#37 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 5          May 1993

Cultural Diversity:  An Asset, Not a Liability
by Sally J. Walton, M.A.

Ms. Walton is a professional speaker, consultant, seminar leader and author, who focuses on maximizing human performance with a global perspective.  She has offices in Washington, D.C., and Santa Cruz, California.

In time, it's probably inevitable that your organization will grow more culturally diverse, and this reality calls for a change of attitudes, strategies and methods.  When we think about multi-cultural issues in the 1990's, we're not talking about non-discrimination or equal opportunity.  We're talking about using multiple cultural backgrounds as competitive tools.

People's culture, age, and gender make them see the world in different ways.  These perspectives are a key to creative thinking, and that, in turn, is the key to successful R&D.

We must stop seeing diversity as a problem, and start seeing it as an advantage.  To succeed, organizations must understand and use the skills, traditions and backgrounds of a diverse workforce.

In reality, diversity gives businesses a key advantage in the world marketplace.  Our wider range of viewpoints offers a spectrum of talents—meticulous craftsmanship, for example—which can improve many aspects of product and process research.

Diversity helps when:

              you are marketing internationally

              you are negotiating with people from abroad

              you are launching a campaign to a new population (whether domestic or international). 

In situations like these, it’s an asset to have someone from that population on your planning team?  Couldn’t the person whose accent made you uncomfortable during a job interview have just the perspective you need to help your R&D efforts?

Can't Find the Staff You Want? Create It

Once you appreciate cultural diversity, your organization can appeal to a wider base of employees, and that in turn will improve your staffing.  As you make diversity an integral part of policy and procedures, it's vital to work at all levels and in all departments.

  Plan strategically at top levels to incorporate multicultural managing and motivating.

  Recruit diverse leaders, not just staff.

  Train supervisors in multicultural skills.

  Review interviewing and selection procedures and criteria.

You may need to learn new skills as you begin to recruit and interview candidates from diverse backgrounds.  Are you adapting to the culturally-appropriate behavior of the people you're interviewing?  How do you respond when others don’t act as you expect? 

Because stereotypes can keep you from understanding what's really going on, be alert to your assumptions.  Take eye contact as an example.  Most interviewers think a direct eye-to-eye gaze connotes the desirable traits of honesty and attention.  But people from cultures with great respect for authority may think this signifies disrespect, even (or especially) during an interview.  So when someone refuses to look you in the eye, perhaps it reflects culturally correct behavior, not deviousness!

Most recent immigrants are still learning the "rules" of the new culture.  They may be uncomfortable with assertiveness, questioning an interviewer, or volunteering information.  "Self-marketing," in short, may still be a foreign concept to them.

If you continue to seek the personality traits you have always sought, you may not hire the people you need.  By staying in this "cultural rut," you may lose talented candidates.

The Learning Must be Mutual

As we start taking cultural diversity seriously, we are embarking on a two-way learning process.  Just as we need to learn about the culture of newcomers, they must learn about ours.   Coaching and mentoring thus become indispensable.  This is also a two-way street:  As the newcomer learns what is expected and how to succeed, the mentor gains insight into other cultures and customs.

What must newcomers learn? 

  general business practices (e.g., frequent witness signature on lab notebooks);

  the particular requirements or "culture" of your organization (e.g., joining the Friday beer session);

  what they must do to get promoted or succeed.

Management Style

Now that you're on the way to getting the staff you want, how do you manage them?   Let's look at motivation.  Remember that motivations other than money may be equally important in other cultures.  Many people are motivated by feeling that they are being heard and respected, that they are making a meaningful contribution.  Receiving incentives and recognition as part of a team may be more important, or more comfortable, than as an individual.

Relationships become more important as the workplace grows larger.  Allow sufficient time to communicate with individuals and groups.  If I can generalize for a moment, the purpose of communication for white American males seems to be to transmit and receive information.  But for most women as well as culturally diverse populations, communication also establishes and maintains relationships.  If you're concerned about employee retention and effectiveness, take the time to build rapport with individuals and support team spirit.  Have celebrations when the team reaches a goal.

Also, check that your terminology is understandable to everybody.  Our daily parlance is so chock-full of clichés and heavy on slang that sometimes we are barely comprehensible to foreigners.  Do all your employees understand when you "up the ante" or "deep-six" a project?  (Remember that some people who seem to understand are just trying to save themselves the embarrassment of asking a lot of questions.)

Saving Face

Do you criticize employees in public?  Despite the common conception that only Asians are concerned with saving face, it's also a concern of many others.  That's one good reason for correcting people in private.  If you must make an immediate correction, make it general—don't single someone out.  For a chronic problem, schedule a private talk or use a go-between.  You can also save face and increase team solidarity by instituting group performance appraisals.

Other points to consider:

  In some cultures, leaders act decisively, from the top down—if they ask a subordinate's opinions, they lose respect.  In other cultures, conferring widely helps people "buy into" the resulting decision.

  In many cultures, youth lacks the high value it is accorded in the United States.  Because it is more common to respect age, young managers must work harder to earn respect than older managers.

  To exploit the advantages of diversity, question all assumptions; base employees evaluations on results, not preconceptions; and demand that managers be accountable for developing the talents of all employees.

To work effectively in the new reality of cultural diversity, you must be able to hear and respect other points of view.  You must be ready to take risks, have a sense of humor, and retain your intellectual curiosity.  You must look forward to new experiences.

As an R&D manager, your leadership in valuing cultural diversity can influence the thoughts, attitudes and behaviors of your organization.  If you understand that changing demographics represent a strategic opportunity, you put yourself in a position to lead your organization into the next century.

1-50  51-100  101-150  151-200  201-250  251-300
301-350  351-400  401-450  451-500 501-550  551-600

©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.