"Aryan is a Moron – Aryan is Indian".

The most important aspect of unleashing the potency of diversity is proficiency to manage the challenge. And to manage it, you need cultural insight.

author picture Article written by Anna Balk-Møller

“He never delivers what we have agreed on, his polite acceptance is false, and I do not trust him. And now his colleague Brinda missed a deadline. It seems that Indian people are difficult to work with.”

One of the major tripwires of intercultural collaboration is the risk of drawing conclusions where none should be drawn. To detect patterns where there are no correlations. And such biases are indeed counterproductive for both working relationship and business success.

Despite the difficulties of collaborating across border, we really want to do just that. Because an intercultural workforce is an undeniable business advantage. The correlation between diversity and financial results are proven again and again. According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, diversity improves the bottom line with up to 19%. McKinsey has shown that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have results above their respective national industry medians. And Deloitte has reported that diverse companies had a 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee.

Why? Because diversity attracts talents, leads to more innovation, increases customer satisfaction, and resonates with both customers and investors. However, you cannot just add diversity and sit back and wait for the ROI. The most important aspect of unleashing the potency of diversity is proficiency to manage the challenge – hang on, we will get back to that in a little while.

Sometimes people are just idiots

But first, let us return to Aryan. Or rather his colleague who is the one with the trust issue. Idiocy is not a cultural trait! And even if Aryan is actually an idiot, it is not due to his Indian heritage. We find idiots in any culture.

More likely, Aryan does not suffer from idiocy. But his colleague might lack cultural understanding to interpret Aryan’s motivations, priorities and behaviours that differ from his own. And Aryan might also lack the same competencies to adapt his ways in the collaboration with a foreign mindset. Our employees do not necessarily gain intercultural competencies just from being part of an organisation that crosses borders. They need to learn.

What often happens when our employees are not gifted with cultural insight is that they subtract a lot from very little and they deduct all from few.

Thus, the mistakes of Aryan, becomes the mistakes of Brinda – who quite unfortunately (and undoubtedly unconsciously) overstepped an unspoken ‘trust-generator’, thereby also inheriting a series of collateral damage now affecting the entire Indian team.

And this is just one side of the situation. Shifting the perspective to the 77.2 longitude (New Delhi) adds an altogether different interpretation of the issues that further complicates the working relationship. The ROI of our diversity agenda seems to be a long way from realised.

How to improve intercultural working relationships

To gain the benefits of an intercultural workforce you need to be able to manage it. To manage it you need insight. And insight you gain in two ways:

  1. Either you learn from every mistake along the way until you no longer loose valuable (foreign) employees, customers, or vendors. Then you further develop your competencies to manage diversity so well, that you attract the talents and facilitate the innovation leading to financial outcome (not to speak of inner motivation, job satisfaction, etc.).
  2. Or you accept that even though we are all born into a culture, we are not by nature equipped with innate skills to interpret it, navigate between cultures or adapt to diverse conditions. These are skills that must be acquired.

When having insight about own cultural preferences as well as the preferences of others, we can adapt without doing damage to our own inclinations nor to our relationships.

Aryan’s colleague could have a conversation about how keeping deadlines is important to him and that he prefers to be challenged on whether the deadline is doable rather than accepting it out of politeness and then missing it. He might even explain that it is important for his ability to trust.
But having insight about his Indian colleagues also allows him to take precautions when making agreement to ensure that we have the same understanding of time, relevance, and prioritisation.

Insight is more than just a personal (some might even say fluffy) collection of observations. It is data. We can measure organisational culture. And when we take a data-driven approach to culture we are able to:

  • Free ourselves of our unconscious biases and individual gut feeling about what our culture is – and start looking at the specific elements weighing down the collaboration to manage differences in the right proportions.
  • Understand that sometimes, I am the odd one out – so I do not assume that my view is common knowledge leaving a much more open space for collaboration and innovation to unfold.
  • Speak a common language about culture and our cultural differences – where the data serves as an objectification releasing the urge to point fingers at specific people or situations.

Two important messages are worth remembering when working across borders: Firstly, we should pay far more attention to similarities. The differences are usually given too much attention when it is actually the similarities, we build the relationship from. We should indeed understand the differences, but they do not deserve all the attention.

And secondly, we do well in remembering that there are more that unites us than what separates us. The better we understand how we differ (and for this insight about my own oddness as well as the weirdness of others is the key ingredient), the less painfully we can adapt. And when we adapt, we start increasing the value we bring to the organisation.

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