3 actions that create an inclusive culture

A few weeks ago I was staying in a hotel in central Amsterdam. I had just gone out for breakfast and strolled back into the hotel to go up to my room. I stepped into the elevator and a young woman followed me in. The trip up to my 5th floor room took around 10 seconds. Within 5 seconds, I had summed her up. I started to panic thinking, oh no, she’s a drug addict, she’s going to steal my purse, I won’t make it to my business appointment this afternoon and I won’t be able to fly home tomorrow without my passport !!!!

All of that in 5 seconds. Of course she did nothing of the sort. She was a 26-year-old (I think) Italian tourist who had just been out partying all night and forgot to take her key-card out with her. So why did I, in less than 10 seconds, judge her so harshly?

That was my unconscious bias talking. I was piecing together information that was missing. And I pieced it together wrongly. I had 5 pieces of information; 1. She had droopy looking eyes at 7.30am. 2. She was very skinny. 3. She had a bad complexion 4. She hadn’t pressed a floor button when she entered the elevator and 5. she said to me in a strong-accented, broken English, while bringing two fingers up to her mouth, “I need cigarette.”

I pieced together what I had and all of a sudden, I thought I had a starving drug addict who need a quick fix and was following me to my room to steal all my money.

I only realised my mistake when we finally reached the fifth floor and I insisted she exit the elevator before me, I almost pushed her out and she resisted, shaking her head. Finally she found the energy to lift 4 fingers and say in Italian, “Quattro”. So, I pressed the fourth-floor button for her and stepped out. I started laughing at myself, terribly embarrassed for making all of those assumptions about her in 5 seconds and vowed not to do it again.

Our unconscious bias works in many ways, and one that is common is when we don’t have much information, we usually fill in the gaps however we feel makes sense. If I had an affinity towards her, I could have made her into an ‘Amy Winehouse-style-rockstar’ and would’ve probably asked her for an autograph. But I couldn’t “see” any affinities, (until she spoke Italian), so I invented the worst.

We do this all the time, day-in, day-out, with our diverse colleagues at work. Diverse teams can be stronger, more creative and more high-performing than homogenous teams[1], but they are only stronger and more effective, if we as team members and team leaders leverage on that diversity and create an inclusive environment. Which means:

  1. being aware of our biases and avoid making assumptions
  2. discovering where our diversities can be complementary rather than a threat and
  3. using small conscious actions to ensure everybody on the team feels valued.

What is Diversity?

Diversity is everything that creates differences between us that can generate a different mindset. It can refer to our age (millennials have a different way of looking at productivity than baby-boomers, believing more flexibility means being able to be more productive[2].) It can refer to our ethnicity, our national culture, our sexual orientation, gender, different physical abilities, the region we were brought up in, our socio-economic background, our education… the list goes on. Have you ever tried to interview a young engineering student and then followed that interview with a communication student? They seem to be planets apart in the way they describe their attributes and skills and how they demonstrate motivation for the job. Unless you modify your listening skills to take in more than just the words they are using you might miss out on hiring the best person for the job.

Diverse teams can take a little longer to become high performing than homogenous teams[3], but once they get past the initial stages of prejudging, stereotyping and making assumptions, they can be more effective. We cannot assume though that just because we hire the eight most creative diverse team members for our next project that we are going to reach our objectives easily. Diversity without inclusion can lead to underperforming teams[4].

 How can we create an inclusive culture?

Avoid exclusion. Not all differences are visible. The invisible ones are generally the ones that generate filling in the gaps with prejudgments and we start labelling our colleagues as ‘unreliable, lazy, not long enough in the company, too long in the company, wants to be noticed, shy…’ . If I see that you have a different skin colour to mine or I hear that you have a different accent, I will put two and two together, ask you questions and eventually will know where our differences lie. This will help me understand how I may have to modify my communication with you or think twice about interpreting what you say. Maybe I will consider the best way to give you feedback in order to not offend you.

