Far from being confined to certain roles, industries or geographies, diversity is a common workplace reality and today’s leaders have to make it work!

Do you live and work in the same place that you were born? How about your team? Look at your e-mail correspondents – how many of those people are from the same culture as you?

It used to be that worldwide travel and cross-cultural interactions were largely reserved for high-level executives from massive corporations. Today, almost every leader engages in a myriad of intercultural interactions either face to face, via e-mail or via their own teams. Far from being confined to certain roles, industries or geographies, diversity is a common workplace reality and today’s leaders have to make it work!

The UAE in particular, is one of the few nations in the world where virtually every group represented has its origin in another country. In fact, the UAE has one of the world’s largest net migration rates, and the number of workers from India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and the USA, among other countries, has increased significantly in recent decades.1

Diversity and leadership

The implications of global diversity on our current leadership models are astounding. For leaders, diversity throws up more questions than answers:

  • How do you lead a culturally diverse team?
  • How do you train a team coming from multiple cultural backgrounds?
  • How do you get a Norwegian project manager to give instructions to a Chinese team member in a way that does not give offence?
  • How do you get feedback from a colleague who comes from a culture that values face saving over honesty?

Up until recently most of the research on leadership gave us the idea that leadership is a universal skill set that works the same anywhere. This doesn’t align with what is emerging from diversity research and experience. Rigid leadership models, even those peppered with traditional ways of approaching cultural differences, are outdated. We need a new way to think about diversity.

Given the complexities that diversity raises, it is no surprise that despite the theoretical benefits it is said to bring to the workplace, more often than not, it creates significant challenges. Diversity, poorly managed, results in diminished team and organizational performance.

Here are some interesting statistics from the Cultural Intelligence Centre:

  • 90% of leading executives from 68 countries identified cross-cultural leadership as the top management challenge for the next century.
  • The most pressing issues executives identified for why cultural intelligence is needed are:
    • Diverse markets
    • Multi-cultural workforce
    • Attract and retain top talent
    • Profitability and cost savings2

So how can today’s leaders leverage diversity effectively to maximize employee creativity, competence and build ‘bottom line’ results? Is it simply a case of asking employees to ‘put away’ their cultural differences?

My own experience, working within both national and multi-national organizations is that there is a general lack of appreciation of the powerful effect of culture on individual perceptions, behaviors and performance. Most of us are unconscious of the fact that our cultural lenses limit our own vision. When leaders do identify differences in the workplace behavior, which are attributable to culture, these differences are usually played down or there is an attempt to harness them under a common organizational vision or goal in the hope that this will drive alignment. The unfortunate effect of this is that, more often than not, people are left feeling marginalized and not really sure why they have to work so hard to become a good “team player” or align with the vision.

Diversity – tolerate or celebrate?

Because of the myriad of challenges diversity creates, there is a danger that we develop a perception that diversity is something to be ‘managed’. Much the same as we manage peak hour traffic jams, we may succumb to the belief that diversity cannot be avoided, so we should find ways to ensure that it’s negative impact is identified and ring-fenced. We call this the ‘Tolerate Mindset’. At best this mindset results in an ‘agree to disagree and get on with the job anyway’ type of scenario. It is fairly obvious that this does not offer much support to organizational engagement and performance.

The alternative is to understand diversity as something to be celebrated rather than tolerated – the ‘Celebrate Mindset’. Far from being a ‘soft’ quality belonging to a select few, current research shows that to lead effectively in today’s globally diverse market, a ‘Celebratory and Affirming Mindset’ with regard to diversity is critical. This is easier said than done, however, and there is a real case here for leaders to develop their Cultural Intelligence.

What is Cultural Intelligence?

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is defined by the Cultural Intelligence Centre as:

  • The capability to function effectively in intercultural contexts, including different national, ethnic, organizational, generational and other contexts.

How do I assess my Cultural Intelligence?

Research done on over 40,000 individuals across every major region in the world, reveals that there are four capabilities consistently found amongst the culturally intelligent. 3 The hypothesis, extensively validated by research, is that by developing these four capabilities, anyone can improve the way they lead and relate across numerous national, ethnic and organizational cultures.

CQ can be assessed using a simple on-line psychometric. Results are mapped onto an individual report which can be self scored, or expanded into a 360 Questionnaire, allowing respondents to make comparisons between their self-scores and those given by other raters. Group results can also be mapped, allowing teams to identify not only their individual qualities, but the level of CQ of the group in general. A further feature of the report is the cultural value dimensions. Individuals and teams can gain a ‘snapshot ‘of their value preferences in a cultural context, helping team members to identify their possible synergies and sticking points.

Cultural Intelligence and the bottom line

Cultural Intelligence is a hard business skill. There is an increasing body of research to show that culturally intelligent leadership increases profits, reduces costs and improves efficiencies when operating in a global market.

Whether using CQ to support Leadership Development (Coca Cola and IATA) or for Recruitment (Lufthansa and Mac Donald’s) or for Team Development (Saudi Airlines) or Diversity and Inclusion (BMW and Novartis), CQ is an integral part of the leadership toolkit for many multinationals. It is worth identifying, mapping and developing. Even top business schools such as Harvard Business School are recognizing its value as a way to benchmark and develop promising talent.

For us in Dubai, the case cannot be stronger for paying attention to CQ as a key business leadership skill. Arguably more than anywhere else in the world we attract a high percentage of expat hires. We greatly enhance the chances of our new hires getting up to speed on their new assignments, adjusting to both the social and corporate culture, managing the ambiguities and frustrations of living in a cultural melting pot, and providing a stronger ROI for the organization, if we build their Cultural Intelligence.

As a final thought – celebrate diversity and learn to work intelligently with it!

It’s the one thing we have in common!

If you would like to know more about how to build your team’s Cultural Intelligence or further information about any of our products and services, feel free to contact our team.

1. B. Burns, – Life in Abu Dhabi in the UAE
2. R.J. Sternberg and D. K. Detterman, What is Intelligence? Contemporary Viewpoints on Its Nature and Definition (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1986)
3. Leading with Cultural Intelligence – The Real Secret To Success – David Livermore, 2015, AMACOM

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