Cultural awareness training is too simple to effectively manage diversity

Posted February 02, 2017 by


For global companies–or any organization–with multicultural and diverse teams, a good manager must be aware of cultural differences, and they must embrace team members’ differences. Differences can lead to conflict, but just participating in a cultural awareness training is probably not the answer. There is more to learn about effectively managing diversity.

Differences can lead to conflict within your team. And that is good. 

A 2014 study published in Securitologia, authored by Dr. Krystyna Heinz, pointed out that “if a company wants to do business internationally, it needs to have knowledge related to diverse management process.” I would add, even a company who only does domestic business needs to have this knowledge, given the increasingly diverse workforce.

Being more aware of different cultural values is the first step (but it’s only the beginning). If you’ve participated in any cultural awareness training, you’re familiar with the iceberg analogy. If you’ve forgotten, I’ll explain. Culture is like an iceberg. The aspects you can see or hear—clothing, food, language, etc.—are only the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of what makes our culture unique is hidden from view. The Heinz study puts it this way: “Culture values are invisible behaviours.” Many cultural values will impact business and relationships at work, for example “family, money, religion, seniority, individualism, hierarchy, and others.”

Your challenge is not to overcome these differences, but to embrace them. These cultural differences may lead to conflict, but in business that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, teams whose members don’t challenge one another end up being less productive. According to the Heinz study,

“For most people the word conflict has negative connotations, but if no conflicts occur during team working, the team will probably not be effective.”

The manager’s job is to “identify the underlying cultural reasons of conflict, choose the right strategy, and to intervene.” Cultural differences can lead to obstacles to high performance if they are not addressed, so the manager’s role is absolutely critical to making diversity work. 

The study found that the most frequent cause of conflicts in multicultural teams was hierarchy, followed by decision making and communication styles (direct versus indirect). How we value hierarchy has a powerful influence over our behavior on a team. For example, imagine a team member comes from a culture where they know to respect, even submit, to the boss in all cases. In an egalitarian culture like ours, that team member may appear too unwilling to express her opinion. Now imagine that person is leading a transnational team. An egalitarian culture can be humiliating. The study points out, “There are a lot of examples of the North Americans cooperating with the Koreans in the situations when the Americans complain to the higher Korean management causing embarrassment and nearly damaging of the deal.”

Making decisions can also be a source of conflict. Some cultures prefer fast decision making while others insist on long analyzing the topic re-discussing the most important points. The manager must be aware of these differences to avoid dysfunction.

It all comes down to building relationships. As Simma Lieberman at The Inclusionist puts it, in addition to being aware of cultural differences, managers must also “how to connect with people as individuals. If you are open to these kind of differences, know how to observe others without judging those differences as wrong, you will be better able to work more effectively together and flex your own style.”  If you get to know your team members and they trust you, you will create an environment of understanding. Team members will be less likely to get defensive when there is disagreement or conflict, and people from cultural minorities will feel more comfortable describing why they feel differently. When a team considers multiple perspectives, that team has higher potential to avoid problems and achieve high performance.

A cultural awareness training won’t do the trick

Ironically, common approaches to managing diversity, like a diversity training or adopting a grievance policy, can lead to more unfair workplaces. People drop their guard and let bias affect their decisions, because they think company policies will guarantee fairness. (The Harvard Business Review’s research shows that within 5 years of companies adopting grievance procedures, they actually saw a decline in women and minorities in management.)

We saw similar results in a 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, authored by Cheryl R. Kaiser et al. They found that the common approaches to address diversity are ineffective and even decrease racial diversity at work. They have the potential to lead to an illusion of fairness. In their study, members of the high-status group, namely White men, underestimated discrimination against underrepresented groups and they were less sympathetic toward those who claim to experience discrimination. Basically, asking people to suppress their stereotypes can just increase them in the end. The authors of this study say that “this is consistent with social psychological research showing that complying with diversity-related pressure can decrease support for diversity and increase prejudice among those who resent this pressure.” Their research even suggests that when companies flout their diversity credentials, they may actually convince themselves that discrimination claims are unfounded because they gone to the effort of addressing it, despite not having any evidence that their policies are effective.

Lieberman advises, “Rather than have traditional diversity training, bring in a facilitator (unless you have those skills) to facilitate dialogue and discussion where people get to know each other on several different levels, become aware of their own multiple identities as well as the multiple identities of other people on the team, and find commonalities. This process can create a foundation of trust, and make it easier for people understand each other, share resources and leverage individual and cultural differences.”

Once again, we come back to relationships. This may be the only way organizations and managers will successfully embrace multicultural teams.

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