When the differences are not so obvious, we don’t realise that we need to modify our behaviour because we don’t ask the same questions. Imagine you have a team member who doesn’t hear very well. You don't see the tiny hearing aid she wears, so it is difficult for you to be aware of this disability. If you don’t know, you won’t make any changes to the way you communicate with her. She may end up feeling a little excluded from the team because she isn’t able to leap in and exchange ideas as freely at meetings, feeling she may not have understood all the details. You also note that she doesn’t offer many suggestions at meetings and you write her off as not very interested in the project and you end up hardly ever asking her for input. In the end run, she will likely feel excluded and lose motivation. However, if you know she has a hearing disability, you start to consider how you can include her more in the team meetings. ‘Should I look at her when I speak so she can read my lips? Should I use Skype with camera rather than just the phone when we speak to help her get the message? Should I ensure the whole team knows about this so that when we have team meetings everybody is more careful?’  That is Inclusion. Making every team member feel valued.

Inclusion means avoiding making assumptions that we are all the same. We are all different and we need to be treated differently. We think differently, behave differently, react differently and therefore we need to communicate differently with each of the people on our team. Inclusion is about modifying small actions to make everyone on the team feel valued and feel as though they belong. This allows everyone to feel they can be themselves. A person who feels they belong, will be more motivated to participate in reaching objectives of the team. A person who feels they belong will feel they have everything to gain in being creative and the team spirit will soar, meaning more retention and better collaboration[5]. Inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time and take decisions two times faster with half of the meetings.[6]

What kind of small actions create inclusiveness? They are simpler than you think. Open up, be curious about your colleagues and think before you speak. Say good morning to everyone when you enter the office. Occasionally go and have a coffee with someone you normally wouldn’t share a coffee with. Ensure you give the opportunity to introverts to speak up in meetings. Be aware of your biases when interviewing job candidates or when considering who to promote. As a test, write a list of the people you promoted last year. How similar were they? Were they all men, all women, all white, all engineers, same age, same culture, same education background, same outgoing personality? If so, why?

Even when we have good intentions, our assumptions get in the way, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you occasionally say the wrong thing. Put the error into your bag of 'things to be aware of'. I was at a networking conference in Zurich a couple of years ago where I met an Australian woman who had just moved to Switzerland. She was wearing a wedding ring and carried a beautiful black, patent-leather Prada handbag over her wrist. While chatting to her I asked, “Did you move to Zurich with your husband?” “Actually”, she replied, ‘I moved here with my wife.” Oops. There I was telling her I train D&I and I am the first to make assumptions. I made a mental note to myself to avoid using the word husband and wife in the future and just use, ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’. In English these words are genderless. But we forget our good intentions. Six months later I was talking to a young British man who had just moved to Central America. I saw he was wearing a wedding ring and I was curious how he and his family were integrating, so I asked, “Did you move here with your wife?” “Actually,” he replied, “I came over with my husband.’’ Grrrr….

 

 

[1] ‘Unravelling the diversity-performance link in multicultural teams: meta-analysis of studies on the impact of cultural diversity in teams’, by Günter K. Stahl; Martha Maznevski; Andreas Voigt and Karsten Jonsen, 2007.

[2] ‘Millennials at work’, Bentley University/ November 2014

[3] ‘Unravelling the diversity-performance link in multicultural teams: meta-analysis of studies on the impact of cultural diversity in teams’, by Günter K. Stahl; Martha Maznevski; Andreas Voigt and Karsten Jonsen, 2007.

[4] Idem

[5] Diversity Matters, McKinsey, 2015 Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries, Catalyst, 2014, Driving Retention and Performance Through Employee Engagement, Corporate Leadership Council, 2008 ;

[6] Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making at Work, Erik Larson, Forbes Magazine, September 2017

 

Culturally Diverse High Performing Teams

 

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Gender is one of the diversity factors of global teams; men and women do have different ways of viewing the world, of living life and of doing business in general, but it is just one of the factors. Focusing on gender difference alone does not create high-performing teams.

