Tips on managing a cross-cultural workforce
Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. One in four of our 22 million people were born overseas, 46 per cent have at least one parent who was born elsewhere and nearly 20 per cent of all Australians speak a language other than English at home.
This diversity is also reflected in our workplaces and experts say managing across various cultures requires a special set of skills and a genuine commitment to examining the experiences of culturally diverse people.
Workplace diversity gives organisations a competitive edge. Recent research from McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns higher than their respective national industry average. “Difference can contribute to making a workplace far more interesting, more able to deal with complex problems and to view things through multiple lenses,” says Dr Dimitria Groutsis, Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. “There’s definitely a business case for it but it’s also in the ‘nice to do’ basket because there is a social justice need to give everyone opportunities, irrespective of differences.”
Managing across cultures
Louise Langridge, Joint MD of recruitment firm Morgan McKinley, says that while cultural competence is an essential ability for managers, it can be a challenging skill to develop. “Humans are naturally wired to like people who are just like them – we call this our ‘in group’,” she explains. “We have greater empathy and vested interest in our ‘in group’ and I think managers need to have an appreciation for what their ‘in group’ and ‘out group’ may naturally be. It’s only when you have an understanding of this that you can challenge your own thinking when you’re making business decisions about talent and promotion to ensure that they’re as fair and equitable as possible.”
Langridge adds that managers need to understand the different cultures that exist within their team. “You need to map out a sense of what those differences mean in terms of how people conduct themselves in the workplace and what their sensitivities and motivations may be so you can create an environment that enables all people to contribute and be effective,” she says. “You may also need to look at your processes around talent mapping and profiling, because people from different backgrounds may demonstrate skill sets and effectiveness in different ways. There’s quite a bit to it.”
Best practice does not always translate across cultures. “In Australia, we tend to be pretty direct in the way we do business and there is less of a focus on hierarchy,” says Langridge. “If you were in an environment where speaking up in a meeting was expected as a sign for how effective you are, then are you creating an environment where people from all cultures can be successful? Managers need to have a real curiosity about how difference plays out in the workplace and a willingness to change your work environment so that it is really inclusive. They also need to be good communicators. We are all human and in the end, we have more similarities than differences.”
Jordan Griffiths, Inclusions and Diversity lead at Accenture Australia, notes that there are 70 different cultures represented across the company’s workforce of 4,500 people nationally. “It’s critical for managers to be culturally competent,” he says. “Cross-cultural backgrounds and experiences feed into innovation. We want different experiences to put into the melting pot that provides much more value for our clients.”
At Accenture, training programs also help to develop cross-cultural awareness. “It’s important to have these training programs in place,” notes Griffiths. “They aren’t designed to be dictatorial, they are more about creating awareness and making sure people have the tools and the methods in which to foster a workplace that is open.”
Cultural events, such as the Indian festival Dewali and Ireland’s Saint Patrick’s Day, are also celebrated at Accenture. “It’s important that people can recognise that these sorts of cultural events are important to individuals and also to the group,” says Griffiths. “We have a top-down mandate to ensure that we are creating a culture of inclusion.”
Measuring cultural diversity
While cultural training and the celebration of festivals can help build awareness in the workplace, Dr Groutsis says that for companies to be truly committed to cultural diversity, they must put effective measurement tools in place. “There needs to be a greater understanding and monitoring of the experience of culturally and linguistically diverse people in the workplace, how they are tracking in terms of career progression and what the leadership suite of a company looks like. This means companies can be held to account. We also need to have discussions about mentorships and networks,” she says.
Dr Griffiths adds that cultural diversity policies and strategies should be implemented by people in positions of leadership. “This allows them to be a role model and a key influencer.”