Leading a Multicultural Workforce

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together”.Malcolm Forbes

If you are running a company or a business you know the reality that globalization has shrunk the world in many ways. It is not unheard of that a single company will employ people from all walks of life, any race, caste, religion, ethnic group and other such differences. This is was not possible or conceivable a few years backs. For companies to succeed it is imperative therefore to have a broad outlook and the capability of managing and leading a multicultural workforce. It is no longer possible to manage such a multicultural workforce with traditional methods or with an authoritarian style of leadership – it just won’t work. The fact is that with so many different mind-sets, cultures, knowledge base and skills that exist within such a workforce, leading it well can give any company a distinct competitive advantage. Even if one location of a global company does not have a multicultural workforce, still the different locations with different groups would need to interact and work cohesively – and hence having leaders that can effectively manage such diversity is extremely crucial.

Leading a multicultural workforce is not only about telling them what to do in a manner that they will understand, it is also about first having complete knowledge of the demography and having a sense of respect for each individual without bias. The way the business world is changing, any leader who is unable to cope with these changing demographics will find their style of leadership becoming obsolete and will soon be ‘separated’ from the company. So not only is leading a multicultural workforce crucial from the company’s point of view, it is also essential to grow and succeed as a leader or even become one. Inability to understand and respect the diversity of your own workforce will ensure failure. Why not invest time and effort into understanding each individual such that their unique skills and experience can be effectively utilized by the company for its success, which in turn will help individuals to succeed.

Leaders must realize that if the company has employed someone, they would have some skills, knowledge, talent and experience that would be useful to the company and hence it is their responsibility to harness the power of each individual to add value to the company. Even within the same cultural and ethnic groups no person is like the next and these differences become even more pronounced when there is no commonality between the race, religion, background and other aspects. However, this is where the challenge of leading a multicultural workforce comes into play. The leaders who can inspire these teams by showing them the values and vision of the team and company and how these tie in with the success of each person, will be successful as leaders. Each person must feel important, valued and given reason to believe that they are partners in the team’s and company’s success. Leading a multicultural workforce successfully is about being adaptable, open-minded and having an inclusive style of working. No community or group must feel left-out and when each individual works together as a team despite their differences, they would contribute better and use their potential to the optimum. If your company is to remain successful and smoothly changeover to being a global company, this kind of inclusive, flexible and insightful leadership will be one of the main contributors.

Each group of people will have things that they relate to and understand. Things like religion, language, those that provide inspiration and a number of other such things that probably would seem very ‘odd’ to another group and even to the indigenous population. It is the sign of a good leader to manage these unifying aspects by showing respect and inspiring others to follow suit. It is no mean task to lead a multicultural workforce – there are a plethora of traditions, symbolizations, customs and cultural beliefs that they would need to know. It is impossible to provide effective leadership without knowing and understanding the people that work with you. Also even an innocent mistake with regard to certain words, phrases, behaviours and such can be misconstrued and many companies find themselves in the midst of litigious situations arising from such mismanagement. Employees can blame them for being prejudiced and biased, making fun of their beliefs and being partial towards their ‘own kind’ – to prove otherwise becomes extremely tough and in the time spent on this activity the company becomes weaker. As the reputation of the company deteriorates, customers tend to leave and with failing business, so do employees.

We are not implying that every leader must know each and every tradition and custom of their multicultural workforce. However, if there is doubt, it is best to ask the individual concerned rather than assuming and also being sensitive and understanding to their cultures and traditions, however different. When employees from other backgrounds perceive the effort of the leader in trying to understand what’s important for them, they too will make the effort to understand and blend in with the values and mannerisms of the place they work in. A leader must be able to inspire trust and confidence in the team – the kind that will help them to be more open and share freely and be extremely productive and highly sought members of the team. To successfully lead a multicultural workforce, a leader must rid themselves of any negative thoughts, opinions and views about one or many different groups and in fact continuously train in being able to make their teams function as one unit by keeping their differences aside. The effort would need to come from both the leader and the teams.

This doesn’t mean that you need to know everything about every culture – it is not possible. However, you will want to be sensitive to cultures that are different from your own. It is not necessary to completely understand the values of any one culture. By knowing that some of your followers may have cultural views which are different from your own, this should allow you to be selective in the decisions you make. Being prejudiced can bring about terrible results for your organization. We live in a world where people of different cultures are working together more and more. To thrive in a world like this requires you to get rid of negative views or people who do not have the same cultural background as you.

When a leader is able to keep the team united and cohesive despite the many differences, no one will be working in a silo. It would be the responsibility of the leader to ensure that each individual gains from their association with the team and the company, but this would happen through cooperation and inclusive behaviour rather than the attitude of thinking for oneself alone. It is the job of the leader to instil the values of unity and mutual welfare despite the differences of the workforce such that each one uses their distinct advantages for the greater good. There is no business or company in the world that has not benefited or that will not be at an advantage, if their workforce is united and respectful to each other. When people work as a team, the products get more innovative, there are enhanced customer service levels and the company gains a solid footing and reputation in the business world.

No company can ever have employees that have the exact same upbringing, background, beliefs and other such aspects. Even if there are some similarities in these aspects, no two persons are alike and will have their uniqueness and distinct characteristics. Successful companies and their leaders will be those that not only accept these differences but can also utilize the strengths of their multicultural workforce, making the company and each person therein, successful.

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