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Cultural Diversity
What Managers Need To Know

By Marcia Potter, President, SynTactSolutions, Inc.

It's not an issue for the 21st century. We don't have a grace period of ten years to figure out what our plan of action will be or how we will bring widely diverse employees together to perform as teams in the year 2001.

Cultural diversity is here and it is now. The report by the Hudson Institute entitled, Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century, has been making the circuit for several years now and should be mandatory reading for all leaders, managers and general policy makers public and private. This study did not bring us the answers, but offered us the opportunity to gain powerful insight into rapidly emerging trends that make the job of managing people and projects more complex as we move through the 90s.

The issues of diverse work force are but one of the many factors that are driving the change in the role and expectations of management. Increased span of control, decreased budgets, limited human and material resources, shortened time frames to produce services or products and the drive to improve quality and decrease costs intensify the pace at which you work on a daily basis. Most of us believe that the full and effective use of staff is an essential, if not the key ingredient, to quality and productivity. And that brings us full circle back to the issue of diversity and why you must think about, pay attention to, and learn more about managing employees who are diverse.

Managing a group of workers who come from very different backgrounds, socialization, races, age groups religious persuasions, work experiences, and educational backgrounds takes work. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your employees is to do some personal soul searching. Here's a checklist of questions to use as a means of discussion with a friend or fellow manager that can help to open up your own thinking about how you, as a manager, view diversity, what you feel and where you stand on specific issues.

  • How do I model and demonstrate my own heritage, values and beliefs about myself, and my work, to my staff and co-workers?
  • How do I respond and react to how my co-workers and staff live their heritage, values and beliefs?
  • Do I feel comfortable or uncomfortable working with or around people who speak, act or think differently than I do?
  • Does my management style make it easy for others who are different than I to approach, challenge or follow me?
  • Do I expect my perspectives, patterns and practices to set a standard for how my subordinates are to work and behave together?

There are many questions that can and should evolve from the five listed above. The purpose of this exercise is to help you stop and take a closer look at yourself so that you stop and take a closer look at yourself so that you can more easily and readily explore those same issues with others who are not like you.

Once you have taken time out to look at yourself, your next step should be to create the opportunity to do the same type of exercise with your staff. Set aside two or three hours for you and your staff to discuss "what it means to be a culturally diverse workgroup." Inform them beforehand that this will be the topic of discussion and ask them to take some time to think about the issue carefully. Your goal in this exercise is to begin to build a common understanding to bring clarity and definition to what diversity means to them and also offers you the opportunity to listen to what specific needs they can identify to help make being a diverse group a rich experience. By taking time out for this type of a discussion, you will, as their manager, begin to set a principle of openness, tolerance, interest and respect for all members of your culturally diverse team. One of the most important steps to effective team building, and the one most frequently violated, is taking the time to learn and know each other. Trust and respect are hard to achieve when team members do not know each other.

Don't make the mistake of letting one discussion be the cure and the answer to addressing your workgroup's needs. In your daily routine operations there are transactions and interchanges you should watch for where cultural diversity issues may be playing a key role of which you are not aware. Here's a list of some of those situations:

  • Any type of large or small decision that seems to be causing conflict, dissension, or avoidance.
  • Projects that have been completed by more than one
    person that end up a mess, don't meet expectations, or look as though each person working their piece of the project was on a different page in the book, or perhaps not in the same book at all!
  • The fact that important operational, departmental, technical or organizational information seems to be falling through the cracks and not everyone seems to be getting, or understanding it.
  • There is minimal discussion, socializing, networking, and "teaming" in your workgroup, department or division.

Once again, the list could go on. Your purpose in keeping an eye out for these types of situations is that you may come to any number of conclusions as to why things are not going well, from people's stubbornness to the possibility that further training or better direction giving is needed. But most managers, in our experience, who have diverse workgroups do not often enough question how diversity can and does factor into any or all of the situations enumerated above.

There are a number of things you should be doing as part of your managerial responsibility to help you be better prepared to be effective with a diverse workgroup:

Sign up to take a variety of seminars on the topic of cultural diversity. Participate in at least one learning experience with managers at your own company or division. But also, get out of familiar territory and learn with managers from different organizations, settings, and disciplines.

Look for learning experiences that are experiential and not purely programmed or lecture. In the workshops we present, we use the technique of "Sociodrama" to enact real workplace situations that give managers the opportunity to build skills of assessment, problem-solving and teambuilding.

Build a network of peers and colleagues at your workplace that regularly come together to talk about all of the issues we have raised in this article from diversity to quality to schedules and budgets. This is a great vehicle to learn from what others are doing without having to always "go to the top" for the latest position on how complex work and employee problems are to be handled.

Above all, adapt the mindset that being a manager of a culturally diverse workgroup is here to stay. It proves to have significant advantages that help us do our jobs, understand customers, and present new and different options for problem-solving, innovating, and turning each workday into an experience you can more fully appreciate. Your attitude and outlook on these issues and how you embrace or avoid them become the touchstone for your co-workers and subordinates. They will take their lead from you. You, indeed, are a powerful role model!

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