A 26-year-old male Brazilian software engineer who grew up on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro has a fairly different perspective of the world compared to a 55-year-old female Swiss marketing manager who grew up in the centre of Zurich. But is it’s not their gender alone that creates the filter through which they view the world. In global, project-based teams where organisations bring culturally diverse people together (virtually) so that they can gain on creativity, capitalise on less travel expenses and spend less on expatriate assignments, this culturally diverse combination is very common.

Try searching, ‘high performing teams’, and usually the results will come up with a list of attributes that includes trust, dealing with conflict, open communication, giving feedback and valuing diversity. The first item on that list needs to be valuing diversity. The way we deal with the previous listed factors differs widely whether we are in Mumbai, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. Building trust with a Chinese colleague requires a different skill-set to building trust with a colleague from Hamburg. Giving feedback to a Brazilian requires very different competencies to giving feedback to a Swiss colleague. Only once we understand what the different cultural values of our colleagues are can be begin to value them and only then can we begin to contemplate how to build trust with them or how to deal with conflict in the team.

Let’s look at an example; we’ll take our two colleagues above, the software engineer and the marketing manager. What cultural values could these two team members have that might be causing them not to see eye to eye?

Destiny and Time

Let’s start with their relationship to destiny and time. We’ll insert the competency of giving feedback, just to give it some depth. These are components that every ‘high-performing’ team member in any project-based team is expected to deal with daily. Generally speaking a German-speaking Swiss usually feels that she or he is the master of her/his own destiny. They will wake up in the morning and plan out their day hour by hour (well actually, let’s face it, if you’ve ever worked with the Swiss, you know it’s closer to nano-minute by nano-minute planning), and ensure that they do everything possible within that day to reach the objectives they have set themselves. That means they won’t have any qualms about telling you that they can only speak to you on the phone for 11 more minutes because in 12 minutes they need to make another phone call. This same person is also not reluctant to give her boss some feedback at her upcoming performance evaluation telling him that his delegation skills are not great and that’s why she’s had a difficult year. Speaking directly and telling the truth, no matter how difficult it might be to hear, is what a German speaking Swiss generally feels is the best policy. Planning has always been an important attribute in Switzerland. A country of very little natural resources with only about ten percent of its land being arable due to all its lakes, mountains and rivers and where human capital is its prime resource, needs to plan to be able to feed its young. ‘Let’s make sure we harvest all the fruit by mid-October so that we can preserve it for the winter and continue to feed our children.’ That is what a resident of Zug would call a healthy relationship to time.

Now let’s look at our Brazilian software engineer, who generally believes that fate will ensure whether or not the ship-freighted container of goods you expect to be delivered on Thursday afternoon actually arrives then or not. Brazil is such a plentiful nation where twelve months a year you can go out and harvest fruit or find scurrying animals in the forest who can provide food. The forest doesn’t freeze over so there isn’t that much need to plan, life will work itself out. Plus let’s not forget the very unstable economy that the Brazilians have had to deal with this last century. In the 1990s they had inflation percentages of 3 to 4 digits. ‘Whatever I have in my pockets today won’t be worth anything tomorrow, so why save it, how can I possibly plan for tomorrow? I live for today and God willing, things will go well.’ A couple of years ago around a dinner table following a tedious and arduous seminar, a Brazilian colleague of mine remarked with a big smile on her face, ‘That went well, thanks be to God.’ The non-Brazilian colleague sitting with us told her quite abruptly, ‘It had nothing to do with God, we planned well.’ That did not go down very well.

‘Leave it to Batman’

Filipinos tend to use the term ‘Bahala Na’‘What will be will be’, or more traditionally, ‘Leave it to God’. Recently a Filipino in one of my workshops told me that young Filipinos today have started to give the credit to Batman, ‘Bahala na si Batman’ (leave it up to Batman). ‘Sure, Mum, I’ll be home by midnight…, if Batman wills it’.

