Understanding Relationships in an Increasingly Diverse Workplace Culture

Linda Manning

Employers today facing retirements are worried about loss of their organizational memory and tacit knowledge. Because of this, the problem of skills shortages has become increasingly acute.

Skilled immigrants have emerged as a potential solution for skills shortages. However, they may not solve the management shortage as easily. Their technical skills may be extremely good, but they are often lacking in soft skills which affect retention and advancement. Emotional intelligence in the workplace often an undervalued skill. This is a real challenge for many organizations. Newcomers don’t have an understanding of the workplace culture—that is, if they don’t have workplace experience in that particular country. The result is high turnover among immigrants. This does not bode well for companies who need to replace retiring managers.

Talent management practices offer a solution for managing diversity in the workplace-- especially those related to employee engagement, performance appraisal, and identification of high potential employees. Employees are either motivated to stay and work to their best ability, or to quit and leave (or worse, quit and stay) by their manager.

Managing Diversity in the Workplace

Every manager should understand the pivotal role they play in creating an inclusive workplace. Good managers adapt to their employees, their organization, and their situation. With cultural diversity in the workplace, skilled managers will adapt. The problem is that they may not know what kinds of adaptations to make.

  • Understand that we each have a culture, and it drives our perceptions, expectations, and behaviors. We may have identical values as someone from another group, and yet our behavioral expectations may be quite different—if we can identify the common values, both sides can adapt to the other.
  • Identify and own our values. Defining our values helps to draw the line in the sand. The organization and the manager did not get where they are by loosening their hold on their values, so great care should be taken to protect those values. This doesn’t mean that adjustments can’t be allowed: an example is flex-time. Women’s entry into the labor force led to adaptations in many work places, including flex-time. The organization’s goals had to take priority, and a means for adapting to the needs of women in the workplace emerged. As with many examples like this, the adaptation benefited everyone.
  • Help newcomers understand your context, values, and expectations. Remember that they are not rejecting your values—they do not have the context for understanding behavioral expectations. Do more than providing onboarding programs. Explain workplace norms—those ‘unwritten rules’ that we all ‘know’ but don’t know how we know. Do more than tell a new employee to connect with someone else. Walk them over, introduce them in person, and explain what they need and how that person can provide it. Take 5 minutes to save hours of frustration for everyone.
  • Recognize that most newcomers will have strong technical skills but weak soft skills—identify what soft skills they need. Make that part of their performance review and plan for professional development.
  • Learn about cultural orientation and how it affects behaviors. For instance, a sense of hierarchy—the expectation that some have higher status and deserve to be treated differently—can be interpreted as an inability to take initiative. Explain what you expect. What does "initiative" mean to you? Explain it to the new employee and give them feedback in private.

I have a personal example that I think may illustrate my point about workplace diversity. The fact that men and women seem to come from different planets illustrates cultural difference. Men tend to be task-oriented, and women tend to be more process-oriented. If I have a problem, I process it by telling my husband about it. Women often process their problems out loud with someone else and then figure out their own solutions. For me, my best problem solving time is during sleep.

My husband, like many men, feels a strong urgency to solve the problem now. As I describe the situation, he chimes in with suggestions like: "You shouldn’t let that bother you," and "what you need to do is . . ."

So we have a conflict. What I need is to be heard. I need my perceptions and concerns validated. His "fix it now" approach frustrates me because I don’t feel validated at all, and instead of using the time to process, I use the time gently rejecting all of his wonderful suggestions. He feels frustrated because I won’t let him fix the problem for me.

So recently, I started following my own rules. I named my expectations: I need him to understand my concerns; I want him to resist the urge to fix things, and to simply listen. During our next conversation, he listened without fixing. I thanked him and told him that I appreciated that he listened to me and respected my ability to solve my own problems, and for responding to my request (the ultimate gesture of respect, in my view). He was baffled. He felt that he hadn’t "done anything to help." But several successful problem-solving conversations followed, starting with me saying: "I have a situation that I’d like to tell you about. I don’t need you to solve the problem for me—I can do that myself. But it will help me a lot for you to hear me and let me process this."

This is an example of similar values (we both wanted to help me solve my problem); conflicting behavioral expectations (that can destroy relationships); acknowledgment that both have good intentions; clear explanation of expectations; response to the expectations; and recognition of the effort and outcome.

If managers can learn to treat new employees like valued relationships, increased retention and productivity will follow.