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  • Sylvia Gonner

Cultural Literacy - A Must for Global Diversity & Inclusion

Corporations everywhere are joining the movement to embrace diversity and inclusion (D&I), and telling the world about it. Whether it be like Nike breaking barriers through sports, or like the BBC who are pledging to transform their industry more and more companies are making commitments in 2020 to focus on D&I. Workplace diversity isn’t just good PR or the responsibility of HR professionals anymore. It’s a strategy that’s good for business, increasingly recognized for its impact on innovation and performance. “Fostering a diverse and inclusive culture is a critical success factor that correlates with a significantly greater likelihood of outperformance” concludes McKinsey in their latest report Diversity Wins.

Does this mean that a global organization that employs people from different countries has an inherent strategic advantage? Like gender, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability and other types of diversity, culture is a very distinct identity. By definition, national culture is a set of beliefs, values, traditions, and behaviors that distinguish one group of people from another. It would seem that employing multinational teams is therefore good business.

Experts agree that diversity in itself isn’t enough; to have true impact it needs to be coupled with inclusion. Inclusion is achieved through a corporate culture that ensures diverse groups can best interact, relate to each other, and work in harmony. Yet fostering an inclusive work environment for people of different cultures could be challenging. After all, people around the world often struggle to understand each other. If you’ve worked in an international environment, you know that people from different cultures have such different ways to communicate, establish trust, value authority, make decisions, express disagreement, solve problems, perceive time, etc.

How can corporations with multinational teams overcome these challenges to achieve workplace inclusiveness and benefit their bottom line? I believe that first and foremost, for any inclusive strategy to succeed, they must employ people who are willing to make a commitment to what I call cultural literacy. Here are the essential habits people working in a global setting must develop to be culturally literate.

Be aware of your own culture

To be culturally literate, we must first become aware of our own culture – the internal operating system of our brain. What are the core values and beliefs that guide our perceptions, habits and behaviors? We cannot appreciate the cultural diversity in others if we are not aware of the lens we wear when looking at the world. Exploring and being cognizant of our own cultural filter can be very enlightening mostly because we don’t even realize it’s there. We typically take our way of thinking for granted until we step out of our culture and are confronted with people who operate very differently than us. For example, does your culture favor individualism or collectivism, egalitarianism or hierarchy, directness or diplomacy, formality or informality, meritocracy or favoritism? Being aware of the values that inherently drive our behaviors is key.

Be curious about other cultures

Multinational teams must also learn to be curious about other cultures. Culture is often compared to an iceberg where the vast majority of its mass lies beneath the surface. We can only see the tip of the iceberg, and the same is true with cultures. We mainly observe visible behaviors in others, and tend to judge if these seem odd and different than our own ways. Why is your Indian colleague not comfortable sharing feedback about your project? Why is your new boss from Sweden trading her corner office for a cubicle? Why is your American client insisting on making a deal at the first meeting? To avoid misinterpreting actions from international colleagues, it’s important to be curious, do some research, ask questions, and seek to understand what cultural beliefs and values drive their behaviors. Chances are, exploring the core values that influence other people’s actions will prevent misjudging them and avoid many frustrations. A healthy dose of curiosity is essential to developing cultural literacy.

Be accepting of other cultures

Finally, to be culturally literate people must be open to other perspectives. We must accept that others think and act differently than what we’ve been taught and feels natural to us. And we must resist the urge to believe that our culture is superior to others. Chances are your culture influences many fundamental aspects of your work style. But does it mean it’s the better way. Some cultures favor consensual over top-down decision-making; some establish trust through relationship-building achieved over time by sharing personal time with people, others by focusing strictly on the practicality of a situation when someone demonstrates they are consistently reliable. Cultures can even predispose people to be rule-followers or rule-breakers (see my Blog Our Cultural Differences Un-Masked). Cultural literacy requires people to truly appreciate that there’s more than one way to get things done. In other words, culturally literate people must not only seek to understand other cultures but see value in them.

Stretch your comfort zone

Inclusiveness in a multicultural environment also requires us to stretch our comfort zone. It’s common for people to be reticent if they feel they have to compromise their own deep-held beliefs in the process of being inclusive. People may not feel authentic if they perceive they need to adapt to a set of values that conflict with their own. Or they may feel resentment if they feel their work environment is putting a burden on them. But there is a way to be inclusive to other cultures without abandoning our own beliefs. In his book Global Dexterity, Andy Molinsky lays the foundation for “people to adapt their behavior across cultures without losing themselves in the process.” Cultural dexterity doesn’t require people to step out of their comfort zone, but rather to stretch it. He explains that a comfort zone has a range with a certain elasticity. So, when faced with other cultures in the workplace, it’s a matter of identifying the gap between the cultural beliefs, and then finding the overlap that likely exists. This overlap zone may be a stretch but still within a range that would be comfortable.

As Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People states “strength lies in difference, not in similarities.” While a company can provide a diverse and inclusive work environment, those working in multicultural environments should learn to develop these critical habits to succeed. Cultural literacy means understanding that we’re all different for a reason and learning to stretch our comfort zone, because when we’re aware, curious, and accepting, we can be better versions of ourselves.

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