And when it comes to giving negative feedback, well, let’s say that the Brazilians are generally far more indirect than the German-speaking Swiss at expressing negative opinions. Brazilians tend to want to save face, theirs and the people they are speaking to. Speaking indirectly keeps the harmony, the good relationship and ensures nobody is offended. That doesn’t mean they don’t give feedback, but it means you need to learn to understand it when they give it. I recollect a number of times while working in Brazil, where I had asked my team members to read over some documents to let me know if any errors had been made. Over a two-year span and many long documents, my Brazilian colleagues had not noted a single word to change. My French colleagues having read the same documents later on made a million amendments… What I hadn’t understood was the Brazilian way of giving feedback.

So what happens when a Swiss person is working on a project team with a Brazilian or a Filipino? How can they give feedback that will not be taken as face-losing criticism? How do they deal with conflict and build trust and accountability?

A Culturally Diverse High Performing Teamneeds to understand what the cultural values of its team members are and only then can each member start to see each situation through the perspective of the other team members. And only then can the team envisage creating its own ‘third culture’ or team charter to which it will function.

The Samba Drums are Rumbling – Working effectively with Brazilians

Christ, symbol of Rio de Janeiro, standing on top of Corcovado Hill, overlooking Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

With just over 100 days to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games many people are getting ready to head down to Rio de Janeiro. Some for work, some for play and some for a bit of both. Most of us picture ourselves playing (or rather watching) futvolei on the beach sipping at fresh coconut water when we think of a long term project in Rio de Janeiro. So why is it that so many foreigners working in Brazil call HQ once a week with alarming stories about unmet deadlines and Brazilian colleagues who don’t do what they say they would do. The most common quips I’ve heard foreigners use when speaking of their Brazilian colleagues and suppliers is , ‘They’re fake,’ ‘They’re not committed to work,’ or the classic, ‘They never reach deadlines’. After a few weeks of making such remarks the person resigns themselves to the fact that they’re going to have a hard time getting their project accomplished but they don’t usually take the time to look into why they are interpreting the Brazilian work methods in this manner. Have you ever asked yourself what impression your Brazilian counterparts have of you? Little do we know what negative adjectives they may be using to describe our behaviour while we’re jumping up and down getting upset about a deadline that is not being met. I recently asked a former Brazilian colleague of mine what the most common adjectives Brazilians usually utter about foreigners. She came up with, ‘They’re inflexible, always stressed, and they usually feel that things should be done their way (the foreign way). How can we avoid these negative depictions and enjoy the merge of cultures?

These criticisms (on both sides) often come up in moments of frustration. When we’re relaxed and have time to consider why the people around us are behaving a certain way we usually find an explanation, but that still doesn’t help us achieve our goals and reach our deadlines. We need to go one step further. We need to consider what we have to change in our methods to be more effective when working with culturally diverse people who have different techniques to ours.

The three points I mention below are only an introduction. I shall not endeavour to write more in such a post, the aim of which is to help those of you heading to Rio de Janeiro enjoy the XXXI Olympiad.

Brazil is incredibly vast and has a huge population of over 207 million[1]) made up not only of natives but also a mixture of immigrants mainly from Japan, Germany, Spain, the Middle East, Italy and of course Portugal. It’s therefore hard to say that there is one common way of behaving, of managing teams and of communicating. Paolistas in the south will tell you that they are different to the Cariocas from Rio, who in turn say they are different to the North Easterners, and so it is. Consequently I shall try to stick to a few characteristics that most of the country has in common, with an emphasis on Carioca behaviour; we have to start somewhere.

“How is your grandmother’s hip replacement coming along?”      

If you ask a group of Brazilian individuals what their number one cultural value is, it is likely to be, ‘smiling’.  In order to be successful in Brazil the one most important word to remember is, relationship. There is little you can achieve unless you take the time and make the effort to get to know your partners, colleagues and service providers personally before going ahead and making any requests or explaining how something should be done.

