Leadership is the key component of all organizations but it’s function and capacity are getting more complicated with increased globalization and technological advancement. With the work place becoming smaller because of the internet and other communication channels, effective work force diversity management is a key to global business success. Diversity here is defined as differences amongst a group of people in cultural background, ethnicity, language, gender, age & occupation. So why is one manager more effective working in one particular geography and ineffective working elsewhere, especially with the multicultural work force? When clients and co-workers operate based on diverse belief systems with conflicting attitudes, it creates barriers on the job collaboration. These barriers need to be broken down in order for an organization to run efficiently and harmoniously. The responsibility of course falls on the organization’s leadership and particularly HR professionals to ensure that these issues are addressed and managed. The goal is to make each employee feel valued and that their needs are being addressed and considered.
In the following paragraphs, I shall give you real life examples of what I felt and how I overcome my gaps in how to manage and be effective in a multicultural work force. I was recruited to be the HR Director of a British firm who had operations globally and also had a huge business in the Middle East. Though I had worked in US & UK the perspective there was different because the standards were different, the intellect quotient of the work force was different and the practices were more evolved and also governed by statutes. However, when I came to the Middle East and took up a role which was predominantly manned by a British personnel and who was my predecessor, imagine the furore it created when an Indian national was placed as a HR Director for the business.
It was something which not only made my Western expatriates colleagues to sit up but also led to surprise and bewilderment with my South East Asian friends as there used to be glass ceilings in terms of growth and promotion for people specifically from outside of the western world. Add to this the fact that only the head of the international business was involved in my recruitment and I was recruited directly in London through the Chairman and hence was literally air lifted and dropped right in the middle of the operations without any clue of any one of this new move and recruitment.
The lessons I learned are my personal experiences and are enumerated as under : –
a) Stand up for your convictions : Right from the time I was dropped into one of the largest projects in the Middle East. I had taken up on myself not to take up any assignment or any task till the time I had a grip on the whole business, it’s people, it’s culture, it’s systems & processes, the clients whom we service, the financials, the people issues and leadership roles & expectations. So it took me literally three weeks of fact finding through structured & unstructured interviews and when I was ready for my presentation to the senior leadership on what is going right in the organization and what is not going right in the organization, what are the positives and what are the negatives, what are the action plan which shall emanate out of such a diagnostic survey which I conducted and what should be the organization structure of the HR department (as it was non-existence) and what will be it’s co-relation with other functions within the business. The presentation was attended by the top leadership of the business at the Directors level and it was received very well, primarily I do assume that they had never expected a person from the South East Asian community to come up with such hard hitting facts and such clarity on the organization health & climate. I did not hold back any views and sometimes it reflected on the people sitting in the room in terms of the leadership style and that is what which appealed to them maximum since they realized that here is a person who has got the guts to call spade a spade and he is honest in his views and stands up for his conviction. I think that was a plank which set the base for me to go forward with commitment and passion and enthusiasm as it was fully supported by the senior leadership team.
b) Cultural inventory of the larger team : I took a cultural inventory of the company, it’s demographics in terms of how many different nationalities and ethnic groups we represent, what are the cultural diversity issues and this came out based on my 21 days interaction with different nationalities in terms of their expectations since I could clearly see that the expectations of the people from Western world were totally different from the expectations of people from the South East Asian world. For example in the South East Asian committee the expectation was more of greater involvement in decision making, participation in meetings, respecting human dignity whereas the Western world expectations was more in terms of autonomy, building teams, work and personal life balance, client interactions and giving them authority to take financial decisions etc. This cultural inventory made me realize that we can’t have one rule which fits all. For example, when I had organized a party for the first time when people of different nationalities were involved my learning was that you can’t have a menu which satisfies the pallet of one particular nationality. For instance the Western world may like steak and souffle puddings but which does not go well especially with some religions from the South East Asian world. Similarly Pork is something which you do not serve in the Middle East as it hurts the sentiments of a particular community. So what is the answer to have a common menu which is accepted by all and the best solution was to go for a continental menu which has a blend of food which are commonly acceptable not only in the western world but also in South East Asian world. For instance dishes of Chicken or Lambs which are non controversial in the non-vegetarian world. Vegetarian dishes are safe but it only depends on how much spices are to be added because in the western world they do not take much of the spices. So the solution is to have a lesser than moderate spices in the food and keep additional spices on the table for them to mix as much as they want based on their own personal requirement. I think these are the learning’s which makes one realize the need to understand the sensitivities of each culture and then have a pilot implementation in an isolated group and take their feedback and then go in for the large scale implementation.
