May 21 marks UN Cultural Diversity Day, which exists to promote diversity and intercultural dialogue. One of the most interesting things about the event is that it inspired and promoted a whole new interpretation of culture. On May 21, 2009, UNESCO’s Director-General emphasised that cultures were interdependent and engaged in an ongoing process of exchange. Cultural diversity was not just about preserving established cultural goods, but about the way cultures interact with and influence one another.

This is of course true, and it goes to the heart of how to think about cultural diversity at work. Just as individuals influence and are influenced by others, social groupings, including cultural groupings, function in the same way. When people from different cultures are able to bring their unique cultural experiences to bear on their work in a way that does not crowd out or marginalise other cultures, the result can be powerful. Not only can greater diversity help drive to greater profitability and innovation, but cultural diversity specifically means having a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of different global demographics, which means better marketing and communication.

Here’s how to harness it.


Be sensitive to difference

First, it’s really important to recognise that though certain aspects of other cultures – and especially cultures underrepresented in the territories you have a presence in – might seem unfamiliar, all cultures are socially constructed and function as a lens through which we understand the world. They contribute to our sense of self, and are often closely linked to our beliefs, values, and behaviours. We therefore owe it to one another to be sensitive to cultural differences, and this is especially important when we’re in a position of power, or when we are members of a culture that has a lot of influence. Something that might seem harmless or playful can be deeply offensive. Making cultural diversity work has to begin with this understanding.


Inform yourself

Sometimes, even taking a lot of care and attention in how we interact with others isn’t enough. That’s why you need to be informed. There are many resources available that can help you to understand how feedback styles, approaches to hierarchy, and ways of communicating vary from culture to culture, and these will help you to approach cultural diversity in the right way. As always, bringing in a trained DEI professional is the optimal approach: trained professionals have the expertise and experience to help you approach diversity in the right way. But educating yourself is still essential. Awareness is key. It can help to explain why, for example, people communicate in radically different ways over email, or why some people don’t speak up in meetings. Awareness protects us from imposing our own cultural biases on a situation and making rash or clumsy judgements. 


Stand back

Working cultures often reflect their founders and their senior teams, and those individuals bring their own cultural backgrounds to bear on that process. Part of truly embracing not just cultural diversity, but all kinds of diversity at work, involves standing back and giving others the chance to shape their surroundings. This doesn’t mean that highly effective practices should be abandoned – all organisations have to consider potential changes in their own unique context – but it does mean accepting and embracing a more dynamic kind of culture – one that is influenced by every new hire. As any entrepreneur knows, taking your hands off the tiller can be difficult. But it’s vital if you want to build a truly culturally diverse team.


Communicate your approach

It’s important to communicate your organisational approach to working culture during your earliest conversations with potential new team members. They’ll not only feel comfortable at work if you specify your approach, your dress code, and so on, but they’ll also know that they’re invited to put their stamp on your organisation’s culture. In social groupings, we tend to adapt to the values, beliefs and behaviours that are already there and dominant, and the pressure to do this grows as the social grouping gets bigger; most of us don’t want to feel like the odd one out. This is why it’s so crucial to communicate externally and, if necessary, internally that yours is a dynamic culture that is influenced by every member of your team.


Be supportive

In some cultures, people fast for extended periods of time. In others, seasonal changes are a time for celebration. New Year is recognised at different times of the year in different countries. Organisations must be mindful of these and other differences, and, if needed, make special accommodations – even if it only involves giving someone a card to celebrate an important occasion. Surveys can be useful here. For instance, British Muslims reported in one study that the support they would most appreciate from their employers during Ramadan included the permission to work flexibly; help getting team members to understand the importance of Ramadan to them, and permission to take annual leave during the last days of Ramadan. The respondents were also twice as likely to stick with employers who were supportive during that month.


A final thought

We’re fortunate enough to live in a world where there are multicultural societies and opportunities to increase our knowledge of cultures different from our own. We can begin to learn about other cultures through film, music, TV, art, theatre, books, and more. But it’s important that we don’t assume we know everything, and that we approach cultural diversity in a spirit of genuine openness and respect. As with all forms of diversity, that’s the key.


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