As organizations continue to explore and conquer global markets, intercultural competence has found its way into boardrooms as a required element of go-to-market planning. Cultural diversity, as an element of competitive differentiation, has not only become important in terms of tact or brand, but also in terms of real value. When businesses open the doors to diverse ways of thinking and interpretations of the world, opportunities emerge. When you leave the “my way or the highway” mentality behind, the horizon produces fresh perspectives and an avenue for linear thinking that forges progress.
Now, pulling diversity of perspectives into a reconciled, unified path is no trivial task. However, organizations that operate with clear rules and operating procedures are typically better aligned and more focused. If an organization is unified, it is simpler to manage and more efficient, too. With this said, environments with strict operating procedures and high expectations of compliance aren’t exactly breeding grounds for innovation and creativity. Organizations often resist diversity as it threatens to “disrupt the machine” or fragment the direction of the business.
To embrace diversity is to embark on a journey from self-centeredness to ethnocentrism—the evolution from the tenet that the world does not solely revolve around my vision but instead revolves around an integrated perspective constituted by others on the team. There is a wealth of insight to be found in observing, considering, and integrating a variety of opinions, views, perspectives.
My colleague, Milton Bennet, identified six phases of development in this journey from business egocentrism to ethnocentrism:
DENIAL: At this stage there is no acceptance of differences or diversity. There is a lack of interest and even a blind spot in the organization to recognize that there are multiple views in play. The organization does not recognize the different perspectives as relevant and avoids calling attention to the diversity of cultures present within the business. In certain circumstances, a person may be highly effective at their role and even be regarded as sophisticated in that business context. Due to this, the organization may relocate the successful executive to another country in hopes that they can safeguard the unity embodied at the original site. Her/his success isn’t always transferable.
DEFENSE: At this stage, the person or organization recognizes cultural differences, but associates them with risk or harm. Here, the attribution error occurs—we see our own thinking as complex and sophisticated and consider the other as overtly simplistic and basic. The opposite may occur as well when, as a result of an inferiority complex, we assume the way others “do it” must be superior to our own methods. For example, if the Germans built it, we should build it that way too.
MINIMIZATION: Here, we understand and appreciate the difference, but mitigate or soften diversity by seeking a common dimension or trait instead that consequently diminishes the value or need for diversity. There is a difference between an organization that is tolerant of diversity and an organization that embraces it. In this situation, diversity is not capitalized upon. If something is minimized, that inherently leaves a “superior” party and an “inferior” party and dissonance prevails.
ACCEPTANCE: The culture of the organization shifts toward a purposeful acknowledgement that individuals experience reality differently and that the business desires to reconcile multiple perspectives in a viable, constructive way. The “personality” of the organization shifts toward a collective we-are-better-together sentiment. When we reach this phase, we activate contextual intelligence.
ADAPTATION: The transformation begins as we shift from sympathy to empathy. We move away from putting ourselves in others’ shoes—sympathy—to a posture of anticipating another’s response due to recognition and appreciation of their cognitive framework—empathy. Empathy is a matter perspective; seeing the world through AND alongside a different set of eyes.
INTEGRATION: Integration is the master class. When we reach this stage, we are mature and experienced in recognizing and accepting cultural diversity. The organization utilizes diversity as a tool, fostering the institutionalization of multiculturalism that creates “third cultures.”
Cultural diversity is not always the best solution, however. In his research found in “International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior” (2002), N. J. Adler concludes that the key to extracting the greatest advantage of a multicultural organization lies in two factors. First, the leader and the executive team must recognize and support cultural diversity. Second, the organization must acknowledge diversity as an asset to be employed for superior corporate performance.