We tend to think of the United States as being rather culturally diverse. The prevailing view that the U.S. has developed an advanced, complex and unique culture from the misshapen cultural building blocks brought over centuries by diverse immigrants is mostly true. But American culture (especially its business culture) is very old and complex. Despite the unique melting pot of the American cultural landscape, American pluralism cannot begin to compete on the diversity scale with what’s arising in a few centers of international business outside the Western world.
One of the most fascinating and diverse places in the world today is Dubai. Workers and businesses have come from all over the world to this city-state (that is politically reminiscent of ancient Greece or Medieval Italy), culturally both highly conservative and strikingly cutting edge, and at the pinnacle of civil engineering and city building.
Dubai is an unusual city, and in many ways, it’s the perfect laboratory for testing what we think we know about human resources and how people interact in business. Building a collaborative foundation for an American working with Indian and British colleagues at an Emirati company dealing with a supplier in Singapore, for example, is no easy task.
It’s exciting to think about all the cultural bridging and negotiation necessary to make something like that work. I had the opportunity to visit Dubai recently and observe some of the ways, including using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® instrument, that businesses are dealing with bold pluralism. It turns out many of the challenges those businesses face are the same ones that face U.S. companies, and I believe also every corporate culture.
It’s about getting personal
The way to break down collaborative barriers of “macro diversity”—differences in national origin, culture, religion, language, and so on—is by highlighting individual diversity. HR practices in the West have long embraced tools like the Myers-Briggs® instrument to achieve this, although it’s easy to miss what seems to be going on.
The cohesion between people that is formed by understanding individual diversity stems from bypassing the need to rely on assumptions made on the basis of macro diversity. In other words, the key is not relying on assumptions and stereotypes. Of course, it’s important to respect elements of macro diversity, but the more people work intensively together, the more they will naturally begin relating to each other as individuals and less by the broad categories they fall into. However, waiting for that closeness to develop on its own can take a long time.
What I saw and experienced in Dubai is that tools that provide accurate insight into how we communicate, think and work can quickly humanize a professional relationship that might otherwise be founded on less reliable, broader and less personal foundations. While we can sometimes be a little suspicious of the idea of personal closeness in business, it is absolutely essential to effective teams that individuals have an intimate understanding of how each member of the group prefers to work and interact.
Effective teams will eventually do this on their own, whether HR gives them the tools to do it efficiently or not. Conversely, ineffective teams won’t, and they’ll continue to be characterized by misunderstanding and negativity without a better means for understanding. In places like Dubai, where people generally do not speak the same cultural or verbal languages, the need is more obvious for a common language, a neutral way of telling each other who we are and how we work.
In creating effective teams, every company should keep in mind that:
- People are people, and a company’s willingness to give employees tools to understand each other’s work style and personal preferences can bridge assumptions of all kinds, not only cultural.
- Personal diversity is important too. It’s easy to think of diversity only in its “macro” terms. It’s harder to remember diversity also includes individual preferences that define how we like to work and interact, and this is the part that is critical for building effective teams.
- Don’t be afraid of intimacy. Respecting personal boundaries is, of course, important in a business environment, but don’t let that effort poison employees’ willingness to know each other’s personal preferences on an intensive level.
- Bridging vast cultural divides might be easier than you think. This is related to the first bullet. As I saw in Dubai, when people have a common language for expressing their needs and preferences, the seemingly vast differences fade into the background.
The world is a vast place of cultural diversity, and stepping outside our U.S. comfort zone can often, as in this case, provide the seeds of great ideas that we can take back to our businesses and cultivate.