Same same… but different

How well do you truly understand the differences between the members of your team and are you using those differences to your advantage?

Can you spot the difference between these two pandas images?

Can you spot the difference between these two pandas images?

This weekend’s Observer newspaper included an article that grabbed my attention. Its title —Now loving couples can rely on help to cross a troubled cultural divide — doesn’t perhaps seem immediately relevant except those of us who are fortunate enough to have ended up with someone who comes from somewhere else (I’m from New Zealand and my wife is British). However, if we replace the context of romantic relationships with one ofprofessional relationships — arguably equally emotionally charged at times and often with just as much at stake in some peoples’ eyes — the relevance becomes glaringly obvious, and important.

The Observer story centred on a couple in the UK — Reenee Singh (Indian) and her husband, Stephen Fitzpatrick (white British) — and some of the difficulties they had had in their relationship, stemming from their cultural differences. Having sought therapy to help address their challenges, they realised that there were limited, if any, forms of support that properly acknowledged cultural differences as a source of relationship problems. As a result, Singh launched the Intercultural Couples Centre, based at the Child and Family Practice in London.

Considering the multicultural state of a city like London I found this to be surprising, particularly when you consider the statistics shared in the article. It is predicted that, by 2030, 50% of people in London will have been born overseas, while the number of people in England and Wales living with, or married to, someone from another cultural group is now one in 10. Meanwhile, the number of people described on census forms as “mixed” or “multiple” ethnicity almost doubled from 660,000 in 2001 to 1.2 million in 2011, making it by far the fastest-growing category, according to analysis from the Office for National Statistics.

I expect that the statistics, or at least the trend, in any other global city— from Amsterdam to Bangalore, Shanghai to Melbourne — might be quite similar. There are a lot of people living there who are not from there. I remember from my time in New York how rare and special it was to meet someone who was actually from New York.

According to figures from the United Nations, more people than ever are living abroad. In 2013, 232 million people, or 3.2 per cent of the world’s population, were international migrants, compared with 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990. For many of us, this migration starts with university. The 2015 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, found that the number of international students at U.S. colleges and universities, for example, had the highest rate of growth in 35 years. Almost 1 million students in the 2014/15 academic year were not from the United States. For the rest of us it’s a likely to be a job opportunity or romantic partnership that takes us abroad.

Whatever the reason, the chance that we’re going to need to interact — intimately and/or professionally — with people who don’t come from where we come from is increasing rapidly.

This is great news for those of us who consider innovation to be a part of the work that we do. Business articles with titles like How Diversity Can Drive Innovation and The new global mindset: driving innovation through diversityare filling our inboxes and news feeds. The basic premise is highlighted by Beth Comstock, vice chair of GE, in her HBR article titled Innovation Springs from the Unexpected Meeting of Minds — namely, “horizontal networks of individuals with a diversity of expertise were three times more likely to innovate than uniform vertical networks.” That is, the most innovative solutions come from teams made up of individuals who bring different perspectives.

While such diversity has obvious advantages, it does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to see that, while they may manifest in different ways in an organisational setting, the challenges faced by Reenee and Stephen in their personal relationship are very likely to also exist in professional relationships. From cross-border vendor/client relationships to complex teams or company boards, without careful consideration and appreciation of the cultural differences of team members, harmony and optimal performance is unlikely.

If, like me, English is your mother tongue and your work is international or location independent, it is easy to become complacent. English is probably your default business language and your business methods are most likely western in origin or at least in their interpretation. You just expect that your way is the way to do business. Your way is the way to run meetings. Your way is the way to solve complex challenges. Your way is the way to behave.

A good way to get yourself off your high horse is to live abroad and pay attention. Having lived in a few countries prior to arriving in the UK, I experienced this first hand. In The Netherlands for example, people are very direct in business. This was not at all natural to me. Coming from New Zealand, with our British heritage, we deal much softer communicative blows. In The Netherlands there is no holding back. Sources such provide tips for navigating such cultural differences: “If your Dutch colleague responds critically to something you have said or done, do not take this as a rejection. He or she is simply giving an opinion.” Imagine this in a group setting, where there may easily be people of Dutch, British, Indian and American origin, or any combination you care to think of. If other team members take offence to the directness of the Dutch communication style, they may be less likely to share ideas in the future and so the process of creativity slowly breaks down.

Following this line of logic, to really get the most out of a diverse group of people, everyone needs to feel that they can contribute in the way that comes most naturally to them, and they need to understand the how different cultural perspectives can influence the behaviour of their teammates.

My experience is that most people sit somewhere on a scale ranging fromsubconscious denial to frustrated awareness. Many people are blissfully and ignorantly unaware that the people they work with might have different perspectives and needs to them, or they deny the existence of such differences. If you are aware of the presence of different cultural perspectives and their effects on team performance, you might be more frustrated with the challenges they present than you are actively seeking to manage them to your advantage.

To really embrace our differences and make the most of them, we should all be aiming for a third point on this scale that I would call purposeful engagement. Through acknowledging their existence and seeking to understand how they manifest in the the various situations that make up a modern working day, we can then look to more purposefully harness the power of our differences. In doing so, we might take a giant stride toward the innovation utopia described earlier.

The most important mind shift that’s required to achieve this step is turning criticism into curiosity.

If speaking your mind is common in your culture and you find that some team members are not as willing to share, perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that they have very different social norms or hierarchical structures to you. Rather than criticising their lack of contribution, try to find out why they are not speaking up when you would expect them to. Even better, try to behave in a way that gives them the confidence to make the contribution you’re looking for.

When was the last time you really tried to empathise with a team mate, not simply by seeking to understand what their ulterior motives might be based on their role in the organisation, but by thinking about how they were brought up and what the social norms are in their culture. If you weren’t able do to this because you simply have no idea what they are, when was the last time that you asked? On the whole, people like to talk about where they are from.

If managing people is part of what you do, how much of your time do you set aside to consider the differing cultural perspectives of your team members and how you might harmonise those differences to create a happier and more productive team?

Finally, what is the corporate equivalent of Reenee Singh’s Intercultural Couples Centre, and how might we apply the core principles of such initiatives in our organisations? After all, aren’t healthy relationships a fundamental requirement of any successful organisation?