Few successful businesses now work with people from only one culture. At the shallowest level, most Western businesses (even those based in one location) employ people from many cultural backgrounds. At a deeper level, the impact of globalization and cost differences between regions means that many companies either outsource parts of their business or are outsourcing partners for other businesses.
Because of this, leaders in the 21st Century need to be adept at managing people of different cultures. They need to be able to grasp the essence of each culture quickly, because culture is so important in shaping customer or employee behavior. And leaders must learn to shape culture (at least that in their own organizations) so that it is positive, and aligned with the direction the organization is taking.
To do any less means that they will fail to get the best from the individuals with whom they work, and will not be able to draw on the strengths that different cultures offer.
Culture operates at different levels. At one level, individuals are shaped by their ethnic, racial, religious and national backgrounds. At another, they are influenced by the standards, ideals values and experience of their teams. And at yet another level, they are shaped by the culture of their organization. Culture is complex and multi-faceted.
However, you can start to understand the cultures you are exposed to by looking at the following things:
- Symbols: For an organization, this can mean mission statements, logos, uniforms, and so on. For an individual, symbols include faith, race, and ethnic background. Dress, gestures and religious symbols are a few examples of the symbols that people in different cultures value.
- Role Models: Most individuals or teams have their own role models who embody their beliefs and aspirations. Role models can by mythical or legendary figures, or can be parents, friends, mentors, or people who are well-known within the culture.
- Common Language: As people grow closer and begin to identify with one another, they tend to develop a common language. Here we can think of local dialects, professional jargon, or teenage slang.
- Customs and Traditions: These are the rites, rituals and ceremonies that highlight the things that are seen as important. For an organization or team, this may include events such as annual dinner, an awards night, a visit from the Chairman, a Founders Day, or suchlike. For an individual, it can be going to religious places, attending congregations, or spending time with family and friends.
- Core Values: Values are central to many individuals' or organizations' existence. They determine the way in which things are done, and what is viewed as good or bad behavior. Leaders must understand people's values if they are to build trust and lead in a way that is truly effective.
While some of this can take a lifetime to truly understand, you can go a long way if you develop a level of cultural sensitivity. You may not completely understand the culture or how it shapes the behavior or attitude of an individual. However, if you are sensitive to the fact that culture is something team members hold dear to themselves, and that differences exist because of it, it will help you manage people better.
And of course, there's a whole range of common sense ways that you can learn more about the cultures you come across.
Here we're talking about cultural sensitivity. Sensitivity and management of diversity also applies to sex, race, age, disability, and so on.
While we're all aware of the ethical reasons against discrimination, there are also sound practical reasons why prejudice is self-defeating.
Prime among these is the idea of the "war for talent". Particularly at times when the economy is doing well, it can be extremely difficult to find and attract well-motivated, highly-skilled people. Why would you want to reduce the size of the pool you recruit from by applying arbitrary restrictions? Why would you want to lose good people because you treat them worse than others? And why would you want to lose the benefits of teams with wide-ranging experience, by substituting them with teams with a narrow cultural base?
And if the economy's in a bad state, why would you want to mistreat people? While they may put up with mistreatment during hard times, they'll leave you as soon as the job market picks up. You'll lose your team just when you want to start taking advantage of new opportunities.