Managing Cultural Diversity: An Essential skill for the 21st Century

Managing Cultural Diversity: An Essential skill for the 21st Century

Cultural Diversity – The Challenges and opportunities for NZ organisations 

This article was originally published in the HRINZ section of Employment Today some time before the Rugby World Cup. We looked to the All Blacks for lessons on how organisations might best harness the talent NZ’s growing diversity offers them. Since then the All Blacks have won the 2015 Rugby World Cup to become the first team to win consecutive Rugby World Cup tournaments.

Getting the best from the diversity in your team

The face of New Zealand’s workforce is changing. It is becoming more culturally diverse. One in four people living in New Zealand in the 2013 Census was born in another country, our migration flows are changing, our traditional workforce is ageing, we have growing Asian and a youthful Maori and Pacific population entering the workforce.

With these changing demographics, what are the implications for NZ businesses and organisations? What are the opportunities and challenges that lie before us as a young nation seeking to make its voice heard in the international arena? What are the skills that are needed to lead and manage in this exciting and dynamic environment?

A useful approach to this topic is to consider one of the icons of New Zealand society, the All Blacks. They are one of the most successful teams in international sporting history.

Since the first official national New Zealand rugby team in 1905, which later became the ‘All Blacks,’ our national team has consistently achieved and maintained a record of winning that is second to none. The All Black’s winning ratio of more than 75 per cent is more successful than any other team in NZ or on the international stage.

The answers to the question of ‘What has made them so successful over many generations, with their ever-changing diversity of personnel, circumstances and team dynamics?’ holds many lessons for New Zealand business including Cultural Diversity.

Building on the positive

New Zealand rugby comes from a bi-cultural beginning and has maintained, adapted, changed and strengthened its winning legacy as New Zealand society itself has changed and become increasingly culturally diverse.

In the recently published ‘Legends in Black: New Zealand Rugby Greats on Why We Win’ on the All Blacks, author Tom Johnson with Andy Martin and Geoff Watson writes in the section on their approach to Leadership that “Leaders must have a commitment to full and open task-relevant communication and that leaders must make a commitment to cultural diversity.”

Equally important is that their commitment to Cultural Diversity is seen within the inherent respect with which all cultures are treated: “The subcultures in a multicultural task group must value each other enough to learn something of each other’s culture and language …. Creating diversity does not mean letting diverse parts of the system run on their own without coordination.”

Learning to manage, lead and contribute within a culturally diverse team environment is a skill like any other that can be developed, nurtured and learnt. Indeed in today’s modern business world it is an essential skill that offers companies that take it seriously, a significant competitive edge.

An essential skill for the 21st Century

At the recent New Zealand International Education conference, Jeff Lehman, a key note speaker, Vice Chancellor of New York University Shanghai and advocate for the role of universities in globalisation, spoke on Multi-Cultural effectiveness as a key differentiator to 21st Century success. Lehman’s keynote address was on the critical place Multi-cultural effectiveness holds as part of the skill-set that forward looking students, managers and leaders need to learn so that they are better equipped to lead culturally diverse teams throughout the world, including New Zealand. He sees New Zealand as being well positioned to take a leadership role on the world stage in teaching these skills.

While the need to develop these skills might be more obvious for companies with an export focus, effective multi-cultural skills are just as important for domestically focussed companies and organisations.

Within the All Black organisation is the ongoing iterative question, ‘What do we need to do to win and to keep winning….what is our competitive edge and how do we maintain it?’

It is a commitment to ensuring that in Tom Johnson’s words “everybody within the team or organisation must be able to communicate with everyone else, but with an acceptance of telling the truth being preferable to any obfuscation [ambiguity]. It must be acknowledged that interpersonal openness can cause cross-cultural problems if certain sensitivities are affected.”

Having an awareness of the underlying cultural expectations around interpersonal openness and the cross-cultural communication skills to prepare for and work through any potential sensitivities before they arise, is a critical part of multi-cultural effectiveness. And possibly even more important if they do arise.

Winning as a nation of multiple identities

In the Royal Society of New Zealand’s ‘Our Futures, Te Pae Tawhiti’ publication on the 2013 Census and New Zealand’s changing population, New Zealand is described as ‘a country of multiple national identities and values.’

As a country we have an opportunity to reflect on the new connections and interests, and often different cultural attitudes and preferences that our diversity brings.

Like the All Blacks, with their focus on building a winning legacy, the challenge for New Zealand is how can we best harness the talent this growing diversity offers employers, organisations and businesses to be successful on the world stage?

A commitment to Multi-Cultural Effectiveness as an essential skillset to any professional development programme in the workplace is a good place to start.

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