Diversity and Cultural Awareness
Is Diversity Important to Business?
The whole topic of diversity and cultural awareness is extremely large and we would probably need to write a book to begin to cover the reasons why people and groups identify themselves as being different in general, as well as to cover the myriad of ways in which they relate to one another (happily or otherwise). However, if we concentrate our efforts in the narrower commercial organizational or business field, we can consider the question of whether a better understanding of diversity or different cultures matters at all, or why it should be taken seriously as an issue.
Considerable recent research conducted in businesses of many sizes has regularly suggested that effort to become more positively aware about the diversity of people around us, or the cultural breadth that prevails in a given organization, is built upon an open-minded attitude and a willingness to accept that the journey towards greater enlightenment is valuable and worthwhile in the first place. This typically means that individuals need to reflect upon where their prevailing attitudes may be closed-minded or limited and what then needs to be done to change this (and to bring about a climate that is welcoming and trusting of diversity of belief, opinion and action).
Awareness is typically heightened, and the general organizational climate is typically changed for the better by actively talking about diversity and by focusing people’s minds on the strengths and the benefits that it can bring. At the same time effort needs to be committed to drawing attention to fear, trepidation, bias, discrimination and prejudice in relation to looking or acting differently or having views and beliefs that are different to the ‘majority’ position.
Changing people’s attitudes is rarely a short-term proposition and usually needs a lot of careful planning and commitment. Of course, we need to remember that an organization and its leaders cannot change a person’s attitude – only the individuals can do that. However, we can influence people’s behavior (through both rewards and even punishment for example) which may lead them to attitudinal change. This means that the journey to greater diversity often starts by looking to progressively raise individual awareness about diversity and culture in general and eventually therefore encouraging individuals to each “open up” their attitudes.
In an organizational setting, the awareness of individuals in general usually needs to shift to understanding more about the cultures other than the majority culture. To do this, three related but slightly different approaches can be adopted:
- Imagine reverse discrimination
- Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes
- Thinking about a wider cultural perspective
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
IMAGINE REVERSE DISCRIMINATION
If the individual is part of the majority organizational culture (or majority culture in any situation) bias, prejudice and discrimination (where it exists of course) tend to be one way – i.e., towards the minority cultures or those definable groups that are relatively few in number. This often simply reflects the disparity in organizational power base, with the majority culture occupying the key positions of influence and controlling the significant decisions to be made. At the very least this can mean that minorities are excluded much of the time and at the worst it can mean that minority interests are ignored, ridiculed or even strongly attacked by the majority culture.
While such imbalanced situations do not make it easy, to start to address this issue, a good place to start is for an individual to imagine how he or she would feel if the same power was exercised in reverse. In other words, if a major culture person’s views or behaviors were ignored, belittled, laughed at or attacked in a culture where the minority became the majority, how would he or she feel about it?
This kind of thinking does not typically create immediate attitudinal change. However, it can start to shift individual perspectives and draw attention to majority behavior that is unfair, unjust or unreasonable when seen in a different light or context.
PUTTING YOURSELF IN THE OTHER PERSON’S SHOES
Once again, putting yourself in the position of another person is never an easy task, as large parts of their personality, thinking and culture is often hidden or poorly understood. However, despite the obvious limitations, there are a number of more visible or discoverable actions that can be considered as direct clues to behavior or attitude. For example, the gender, faith, age, work history and even the style of personality of another individual can be thought about and imagined (and at least assessed to see what insights they might give on an individual’s perspective or possible views).
All of these kinds of cultural influences or categories create a context in which an individual usually thinks or acts as a reference point for their behavior. In some cases this is very directly connected and easy to see, – e.g., an older person may become frustrated when talked to in a loud voice when they are clearly not hard of hearing. However, in other cases this can be much less readily discoverable and some careful thought needs to be given as to “where a person may be coming from.” This may include mixed or conflicting messages.
THINKING ABOUT A WIDER CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE
In the same way that we can put ourselves in another person’s shoes to better appreciate their perspective (if we try hard enough), we can also think about the wider cultural factors that may also play their part (once again, watching carefully for mixed or ambiguous messages).
For example, if a female manager in the organization is Chinese speaking and looking, these factors may play a key part in this person’s behavior. However, Chinese speaking people are no longer just from China. They could be from any one of a dozen countries where the Chinese population is significant. Alternatively, they could speak Chinese as a second language in a newly adopted country that speaks English as a first language, for instance.
This example confirms the fact that we now live in a world in which any categorization of people and culture may change quite quickly or not apply in all circumstances. In other words, the stereotype breaks down and we need to be careful not to be caught out.
The boundaries of culture and diversity are likely to continue to blur as the world becomes more of a global village with physical migration, greater communication links (especially online) and even increased leisure time and recreational travel allowing us to better understand differences between people. Hence, what may have defined people and culture quite accurately in the past may not be accurate in the future. We may therefore, find that culture or our cultural heritage, only matters if we choose for it to do so. An appreciation and respect for others therefore matters in life and may matter even more in business. Here, working together successfully may be the main difference between commercial success and failure.