personally believe that diversity is a strength, not a weakness,” he says.

Organisations should be using cultural diversity to develop even stronger work practices and a stronger organisation, he adds.

Tubridy agrees that while the process of decision making with multiple cultures is generally a longer and more strenuous process, the patience this requires pays off in better outcomes.

“A decision from a diverse group is going to be a better quality decision with different angles and different thought processes,” he says.

Building cultural awareness

There have already been successful attempts to manage cultural diversity in the workplace, such as international cuisine days, or awareness days (Harmony Day, 21 March), and some organisations have been known to provide language training – a perk welcomed by those who perhaps flunked out of Year Eight French or are planning an overseas holiday to Japan.

An example of the former, A Taste of Harmony, was also conducted in March this year. It encourages employees to bring in a dish from their cultural background to share with their co-workers. This little taste of culture plays a small, yet effective role in opening up people’s minds to diversity. However, it must be said that there is still a long way to go before people will grasp the importance of being sensitive to other cultures.

“International cuisine day is very relevant, but it only discusses culture on a superficial level. It’s great to get people to accept different ways of doing things, but what they really have to do is take it to the next step and see how we can actually manage cultural diversity to create an effective organisation,” Hoefsloot says.

He believes HR has to learn to dwell on cultural differences initially, but then move towards understanding how these differences can be overcome.

“We shouldn’t be afraid as HR to talk about these cultural differences. It’s not a threat. Some people say it cannot be politically correct to mention that we are different. I think, let’s be politically correct and do mention that we are different and then, based on those differences, ask what we can do in an effective way to deal with these differences,” he says.

Tubridy believes there needs to be more involved than a couple of events per year, although he agrees these can be helpful. He notes that HR managers must ensure that there is regular training which covers more than work place fairness legislation and laws. There should be more case studies, role plays and awareness of current affairs to allow participants to gain a new perspective.

Additionally, cultural minorities should be encouraged to continue with their culture in the workplace. Organisations should be investigating ‘best practice’ examples of promoting cultural diversity and conducting diversity management audits to evaluate successes and failures.


The objective of all organisations, Tubridy notes, should be training and awareness. He says managers must have positive personality traits and sense of maturity to start with, which can then be fine-tuned with training.

“When we send someone over to India for a project, obviously they’re very mature and can handle people, but we fine-tune them,” he says.

It is suggested that companies should spend more time focusing on how to overcome cultural differences, rather than simply stating them.

In the Culture Resource Centre training programs, there is a strong emphasis on cultural intelligence, which explores open-mindedness, cultural knowledge and coping strategies. The main objective is to give everybody the same opportunities and ultimately, to build a stronger organisation.

The most important points covered in the Culture Resource Centre training include:

  • How cultures differ from one another
  • How diverse cultures deal with authority
  • How diverse cultures deal with motivation
  • How diverse cultures deal with communication
  • How diverse cultures deal with the obligations they have to other people
  • How diverse cultures deal with risk taking elements of their work
  • How diverse cultures deal with taking ownership and decision making
  • How we can deal with these differences effectively
  • How can we can manage these differences appropriately

Tubridy adds that while it is important to ensure that training addresses the skills and knowledge of cultural communication, it’s also important to examine the attitudes of participants. Training needs to either be long term or there should be constant refresher courses to ensure this information sticks. 

The way forward

 “Managing diversity goes far beyond the limits of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action,” Tubridy says.

Organisations that recognise that strategic thinking is necessary for creating a productive, diverse workforce are now employing Chief Diversity Officers (CDO).

CDOs are seen as valuable assets to organisations, always seeking out learning opportunities and ongoing diversity sensitivity training for their organisational managers and staff. A report by the Wall Street Journal noted that the CDO of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC reports directly to the chairman and senior partner. The firm also rotates its partners every two years in order to give the position accountability and credibility.

According to research by executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles, around 60% of Fortune 500 companies currently have a CDO or executive role designated for diversity. Among those in the roles, 65% are female and 37% are African-American. They come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including HR, marketing, finance and operations.

Many CDOs earn salaries equivalent to other senior roles like chief marketing officer or chief legal counsel. 

Looking ahead, if organisations continue to focus on diversity training strategies and apply this knowledge effectively, there will only be room for positive growth and development in the future.

Above all, Tubridy concludes, managers must be willing to work towards changing the organisation “in order to create a culture of diversity and inclusion that follows the mission, vision, and values set forth by the leadership”.