Why is managing cultural diversity important?

Diversity is, and has been, one of the hot topics in business and workplaces for some time now. The consensus, for the most part, is that diversity does bring benefits. Whether those benefits are increased innovation, more profitability, teams with better problem solving skills, something else or all of these depends on the context, but few would argue that diversity brings no benefits.

Sadly, it’s all too common that this is where the discussion ends.

Diversity is great, but it’s oftentimes seen as something that just happens, which in most cases couldn’t be further from the truth. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that, although organisations are becoming more diverse, it appears to be happening slowly. One great example of this is the acclaimed Oxford University. In 2013 Oxford University published The Oxford Handbook of Diversity and Work. Yet, six years later, in 2019 Oxford’s vice-chancellor still voiced her concerns over Oxford’s progress on diversity.

In this article we’ll look at the two-layered question of:

  • Why is it important to manage cultural diversity in order to achieve it
  • Why is it important to manage cultural diversity when you have it.

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How do you achieve cultural diversity?

The first layer of the question regarding the importance of managing diversity, and the main reason why cultural diversity doesn’t just happen, is connected to recruitment. Incorporating diversity into recruitment is not as straight forward as we might think. It is human nature to “play it safe”. Equally natural is the tendency to trust people that are more similar to us more than people who are less similar to us. 

Successful Diversity doesn't just happen.

Egbert Schram, Group CEO, The Culture Factor Group

So, even from a diverse pool of equally competent candidates, we instinctively lean towards the candidates that are more like us. This is not a problem that touches cultural diversity alone. Already a few years ago HBR famously talked about the statistical problems female candidates face in recruitment. Nevertheless, when cultural diversity is brought into the equation, the same problem appears to worsen. This is what is generally referred to as "unconscious bias" a tendency to filter out the diverse candidates, resulting in a more or less uniform workplace. We’ll look into how this can be remedied in a future article, but the first step is to become conscious about this unconscious bias.

Establishing cultural diversity always demands a certain level of commitment, which may require adjustments in your Organisational Culture. Commitment can, for example, be enhanced by implementing policies designed to establish diversity. This is exactly how Oxford University reacted to their concerns. (And it seems to be finally paying off in 2021, Ed.)

Intercultural training and experience, as well as a more diverse recruitment team, can also be of great help when striving for diversity.

A number of needles connected by a thread

Why is it important to manage the cultural diversity you already have?

The second layer regarding the importance of managing diversity comes after the recruitment process. Even at a culturally diverse workplace, managing the diversity is a necessity or you risk miscommunications and people pulling to completely different directions.

Managing cultural diversity is important largely for the same reasons that make management important in general. It helps in

  • achieving goals as a group
  • reducing costs and steering 
  • optimising resources. 

What makes managing diversity different is that it requires special care and a particular set of skills and strategies. A group of like-minded people, all in similar situations in their lives and perhaps even living in one area, can be relatively easy to manage. But the more outliers you start presenting, the more complex this becomes. Incorporating diversity into your team is purposefully bringing in new perspectives in order to access the benefits mentioned above. However, as group complexity increases, managers have to invest more care when dealing with the different elements of the group, because not everyone will see the same situations in the same way. 

For instance, in Low Uncertainty Avoidance cultures, like Jamaica, Singapore and Denmark, 

  1. People are more likely to change employers based on their experiences and expectations
  2. Only necessary rules that are meant to be followed will be put in place
  3. The results are more important than following specific procedures 

Greece, Portugal and Japan are cultures with High Uncertainty Avoidance and, 

  1. People are more likely to stay with one employer for a longer time and have fewer employers over a lifetime
  2. There is an emotional need for rules, even if they will not always be followed
  3. Procedures must be clearly stated and followed

What makes managing diversity even more challenging is the fact that it is in our nature to assume others see things the same way we do. This is, of course, not true and, therefore, can lead to misunderstandings when dealing with people from different cultures and with different values. And how can one manage people without understanding their values?

Another element in this equation is something we already discussed earlier: trust. As already mentioned, we tend to trust people that are similar to us. Therefore, diversity inherently decreases the level of trust, whether we want it or not. 

make diversity a part of your organisations dna

Organisational Culture

This is where the role of Organisational Culture steps in. While you cannot change human nature, you can increase trust through strong Organisational Cultural practices. You can also promote diversity and inclusion in people’s attitudes, fostering a more inclusive work environment. But make no mistake, if you’re not making any efforts in managing diversity, you might be the captain of a ship where the crew speaks in different languages and not even you will be able to decipher them.

As you can see, mastering cultural diversity requires time and commitment. There are no quick solutions. While you can, of course, promote cultural understanding with a simple one-off cultural training, it can be even dangerous to assume that this would cover everything.

At The Culture Factor Group (Previously known as Hofstede Insights) we specialize in helping companies make diversity their strength. Contact us to discuss your specific situation, or read more about how we supported Mars in their journey here.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in January 2020, and last updated in October 2023.