Cultural awareness is often overlooked despite the drive toward building a multi-racial workforce. The focus on culture often does not address ethnicity. More and more both organizational culture and ethnic culture are intertwined as companies hire more multicultural staff to better serve their communities. What happens too frequently is that little thought is given to how well employees of different ethnic backgrounds will assimilate into the largely Anglo, male dominated US organizational culture, or how well the existing predominantly Anglo staff will accept and/or work with these multicultural team members. How many companies provide cross-cultural training for their staffs rather than simply expecting the individuals to sink or swim on their own?
In the planning community, there’s a great deal of discussion about culture – but it refers to the organizational climate, the way employees are expected to behave in pursuing the organizational objectives.
Perhaps the Anglo/American approach to pursuing these objectives doesn’t mesh with the ethnic culture of some of the staff. It may be a subtle refusal to act a certain way, to ask questions in a meeting, or to share opinions. Performance may lag because the individual doesn’t have enough information to do the work or thinks there’s a better way, but his or her culture dictates that it isn’t appropriate to question a superior. Rather than assume the individual is disinterested or incapable of performing the tasks assigned to them, the manager should take time to meet one-on-one and ask questions. This will help get to the root of the issue at hand.
Some people are able to overcome their personal cultural attitudes and adapt to the culture of the predominant group. Over time, their very ethnicity becomes less an issue as they develop a persona that transcends all ethnic groups. They become role models for the rest of us. Examples include:
Oprah Winfrey, while a role model for African Americans is also a role model for all women.
U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, the first Mexican-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress, is a role model for Hispanic women proving they, too, can achieve greatness.
Cheech Marin and Sara Ramirez, while representing the Latino community, also break the boundaries of their ethnicity on screen and in television.
Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera have successfully broken across cultural boundaries.
And leadership in US government is becoming increasingly multicultural. Condoleezza Rice, as Secretary of State to the George W. Bush presidency, was the highest ranking African American woman in US government. And most recently, we have had an African American president and first lady in the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama, in particular, is a role model for not only African American women but for young women in general.
More and more television programs feature multi-racial families, as well as multi-racial casts. This has helped to bring cultural awareness into American households. From Latinos to African Americans to Asians, we are seeing them interact with one another both on the job and off. Over time this begins to color viewer attitudes towards ethnic differences, both in positive and negative ways.
Does anyone remember the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton? Remember how controversial that movie was showing an interracial couple (Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton)? Now we don’t even blink at the concept. We see Asian/Anglo couples (Hawaii 50) Latino/African American relationships (Rosewood), and other interracial combinations on television and it just seems normal. Even television ads reflect this cultural awareness, not only in the actors but also in the language and dress used.
Despite these examples, some still find it difficult to adjust. Instead of building bridges across ethnic lines, they alienate not only the Anglo community but also their own culture. They flaunt their Latino or Black or Middle Eastern culture, with an attitude and language that are off-putting, using their ethnicity as an excuse for bad behavior, rudeness, and inappropriate social graces. What’s worse, they aren’t coached about how their behavior affects their co-workers. It is detrimental to not only themselves and their career mobility, but to the cultural group they represent. Their behavior reflects poorly on their ability to become part of the team in which they work because they alienate their team members.
A lack of cultural awareness or consideration on the part of leadership, and inertia to address a real internal as well as external employee problem, can destroy the very goal the company is trying to accomplish. As we frequently hear, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” and in this case it’s ethnic culture affecting employee attitudes and behavior.
Here is an 8-step process for developing a rich, multicultural workforce that works together as a team instead of in factions working against one another:
Step 1 Smart Start Planning. First, determine the future vision of what the workforce should be. This starts at the executive leadership level and includes key stakeholders throughout the organization who can influence the success or failure of the “people management plan”. This will result in an inspirational statement describing where the organization wishes to be positioned to maximize its people as a competitive advantage. This also includes a description of the respective roles of senior management, line management, employees, and the Human Resources function in contributing to organizational success.
Step 2 Key Success Measures. Identify the high-level quantifiable outcome measures (key people success measures) that will be used to measure employee success in adding value to customers, shareholders, and the community. Include measures that take into account multicultural issues that must be addressed throughout the organization.
Step 3 Best Practices Assessment. Evaluate the organization against the “Six People Edge Best Practices”, developed by the Haines Centre for Strategic Planning. Based on extensive research and consulting experience, these Six Best Practice areas are:
- Acquiring the desired workforce
- Engaging the workforce
- Organizing high performance teams
- Creating a learning organization
- Facilitating cultural change
- Collaborating with stakeholders
Step 4 Strategy Development. Develop core “people management strategies” that are aligned to the direct business needs of the organization’s delivery system, and attuned to developing people’s hearts and minds in support of serving the customer. Both the alignment and attunement strategies should relate closely and support the core strategies of the organization’s overall Strategic Plan. They should also articulate the company’s strategies for developing their multicultural talent, helping them adapt to the organization’s corporate culture, and celebrating its multicultural environment.
Step 5 3-Year Planning. This involves development of actions that outline the key activities for the next three years in support of the core strategies. A three-year lay-out of all needed actions and programs is conducted. Then, these activities are focused down to the top three to four priority “must do” actions for the next year. This leads to the development of a one-year operational plan and budget for each major department. Again, these actions should articulate how each department is addressing multicultural aspects to build and support high performing teams.
Step 6 Plan to Implement. A one-year Implementation Plan is developed here, with the steps, processes, and structures required for successful implementation. This includes how the plan will be communicated and how the change process will be managed and coordinated. The key element is regular follow-up by the Executive/Employee/Leadership Development Boards which are established to ensure a successful implementation throughout the organization. Implementation is everyone’s job, not just the HR department.
Step 7 Implementation. This is the point of actual implementation, change management, completion of tasks and priorities, and periods of adjusting actions as needed during the year. It also involves managing the change process, measuring progress against the key people success measures, and celebrating achievements along the way.
Step 8 Annual Review and Update. The plan must be formally reviewed and updated on an annual basis. The key is to review the entire plan and update the annual priorities, taking into account ongoing changes in the business direction, the environment, and stakeholder expectations. Achievements are recognized and celebrated. Strategies are reviewed, and the three-year plan is updated.
They key to developing high performance teams is to include them in the planning and implementation process. Develop a strength in educating the entire workforce about multicultural differences and similarities. Celebrate the uniqueness of the cultures within the organization’s workforce and highlight them regularly. Make a conscious effort to put multicultural teams together to address organization-wide issues. Team them with a coach experienced in handling multicultural teams so issues can be addressed as they arise. This empowers the employees to see how they contribute to the success of the organization while learning about the similarities and differences of their ethnic counterparts.
Too often organizations forget about including specific ways to address, educate and include the multicultural backgrounds of their workforce, focusing instead on organizational design and workflow. Yet these multicultural backgrounds and experiences influence individual behavior within the organization and the way work gets done. Not recognizing and planning for this can result in misunderstandings, miscommunications, and divisive work environments instead of empowered, goal-oriented teamwork.
Shaping the overall organizational culture to sustain a competitive advantage is a key Best Practice leverage point, and is the job of leadership throughout the organization.
Contact us if you have questions about this. We look forward to your comments.