Culture is defined as a shared design for living. It is based on the values and practices of a society, a group of people who interact together over time. People absorb culture through the early process of socialization in the family, and then this process carries over to the ways in which they perceive themselves and the world. We all develop individual world views simplified models of the world that help us make sense of all we see, hear, and do.
We perceive our worldviews as making sense if they are consistent with our society’s values, our abilities to anticipate and interpret the events we experience. Values, which vary from culture to culture and from person to person, are the standards we use to determine whether something is “right” or “wrong”.
Trouble arises when a person begins to believe that “Only my culture makes sense, espouses the right values, and represents the right and logical way to behave.” This mode of thinking is called ethnocentrism. When two ethnocentric people from different cultures interact, there is little chance that they will achieve an understanding of each other’s worldviews. Common ethnocentric reactions to a differing worldview are anger, shock, and amusement.
If we are to manage diversity effectively, we must suspend ethnocentric judgments and begin to question why particular things are done. The opposite of ethnocentrism, and the attitude that training in managing diversity seeks to promote, is cultural relativism, the attempt to understand another’s beliefs and behaviours in terms of that person’s culture. The person who responds to interactions with cultural relativism rather than ethnocentrism is able to see alternatives and to negotiate with another person on the basis of respect for cultural differences.
Difficulties inevitably arise when there is diversity within an organization. Most of us have limited information about other people’s worldviews. Frustration often occurs when two people with different worldviews interact; frequently, neither feels valued or understood. Often one or the other practices ethnocentric thinking, experiencing their unique sense of time, use of language, and beliefs about work styles as comprising the one appropriate way to behave. When ethnocentric thinking pervades an organizational culture, the result can be exclusion of some, favouritism toward others, and intragroup conflict. The same difficulties can arise when an employee attempts to interact with a customer who is culturally different from them.
Many organizations are beginning to recognize the impact of a diverse work force and are offering their managers tips on how to manage diversity:
- Be flexible; try to adapt to the style of the person with whom you are communicating.
- Understand that cultural differences exist.
- Acknowledge your stereotypes & assumptions.
- Develop consciousness and acceptance of your own cultural background and style.
- Learn about other cultures.
- Provide employees who are different with what they need to succeed: access to information and meaningful relationships with people in power.
- Treat people equitably but not uniformly.
- Encourage constructive communication about differences.
Organizations that recognize the value of diversity and manage diversity effectively have realized these benefits:
- Diversity brings variety of ideas and viewpoints to the organization especially when creative problem solving is required.
- Diversity increases productivity and makes work fun and interesting.
- Employees take risks; play to win rather than not to lose. As a result, creativity, leadership, & innovation are enhanced.
- Employees are empowered and have a sense of their potential in and value to the company.
Steps to consider when trying to maintain a positive work environment in our constantly changing & diverse workplace:
- Communication is the key to breaking down the cultural; barriers between people.
- Be clear and concise and avoid slang, especially with those for whom English may be a second language.
- When a conflict arises, consider the possibility that the root cause may be cultural in origin.
- Be especially alert for the non-verbal language of those whose cultural background is different from your own.
- Learn to accept that different cultures have different though equally valid perspectives.
- While you are learning about the culture of others, also take the time to explain your organization’s culture.
We meet as strangers, each carrying a mystery
within us. I cannot say who you are.
I may never know you completely.
But I trust that you are a person in your own
right, possessed of a beauty and value that are
the Earth’s richest treasures.
So I make this promise to you:
I will impose no identities upon you, but will
invite you to become yourself
without shame or fear.
I will hold open a space for you in the world and
allow your right to fill it with an authentic
vocation and purpose. For as long as your search
takes, you have my loyalty.