Today, organizations large and small operate in a dynamic world. Continuous change is all around us creating risks, challenges, and opportunities for organizations. Technology, government, and economic forces are driving this change. Plus, global forces are changing the workforce, introducing virtual teams where people collaborate, communicate, work, and live around the globe. We wrote this article to help you embrace and work with diversity in order to lead and manage across cultures more effectively. Our goal is to help you bridge the gap of understanding between theory and practice.

The importance of diversity

Diversity is important for organizational effectiveness and long-term success; it creates sophistication and broadens organizational perspectives. Exposure to a variety of perspectives helps us to see the world, its issues, and events more clearly. (Johnson and Johnson, 2006).

Perspectives on diversity are also changing. Leaders are striving to keep their organizations relevant as they become highly committed to diversity and inclusion. Many have put teams and programs in place to manage diversity within their organizations. As they take these actions, companies gain value from effective cross-cultural management. One example is PepsiCo, a billion-dollar food and beverage company. PepsiCo stated this about their commitment to diversity: “A diverse workforce and inclusive workplace has never been more vital to PepsiCo’s success. As we face new challenges in an increasingly complex world, we rely on a diverse team of individuals to understand local consumers in more than 200 countries and territories and to drive our business forward” (2016).

The benefits of embracing diversity

Managing a diverse workforce brings many benefits to an organization and adds value to its culture. Dr. Joseph Weiss (2011) stated this about the many benefits that can be realized: “According to researchers, diversity (1) creates a socially responsible culture and climate and enhances an organization’s reputation; (2) helps recruit and retain talented people; (3) enhances performance; (4) provides a creative marketing advantage and improves problem-solving and decision-making capabilities; and (5) produces cost savings.” It is important to remember that diversity is not only about gender, race, and age; it also includes work backgrounds, careers, skills, and life experiences” (p.134). When working with a team, recall what Weiss said and the TEAM acronym created by Dr. John C. Maxwell (2007):

T = Tolerance; Be tolerant of individual differences

E = Encouragement; Encourage each other

A= Acknowledgement; Acknowledge each other

M = Mindfulness; Be mindful that we need each other

Consider the power of collaboration and an inclusive workplace culture. When we value different perspectives, does it build employee engagement? Does it foster creativity and innovation? Does it help us recruit the best members for the team? We believe when people come together, collaborate, and work toward their goals, synergy emerges and great outcomes occur. Dr. Fred Jandt (2016) says, “If we assume similarity between cultures, we can be unaware of important differences” (p.88). Embracing diversity and creating a culture of inclusiveness increases leadership, organizational, and team effectiveness.

In addition, it is critical for managers to realize the organization’s broader role in society. “Organizations today increasingly are judged as much for their contributions to society as they are for their returns to shareholders” (Casey, 2016). Furthermore, companies are expected to serve an increasingly diverse marketplace, so it makes good business sense for the company to embrace diversity through its workforce and its management.

The changing workforce

According to a Policy Alert on the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education website (2005), “The U.S. workforce (generally ages 25 to 64) is in the midst of a sweeping demographic transformation. From 1980 to 2020, the white working-age population is projected to decline from 82% to 63%. During the same period, the minority workforce is projected to double from 18% to 37%, while the Hispanic/Latino workforce is projected to almost triple from 6% to 17%” (para 1). These statistics foreshadow the challenges that leaders will face due to cultural changes in the workplace.

How to be an effective leader 

Effective leaders understand the importance of context and culture in leadership situations. For organizations to succeed, leaders need to embrace diversity and ensure they are creating a culture of inclusiveness.  An effective leader knows how to work well with others, is flexible, adaptable, and innovative. Leaders need to demonstrate emotional intelligence, while exemplifying the qualities of a high caliber leader (i.e. self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management). Being self-aware is the most important quality, as managers have to understand themselves first before they can lead others.

Being culturally intelligent is another important component of leading across cultures. To understand cultural intelligence, Dr. Joseph Weiss (2011) offers three thoughts:

  1. Cultural intelligence has three components: First, the cognitive component (head) is the ability to observe, listen, and pick up factual clues about relevant behaviors, such as differences of opinion, deadlines, and the ways people interact with each other.
  2. The physical component (body) relates to actions, body language, speech, gestures, habits, and expressions.
  3. The third component of cultural intelligence is emotional/motivational (heart), which involves having self-confidence and the courage to keep trying and not give up when you make cultural mistakes. Adapting to new settings is important and can be trying. Gaining cultural intelligence requires time and preparation. It can be increased by reading about cultural habits and values, attending cultural events, and getting to know people from different cultures. “Having an open mind and heart also helps with the adaptation process” (p. 146).

What do the experts say about an effective leader? According to Reilly, Minnick, and Baack (2012), “An effective leader is able to maintain a motivated and committed workforce. An example of leading effectively is a manager who stays calm, cool, and collected. A leader remains open to suggestions from colleagues and takes the time to listen to and mentor employees” (p.31). A leader puts time and effort into studying people. Having an increased level of awareness and being able to deal with cultural differences is paramount (Weiss 2011).  It is also essential to show mutual respect to each person despite differences, such as varying beliefs, customs, upbringing, or personality. Respect builds trust and facilitates an improved working relationship.

Management and leadership matter 

What is needed today to lead and manage across cultures effectively? We believe it is a combination of many things: embracing diversity, committing to leading to the best of your ability, and integrating quality and caring in all you do. Reflect on your values and bring them to life as you lead. Walk the walk and talk the talk by consistently applying values that include inclusiveness, fairness, honesty, innovation, integrity, quality, and caring.

Do all you can to further the success of your employees and the organization. We define ethics as a system or code of conduct based on moral and legal duties and obligations. Accordingly, managers should lead ethically and apply interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and cultural intelligence to people as a means to themselves.

Create a culture that supports diversity

Remember, culture is fluid and dynamic, not static. Organizational culture is the driving force and operating system of the organization. It guides how employees think, act, and feel. Some cultures are effective for the short term; when situational variables change or other circumstances arise, a culture may become ineffective. One culture does not fit all organizations.

As you view cultures, there are two viewpoints. An ethnocentric view is the tendency to view and evaluate a different culture using the norms and values of one’s own culture. In contrast, a cultural relativist view steps outside one’s own cultural norms, values, and biases to judge and understand a different culture on its own terms. As you manage and lead across cultures, focus on the cultural relativist view. Take the time to examine assumptions with a healthy dose of skepticism. This way you can take a more informed approach to action by applying both critical thinking and culture intelligence to increase leadership effectiveness.  (Dr. Stephen Brookfield, 2011).

References:

Brookfield, S. (2011). Critical thinking workshop. Community of Critical Thinking. San Diego, CA: Ashford University.

Casey, D. (2016). Diversity: It’s good for business, and here’s why. Profiles in Diversity Journal. www.diversity jounal.com.

Jandt, F. (2016). Intercultural communications: Identities in a global community. New York, SAGE Publications

Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, F.P.(2006). Group theory and skills. Boston, MA: Pearson Education

Maxwell, J. (2007). Lessons on leadership, Duluth, GA: Maximum Impact

National Center for Public Policy and Education (n.d). Retrieved from http://www.highereducation.org/

PepsiCo Website (2016), Retrieved from http://www.pepsico.com/

Reilly, M., Minnick, C., & Baack, D. (2012). The five functions of effective management. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc. 

Weiss, J. W. (2011). An introduction to leadership. San Diego: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.