As company after company begins to realize the benefits of a diverse workforce, managers leading front-line teams will need to develop new skills for navigating through diversity and will have to create a more equitable and inclusive environment. Developing these skills requires an awareness about the labels we put on people; we label those around us based on a plethora of things, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender preference, age, political party, white collar/blue collar, educated or uneducated, and the list goes on and on. Labels can create unconscious biases and lead to inequitable decisions that are not in the best interest of our organisation or the people that do the work. The best way for managers to gain the awareness they need is for it to become a regular part of conversations they have with more senior leaders. Leadership has to emphasise the value and importance of an inclusive workforce; a message that should be repeated over and over as a thread that runs through multiple topics.
There are a number of strategies to consider when it comes to helping managers adapt to a multicultural workforce and here are a few we think should be a priority:
An organisation’s workforce and its teams can quickly revert to something much more culturally homogenous if diversity isn’t a consideration in the hiring process. Managers with hiring authority can easily erase years of efforts to be more inclusive if they are not factoring the value of how each candidate might benefit their team, with diversity being a factor in their decisions. Of course, diversity is not the only factor; we all want to find the right candidate for the position, but we have to recognise that each hiring decision is comprised of two aspects. First, are the skills of the candidate a good fit for the position, and secondly, is the candidate the right fit for the team? It is possible to answer in the affirmative to one and not the other; ideally, we want both. Managers can check their own bias by including a diverse set of team members in the interviewing and hiring process.
We all need to learn how to communicate effectively in a culture-rich environment; if we don’t there will continue to be inequities created as different cultures perceive words, tone, and body language in their own unique way. There are things managers can do to improve how they communicate, such as individualising their delivery when possible. For example, learn what communication style and channels work best for different team members. Also avoid idioms, slang, acronyms, and industry jargon when possible because they don’t translate cross-culturally or across age groups. If practical, have important communications translated into languages less dominant, but prevalent in the organisation. Finally, make sure anyone with the responsibility to communicate with team members gets training on how to be more culturally sensitive in their communication.
Leaders must recognise that improving managers’ communication is going to take practice. Communication is a leadership tradecraft and improving it means creating a feedback loop by reflective and active listening, being vulnerable enough to ask for help understanding diversity and various cultures, exhibiting respect — not frustration — in our tone and body language, and finally a genuine determination to learn.
Leaders are not the only ones who stand to gain from a more diverse workforce; so is the entire workforce. We travel to faraway places because learning about diverse cultures broadens our own life experiences, so take advantage of an opportunity to do the same at work by making learning a welcome, not awkward, experience. In some countries, people don’t greet each other by shaking hands, or they might be uncomfortable with direct eye contact. In other cultures, it is important to respect personal space while in others they frequently hug or even kiss on the cheek in the workplace. Managers should let people take turns in meetings telling the team about their culture, including the dos and don’ts. And managers should remember to do the same for the predominant local culture because it is a fun learning opportunity for everyone.
Respecting privacy and cultural norms is important so helping managers find the right balance between emphasising cultural differences, openly inquiring about preferences, and ignoring our unique differences altogether. Transparency that is humble and respectful will earn managers trust and credibility. There is nothing wrong with a manager opening up to an individual by saying, “I am so glad you are part of the organisation and I confess I don’t know much about your culture. Would you share more with me and let me know if there are things, we can do to make sure you feel respected and at home with the team.” Managers that open the door to these conversations benefit by developing a deeper and more meaningful relationship with team members; they are able to expand their own cultural awareness, emotional intelligence, and will likely be respected for their genuine desire to learn.
We all have much to gain by being more inclusive; it is an exciting time to participate in a collective effort to broaden our working communities with people that have perspectives and insights we’ve not heard before. Leaders at all levels and in all types of organisations will need to practice and adjust how they manoeuvre cross-culturally with respect, a desire to understand, and working with the asset of diversity in order to do greater things.