Imagine this scene: You’ve been sitting at your computer all morning. Your tummy starts to grumble and you realize it’s lunchtime. You mention to your colleagues sitting beside you that you’re going out to get a sandwich. You pick up your sandwich take it back to your desk and decide to continue working while nibbling at the sandwich. My dear reader, that is mistake number 1 in Brazil. Relationships are a vital part to getting any job done and therefore having lunch with your colleagues and getting to know about their families, their spouses, children, grandmother, aunts, uncles, their cats’ and dogs’ names and their hobbies is a vital part of learning to do business in Brazil. The work sphere and the private sphere are mingled into one. If you are leading a group of Brazilian employees make sure you show your interest in their private lives. Brazilians generally prefer to build a relationship of trust and confidence with the people they do business with. Once they trust you, it will be instinctive for them to want to help you reach your objectives. If your service provider offers you a cafezinho before getting down to work don’t even contemplate refusing, irrespective of how many coffees you may already have had that day. The offer to share a coffee is not just to make sure you feel welcome, but it is a chance for them to get to know you a little bit better before deciding whether they would like to work with you. If you’re working on a big long-term project, take the time for the two hour lunches and don’t talk business over lunch; pull out your phone and share your photos of your nephews, nieces and puppy dogs too.

“I’m sure she said it would be here on Thursday.”

One of the most difficult issues that foreigners in Brazil tend to deal with is having to read between the Brazilian lines. How do you make a decision when you cannot tell if your interlocutor is saying yes or no to your request or when your subordinates don’t open up and debate your ideas. Think about the relationship element we mentioned, add the fact that Brazil is a harmonious culture not wanting to offend anybody (remember the smile) and add a colonial history where the big farmers were boss. It is rare to hear a Brazilian out rightly say, ‘No’. It doesn’t matter how ludicrous he or she finds your request or the fact that a government official in Brasilia cannot possibly get the fifty work permits you requested for Thursday on time for all your staff members to arrive in the country, they will rarely use the word, ‘No’. Instead you’ll often hear ‘vamos ver’ (we’ll see), or, ‘Thursday could be possible’, when in fact Thursday is actually out of the question. So on Thursday afternoon you’re looking at your watch every 20 minutes waiting to receive the fifty work permits for the staff members arriving in the country the next day. You call the official angrily telling her she said they’d be there on Thursday, your blood pressure starts to rise and then the frustrating negative comments start to pour out. Little do you realize that your Brazilian government official had actually said. ‘No’, you just didn’t hear it, or rather you didn’t pick up on it. When making requests or explaining how you would like something to be done, try to pick up on the gestures and facial expressions the person opposite you feels she is openly using. You will learn to read the, ‘No’ and not fall into the mistake of waiting for something that was never intended to arrive.

‘O jeitinho Brasileiro’

I’m going to finish on an optimistic note. Brazilians are generally extremely optimistic, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’, or in Brazilian terms, ‘o jeitinho Brasileiro’. You’ve probably heard of it or even seen it done. There is so much admin and bureaucracy to get through in Brazil, that even the Brazilians complain about it knowing very well that all this red tape deters everybody from accomplishing their goals and reaching deadlines promptly. Therefore Brazilians become very creative when having to find solutions to get around red tape and generally in terms of problem solving. They are adventurous and will look for new opportunities to find new ideas. Often they will not even tell you that there is a problem to solve because they’re proud to be able to solve it for themselves using their flexibility. The fact of not knowing there was a problem often leaves foreigners surprised and feeling that the Brazilian is trying to hide some bigger problem. Often they won’t tell you of the problem if they think you’re not the kind of person who accepts bending rules. Rules are not always followed to a T and you may not always want to know how the issue was solved, but low and behold, your event will start on time as per plan, even if it’s a last minute patch up. The backstage may look little untidy but the stage will be as sparkling as the sea at Copacabana beach on a fresh midweek morning with the sunrise beaming over Sugarloaf.

[1] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/brazil-population/