Working and managing across cultural lines can be tricky, but Amy Wallis, professor of practice at Wake Forest University School of Business, says workplaces benefit when we learn to appreciate difference rather than try to be blind to it.
“I think that sometimes, we are socialized to think that if someone is different, we have to pretend that that [difference] doesn’t exist, saying, 'Everyone is the same in my eyes' and 'If I treat someone differently maybe that feels risky or feels as if I’m calling something out that I shouldn’t be,’” she says. "Really what we’re finding is that people who’re best at managing diversity are folks who are willing to say, 'You know what? You and I are different, and let’s talk about that. Let’s figure out how our perspectives might complement each other, how they might compete with each other, and what that means about how we’re going to work together.'"
The best way to explore and harness that difference is to recognize it and appreciate the ways in which that difference provides opportunities for new ways of thinking, she says.
“The first step is recognizing that ‘different' does not mean ‘bad,' that someone being different creates an opportunity to learn from them, to appreciate culture that’s not like your own and to appreciate varying ways of doing things and ways of interacting,” says Wallis. “We ought to adopt that mindset—that rather than thinking we have to manage diversity, which often implies minimize it or pretend that it’s not there, we can instead think about this in terms of taking full advantage of this diversity and leveraging this variety of perspectives, work styles and ways of interacting with the world. If [leaders] can find a way to harness that, they can do great benefit to their organization."
Even though those conversations can be awkward, Wallis says having those conversations informally—for example, by chatting casually with employees about their cultures and traditions—go a long way toward understanding and leveraging difference. They can help leaders and teams better motivate and encourage each other and share ideas more effectively. She warns, however, that having formal conversations about cultural difference may feel intimidating and suggests that these informal talks foster a company-wide culture of acceptance.
"Recognize that as you start that conversation, you are serving as a role model, so how you handle those kinds of conversations and those situations is going to create a culture within your organization,” she says. "I think that unfortunately, leaders often fail to realize how much influence they have over how folks behave, not by what they tell their employees to do but by what their employees see them doing."
In all workplaces, differences exist, whether they’re obvious cultural differences or more subtle ones, like generational difference or gender difference.
“One of the other elements of leading across cultures is recognizing that even within a group of people who seem very similar, you are going to find different cultures,” says Wallis. “So don’t assume that working with someone of another ethnicity or nationality is the only opportunity to work with someone who’s culturally different. The fact is that we may be very culturally different even though on the face, we look like two average Americans. I think that the willingness to explore and discuss all of those differences—not just in race and ethnicity but differences across generations, across life experiences—becomes important in this conversation.”