Throughout my work with organizations, my efforts as a manager, leader, facilitator and consultant have created environments in which employees from a broad range come together in the spirit of creating something beyond the capabilities of any monoculture. One of the greatest skill sets required today is the ability to work across multiple cultures and disciplines.

My experience dictates that the degree of employee self worth and contribution determines an organization’s overall productivity. Much of that hinges on the extent to which employees feel regarded and respected as unique individuals. Working multi-culturally is not a “nice” social program for a business. Rather, it is an intentional means of ensuring a fully functional operation.

All organizations contain various cultures that need to work in a way that is energizing and achieves bottom line results. I use the term “multicultural” in a broad sense; therefore, it becomes important to clarify what this means. Certainly, it is easy to identify cultures based on ethnicity or race or nationality, but other powerful cultures exist as well. What about introverts and extraverts, engineers and manufacturers, executives and customer service representatives?

Keep in mind that within any organizational culture there are sub-cultures. They exist for a functional purpose, yet they form their own culture. One of the difficulties that can arise with the formation of a culture is that this culture thinks it is right and often becomes insular. It is also stereotyped by the other cultures who think they are right… and the name calling begins.

A fascinating piece of research conducted by Andre Laurent found that the more mixed an organizational group, the lower the productivity. He also found the more mixed an organizational group, the higher the productivity. These findings led him to explore what made the difference. He discovered that mixed cultures (regardless of how you define “mixed”) that put their energy into conforming and denying their differences accomplish less. Mixed cultures that acknowledge and utilize one another’s differences accomplish more. This finding suggests that if you want high productivity you’d better have some systems installed that ensure your cultures understand each other fully.

How Do You Build a Multicultural Organization for Productivity?

  • Most importantly, you have to want to build it. Once you really want to, the possibilities become endless.
  • Be prepared to take a stand. “We will be a fully functional, highly profitable, exciting multicultural organization!”
  • Get your people together to create a vision of a real multicultural organization. Make time for this. It is not a quick fix; it’s long term. But you’ll find some results improving in the process. Acknowledge the cultures you have, along with the cultures you will need for the future. Ask yourself the question, “Who’s not here?” What multicultural segments are either unrepresented or underrepresented?
  • Be prepared to assess and reassess your current organizational culture and its norms, values, behaviors and systems. Do they allow for cultural interaction?
  • Get help. Find resources/facilitators who are skilled at working multi-culturally, who excel at gently shifting paradigms or sometimes kicking them in the butt, who are catalytic and probably a bit strange, and who want to see your organization grow, change, learn and become all it can be. Because this is a constantly changing field, nobody is ever an “expert”. However, some of us, who have focused on this area over long periods of time, are knowledgeable of the dynamics of cultural interaction and have expertise in creating high performing systems.
  • Know that the above is not a perfect process. The real enjoyment of creating a multicultural organization is the journey – it is one rich in learning and results based on the fullest contribution of the people, be they executives or janitors.
  • Make it a multi-dimensional process rather than a top-down process.
  • Be careful about selecting a title for any intervention used. Don’t call it “Managing Diversity”. Diversity doesn’t need to be managed; it needs to be embraced for what it brings to the party and the bottom line results it contributes.
  • Don’t expect people to love each other – they don’t have to. What they do have to do is find a way to acknowledge each other and respond respectfully with one another.
  • Although an organization may want to value and celebrate differences, an organization has no right to tell employees what to value or celebrate. However, you can build an organization that utilizes differences to build a better product. And you can create a value-based organization.
  • Organizations have often tried to emphasize a change in attitudes. Actually, my attitudes are none of your business! But my behavior is. You can establish the types of behaviors required to work multi-culturally.
  • Be careful about seeing this as a “soft skill” or “soft science”. To pull this off well, you may need to be tough as nails. It takes work, patience and determination.
  • More than anything, take the journey of exploring yourself, your own cultural being – how it emerged, what it means and how its norms and values affect others.