c) Don’t Stereotype : Sometimes in our minds we stereotype people from different communities. For instance all blacks are rogues, Jonathan is a black so Jonathan must be a rogue. Now this logic does not work at all because exceptions have to be treated outside the box and we should be very honest and transparent in dealing with different nationalities and presume that they all have come for a common purpose under one roof to bolster the business growth and prosperity.
d) Go deep into different cultures based on the pie of your work force : I had actually gone and studied on the internet what is the culture of the country. For instance do they like honest on your face communication or would you have to be very sensitively communicating a not so palatable decision. What is the family culture, what sort of food they like, what is the dressing style, how do they deal with strangers and customers, how do they respect the women in the society and what is the role women plays in the society. These studies were made by me on the internet and they helped me immensely. To give an example, I realized that in contract review meetings the Western community always were very honest on your face and sometime they used four letter words which may or may not be meant in derogatory way. However the South East Asian community felt very bad when the Western expatriates used these four letter words. So we had to tell the Western community that in your society it is acceptable but this is taken as a bad word in the South East Asian community. Similarly the South East Asian community members are reluctant sometime to trigger off a conversation or a debate or be very upfront in their approach. So it is important to give them opportunities to speak independently in the meetings and that is what leadership is all about and which slowly and slowly I indoctrinated into my Western friends.
e) Create a statement of intent regarding diversity & cultural positivity : After my joining we revisited the core values of the organization and one of the core values which had to be incorporated was (respecting human dignity. What it meant was that we will chastise in private and laud in public. It also meant that you will be sensitive to my cultural requirements, my religious beliefs and my principles though it may be impossible to integrate all the religious beliefs and cultural advances under one roof but yet in the day to day dealings at least the manager level people need to be aware because many times inadvertently we say something which we don’t mean. As long as the awareness is there the checks and balances automatically become part of our life.
f) Integrate the cultural aspirations into your business processes : When I had come in, the senior most person of Indian or other South East Asian origin at the Shop floor level was a Construction Manager and a Site Manager. At a Project Director / Manager level it was always a Western expatriate. Now many of these Indian friends were well qualified engineers from prestigious institutes in India and they had no idea what the budget was, they had no idea what the project program was and didn’t have a long term perspective especially on financial and commercials. They had never read a commercial contract and they were not aware of the terms and conditions which we had signed off with our client. All they were told was how much of concrete or ready-mix was to be poured each day and each week and that is the type of targets they were given. So they were dissatisfied and frustrated and many of them started leaving because way back at home they used to be overall incharge of the whole construction complex and which also included not only technical and operational matters but also financial and commercial issues. So the first step I took was to allow the project program to be pushed downward to them so that they become owners of the project program and which also included the costs on the labour, on the material etc. and they could do a variance analysis and initiate corrective action wherever necessary.
It is an image which we have created for ourselves and the first step is to understand what perception are around and then slowly and slowly develop and build our own competencies in those regards whether it’s in communication, or in decision making. Once you have sharpened your tools and saws and we are ready to sit in any contract review meeting and look eye to eye and be on top of the facts and information then only we will be more acceptable to the larger cultural team and they will have a new respect for us.
The other thing I introduced was the Belbin’s team role wherein I used to do workshops getting in people into a room and identify their preferred team working style and then critique the whole team. Once one person of the working team knew the other person’s strengths and allowable weaknesses, the bonding and the collaboration automatically increased and this I witnessed from the feedback I received from the Shop floor especially from the Western expatriates friends wherein they realized that many a times they were responsible for the gap in communication.
The above are my personal experiences and I shared them in candor without naming the organization but I do believe that it was one of the finest organizations in the field in which it operated and the business processes where world class and I was happy to be a part of the team.
An Article by :
GROUP COMMERCIAL DIRECTOR Company
THE MANAPPAT GROUP