Cultural Diversity

Cultural Diversity and Leadership

Cultural Diversity

There is virtually no industry today that hasn’t experienced a massive global shift over the past 15-20 years. Our teams are global, even if they aren’t located in different locations around the world. Our leadership style also has to change to support this cultural diversity.

The Benefit of Cultural Diversity in your Team

We work in a global marketplace with global competition for our products and services. While I am definitely not the picture of a world traveler, I recognize that I need to have a world view in my work. Even if you have spent time traveling the globe, you may not understand the underlying cultures of the places you have visited.

In order to support your culturally diverse team members, you need to have some basic understanding of their world view. At minimum you need to be self-aware of your own cultural norms and open to understanding that there are differences around the globe.

By embracing the cultural diversity in our teams we have the benefit of learning how products and services are consumed or marketed in different areas of the world, the types of problems which may have been solved in different ways around the world, and the expectations of consumers in different areas which may be still evolving in our own markets.

In addition, you have the benefit of building some great new relationships with people that you might not have otherwise met, learn about the unique traditions and beliefs that exist in different areas of the globe, and expand your overall understanding of the human condition around the world.

You have the opportunity to become a more aware human, not just a better leader.

Start with Self-Awareness

Regardless of where you call home, there are some cultural norms that you need to be aware of. Some of them relate to your country, your region, your religion, or your personal family upbringing. Regardless of the source, you have them. And you need to be aware of them to begin to understand others.

Spend some time reflecting on your own life and upbringing. Take a beginners look at the people and family around you. Be willing to confront your own beliefs of what is “normal”. It’s not easy to observe the people around you with a beginners eye, but it is enlightening when you do.

Only once you have spent time understanding your own culture, beliefs, values, and biases can you begin to explore those from different areas of the world.

Research and Read

There are endless sources of reading material that will help you learn some basics about an area of the world you are interested in. Check reading lists on Goodreads from people in India. Check your public library for fiction (translated) from China. Read a newspaper from Portugal on-line.

Whatever the source is, and whatever country or culture you are trying to learn about, you will be able to learn a lot from the written word.

Henna is traditional body art common in the Middle East, India, and some parts of Africa
An example of Henna body art.

Look for cues and information about traditions, values, and behavioural norms which differ from your own. Be curious and dig deeper into the things that seem most important or the common themes you see emerging. Note how news stories and positioning differ from your normal news sources.

The goal in reading and research is to be open and curious and give you a basic understanding of some of the important components of a culture.

Talk to Someone and be Curious

So now you have some basic information about a country and culture that you have interest in, but there is only so much you can really get from reading. To really understand the beliefs and norms of a culture you need to talk to someone.

I have had the benefit of working in very diverse workplaces for much of my career, and while my travel history is pretty limited I have had the pleasure of learning a great deal about countries around the world.

Guangzhou, China
Street in Guangzhou, China

By spending time with people and asking questions you can learn a lot. What was it like growing up in Mumbai? Are there differences in how people work in Guangzhou? Why did you decide to move your family to Canada? Who are the most influential people in Portofino?

I’ve also found it very enlightening to ask people their own perceptions of the differences with my own culture. I had a great conversation last weekend with an student from Strasbourg, France who is doing two years of study in Canada. She had some very interesting perceptions of Canadians and our culture. Her observations helped me further shape my self-awareness about my own cultural norms.

You don’t need to travel to a country to learn deeply about its people and culture. You just need to be willing to ask questions, be curious, and listen.

Get on a Plane

There are some parts of global culture that we will never really understand without being there. While I have limited global travel experience, I know that my knowledge of Cuban culture expanded when I visited Moron in person.

Moron, Cuba
Street in Moron, Cuba

Be aware, however, that just traveling won’t inherently give you an understanding of the cultural diversity. You need to be willing to travel to local places and continue to talk to people and be curious. You don’t learn about real Cuban culture by spending a week on an all-inclusive beach. You do learn a lot when you visit a city like Moron where the people from the resort actually live their lives.

Spending time speaking with people on the streets (including some of the workers from my own resort) gave me a new appreciation for Cuban culture and values. I learned about their music, their families, their homes. I learned much more deeply what it was like to be a Cuban.

But even if you can’t travel, you can still be culturally aware. While traveling will enhance your understanding, it isn’t necessary to appreciate our diversity. Even before traveling to Moron, Cuba, I had a good understanding of the culture. It was just enhanced by my time there.

Open Your Mind to Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity is ultimately about having an open and accepting mindset. If you aren’t willing to appreciate the differences between cultures, you will never be successful in leadership in today’s world.

In every company I have worked at over the past 15 years I have had the opportunity to work with people from outside of Canada. If I wasn’t willing to be open minded I wouldn’t have experienced the success I have.

There are a couple of important things to remember:

  • Just like in your own culture, there are differences in every culture. Sometimes it is regional or religious, but not all of the “norms” apply to everyone. Don’t assume that every person you meet from India has had the same experience. It is a big and diverse country.
  • Always remember your own biases and self-awareness. In the end there are very view universal “norms”. Don’t apply your own bias to your understanding of others.
  • Even if you can’t understand something in a culture, acceptance is the best policy. There are aspects to some cultures which may not align well with your own beliefs or values. You have to remember that we are all different and unique. Even if you can’t rationalize something with your own beliefs, you need to be accepting that it is a part of that culture.

Be Thankful

I am forever grateful to the people I have been lucky enough to work with that have helped me understand the power of cultural diversity. I feel like I am a better global citizen and leader because of their willingness to teach me about their world.

People like Azfar who taught me about Pakistan from the eyes of a boy that spent time growing up in Mississauga (Canada) only to return to Pakistan to start his career and family. Or Sue who taught me about the vibrant Chinese Jamaican community. Lyndon who taught me about his indigenous experience on a reserve in Canada. Or KB who shared with me his experience growing up in Ghana and the UK.

I have had countless opportunities to learn about the various regions of India, China, Korea, and Malaysia. And similarly broad experience learning about various regions of Russia and the Middle East.

As you expend your world view, don’t forget to thank the people who are willing to share their stories. In many cases those stories are deeply personal. They are the stories of what makes them who they are. Make sure that people understand how much their sharing has helped your understanding of our cultural diversity by leveraging it in your work with them.

Becoming globally aware is one of the most powerful leadership tools available today. Make sure you practice it every day.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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