Monthly Archives: March 2013

Culturally aware, sensitive or competent?

A couple of weeks back, I ruminated on a very pertinent poser by a friend. What do you think makes relationships work? Love? Patience? Compromise? Or…? As I was attempting to answer this in the personal sphere, I was struck by the possibilities if this question were to be posed in the professional sphere! Though situationally different, common amongst the two are the same attributes of compromise, patience, and understanding.

How can you romanticize the professional world, do I hear you wince? Once the groans and frowns have had their say, reflect on this – the top and the bottom lines in the professional world are made up of, and run by, people! Two factors add to the complexity of the relationship. One, the acknowledged and unequal balance of power. Two, it is a world that is becoming increasingly multicultural. It is the second point that raises interesting possibilities – to look at through a different lens to responsibly and seamlessly integrate with business objectives.

We say diversity, we say inclusive – and a host of derived variants and jargons. And yes, we have policies that celebrate them as part of the business agenda. We say with pride (and maybe a trifle pompously or condescendingly?) that they are part of the corporate culture and DNA. At best, we want to believe in them – even though we find it painful to practice. At worst, of course, we could not care less. From the gullies of cultural knowledge to the streets of cultural awareness, to the roads of cultural sensitivity and then perhaps to the avenues of cultural competence – the routes to reality seem longer and more painful than ideology!

The truth is, organizational cultures largely mirror the mainstream societal culture at any particular point of time – biases, prejudices et al. And a mere slogan of organizational culture does not and never will equate to, let alone equal, cultural competence.

Binding knowledge about different groups of people and transforming it into standards, policies, and practices that make it actually work is the signature of a culturally competent organization. In doing so, it acknowledges, validates and involves its different people. It makes the whole exercise non-threatening by adopting an “inside-out” model that places no onus or responsibility on any one group to do all the adapting. Diversity of thinking and people are respected and valued to create the synergy.

In today’s marketplace, diversity, shorn of its jargon and sloganeering, is a stark truth. Working together is the best and only strategy to stave off an inevitable (and sometimes crippling) organizational and cultural gridlock. Let us not look at it as an effort that has to be endured or suffered – or as a PR exercise. The spin-offs in genuinely practicing this enhances creativity in problem solving through new perspectives, mutual respect and understanding, increased trust and cooperation, all of which are critical tools of business productivity.

And yes, this must start at the top. The structure, leadership, objectives and activities of an organization and its functions must reflect such values, perspectives, styles, and priorities. Having started so, it will be wise to remember that a beginning is only just that – it has to be seen through to the finish with the sharing of power among people from different cultures.

As pleasantly recommendatory as it may sound, the truth is, we may really have no choice. If we do not channelize cultural differences to help us, it may end up hurting the organization big time.