The benefits of diversity in the workplace have been widely recognized. Diverse workforces have been found to be more creative and better at solving problems, as well as innovative, productive, and successful. People from different backgrounds and cultures can have different perspectives and ideas, and employees are more comfortable contributing to a diverse team rather than a heterogeneous one in which they feel pressure to conform. Moreover, if diversity and new or different ways of thinking are encouraged, people are more apt to volunteer their ideas and help the group succeed. It’s also easier to serve a diverse clientele with a diverse workforce.
Encouraging diversity is a great benefit, but it can also be a challenge. How can we help foster a happy, inclusive, and diverse workforce and client base? One starting point is by attempting to become more culturally competent.
What is cultural competence?
To promote diversity, we need to learn to respect diversity. But how can we ensure we’re being respectful of someone’s culture? Maybe you’ve tried showing someone respect, only to watch him look shocked, hurt, angered, or affronted. Maybe he was just having a bad day, or maybe you lacked cultural competence.
To show respect for someone else’s culture, we have to recognize and understand our own culture—and the value of diversity. Otherwise, we may not understand how to promote diversity, and we may accidentally offend someone or fail to see the value of her input. If we stifle diversity of thought and culture in the workplace, we stifle our ability to succeed.
Cultural competence is the ability to challenge our own assumptions, see the world through different perspectives, and effectively interact with and meaningfully respond to people from other cultures. It’s the ability to feel respect and meaningfully show it to others, valuing their contributions because of their different cultures. Cultural competence takes time to cultivate, both for an individual and for an entity.
What do we mean by ‘culture’?
Culture can refer to any class of people. People are from different cultures based on their race, ethnicity, age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, values, religion, beliefs, income, education, geographic location, profession, parental status, and so on. Some of those categories are protected from discrimination under the law, so having cultural competence will also help you avoid engaging in discrimination or harassment, either intentionally or inadvertently.
To become culturally competent, we need to be aware of different cultures and our own stereotypes about them—and we need to acknowledge our lack of knowledge about other cultures even when we might think we understand them. For example, those of us who have been alive for several decades know what it was like to be young back in the 1970s or ’80s, but we likely don’t know what it’s like to be young now. And while we might know what it was like to vacation in a certain place, we don’t know what it was like to be raised there.
What are some things different cultures affect?
The culture we come from affects how we interact and think, often in ways we don’t recognize. For example, our culture influences not only the language and the particular dialect we speak but also the way we talk (loud? fast? formal? directly?) and the phrases and slang we use. Our culture shapes the way we perceive, interpret, and understand the world as well as our values. It affects the way we greet one another. For example, firm handshakes and eye contact are expected in some cultures but are considered hurtful or disrespectful in others. Our culture also dictates our social activities—different cultures celebrate different milestones, like baptisms or coming-of-age ceremonies.
Cultural competence means recognizing that the way we interact and think is partly a result of our own culture. It also means understanding that other people have different ways of thinking and interacting that aren’t bad—they’re just different. And those differences are worth learning about.
What’s the value of cultural competence?
One of the tricks of cultural competence is to think of situations from vantage points other than our own. For example, consider whether anyone has ever had a negative reaction to you based on your membership in a certain class or group. It can be disheartening, saddening, and maddening, and it can make you not want to participate or try. One thing shared across cultures is that it’s hurtful to be looked at negatively merely because of a stereotype about your culture. Having a negative reaction based on a preconception is one of the disadvantages of lacking cultural competence. Basically, a lack of cultural competence hurts.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty common. We tend to be raised around people with cultures similar to our own, gravitate toward those people, and be uncomfortable with differences and change. We tend to think in terms of stereotypes, mistakenly believing that people who are like us on the surface are also the same underneath, and people who are different on the surface are different underneath. Of course, that’s not true—everyone’s unique.
Stereotypes hold us back as individuals. Dealing with someone else’s prejudices stifles our productivity, makes us feel bad, causes us to be overly sensitive, dampens our interest in doing our personal best, and promotes conflict and strife. Accepting people and valuing diversity, on the other hand, promotes positive feelings and a sense of inclusion. In short, increased cultural competence leads to increased happiness.
So what can we do?
For starters, you must communicate openly and actively. That means really listening and paying attention to others’ reactions (Do they respond in an unanticipated way? Why could that be?), discussing and addressing issues as they arise, and asking questions to establish trust, respect, and understanding. For example, you can ask how someone likes to be greeted and addressed, whether she needs anything, and if a particular action is OK—or not. If you do something that gets a negative reaction, you can consider—and even ask—if you’ve accidentally caused offense or harm.
Also, you should avoid colluding in the reinforcement of negative stereotypes, whether it’s by actively participating in those stereotypes or by staying silent or engaging in denial. Instead, recognize and value other people, including coworkers and clients, for what they can offer. Practice putting yourself in others’ shoes in certain situations and asking yourself how they might feel and how you can make their experience better all around.
If you increase your cultural competence, you may just find that your business is more successful and runs more smoothly—and that your own happiness quotient rises.