IT is no stranger to diversity issues: from attracting and keeping female talent, to differences between sub-disciplines like software developers and those who specialize in hardware, to managing the divide between the technologically savvy and Luddites. Add into this mix the cultural diversity of H-1B visa workers and there are plenty of opportunities for office misunderstandings.
Diversity is not just about attracting and retaining women and minorities. It’s about creating a work environment that’s respectful and representative of different viewpoints. True diversity – of people, life experiences, opinions and perspectives – is stimulating in the best sense. Diversity can foster constructive conflict that drives innovation and collaboration. Harnessing diversity’s positive effects requires understanding the forces that bring teams together and those that can make teams dysfunctional.
Here are 5 ways to bridge the cultural divide:
- Build team spirit.
Establishing a team identity is critical to managing diversity effectively. At Exelon, Gagen MacDonald helped transform the way the IT department was perceived within the company. Creating a strong positive team brand built team pride, encouraging team members to focus on what they have in common instead of how they differ. That in turn affects their attitude toward collaboration and working together.
- Encourage socializing.
Socializing can be a tricky aspect of navigating cultural divides. Your team may include teetotalers and the happy hour crowd, marathoners and couch potatoes, and those who are comfortable socializing with the opposite gender and those who are not. Start with a non-threatening event like a professional, periodic team meeting–think executive retreat on a smaller scale. How can you get the entire team to escape from the day-to-day problems and focus together on strategy, team-building, and collaboration? Our post 4 Tips to Ensure Town Hall Success provides tips for energizing teams in a large-scale meeting format, many of which are applicable to smaller meetings as well.
- Establish communication guidelines.
IT is a fast-paced environment. Having clear communications guidelines improves collaboration and agile project management. These guidelines should cover the basics such as how to report an issue, to reporting structures (who should be cc’ed or included on communications) to how meetings will be run. Keep any written guidelines short and focused, so employees will be more likely to review the guidelines in full and use them actively.
- Encourage participation from all constituents in team meetings.
Cultural differences can influence how team members voice concerns, how they go about making decisions, and how they react to conflict. To manage this, develop the habit of going around the room and confirming with each team member that they are in agreement before moving on to the next item. Over time the habit of including all will encourage more introverted team members to speak up. It will also reinforce to more vocal team members that the team will not move forward until all sides have been heard.
- Promote cross-cultural understanding.
For issues like sexual harassment, numerous professional training programs exist to make all employees aware of the most egregious behaviors to avoid. For other diversity issues, there may not be formal training, and even after formal training programs, some of the subtleties of communication may still be lost on team members. As a leader and manager it’s up to you to make team members more aware of other perspectives. This can be done in groups, but also in one-on-one coaching. Below are a few examples:
- “Sometimes when you talk in your native language at work, it can make team members who do not speak your language feel left out. Can you make sure to translate what you’re saying to avoid misunderstandings and to be inclusive of one another?”
- “I don’t know if you realize this, but in her culture making direct eye contact is sometimes understood as being aggressive. I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, but I find it’s helpful to mimic the body language and tone of the person you’re talking to. That can help make sure I’m being perceived the way I intend and not misunderstood.”
- “So you’re having difficulty understanding her comments because of a strong accent? Would you feel more comfortable if we either communicated or confirmed important details of a project by email instead of verbally?”
Comments like this reinforce every team member’s responsibility to be aware of cultural differences and to bridge misunderstandings that might arise because of them.
On a basic level, bridging the gap between cultures all comes down to greater awareness and learning how to ask questions respectfully. It’s also about being open minded and giving your team members the benefit of the doubt. Establishing professional guidelines and expectations upfront goes a long way, but needs to be followed up with proactive team-building and individual coaching.
Need help building employee engagement and team spirit? Gagen can help. Contact us today.