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Why cultural diversity in the workplace helps everyone to thrive

It should be a given that workplaces are as culturally diverse as the population they exist within and at this point in time that isn’t the case. But it’s a worthwhile goal: when cultural diversity is embraced as a priority there are benefits for individuals and organisations alike.

Dr Lee Martin is a lecturer in the Deakin Business School and the lead educator in Deakin’s free four-week online course, Harnessing Cultural Diversity: Effective Team Leadership in the Workplace. We spoke to Dr Martin about what it takes to create harmonious work environments where everyone can thrive.

Dr Martin explains that we all have unconscious biases stemming from our sense of belonging to a particular social group. ‘These biases influence our attitudes towards others who are culturally different and how we judge their behaviour,’ she says. ‘It can often lead us to misinterpret people’s intentions, which can hinder effective collaboration.’

Common biases include holding cultural stereotypes, in-group bias, and self-reference criterion. ‘The ingroup bias means that if we feel that someone belongs to the same cultural group as we do, we tend to judge them more favourably than we would judge a person from a different culture,’ Dr Martin says.

Cultural biases create challenges

So why do these issues need to be addressed? Well, research shows that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are under-represented in leadership positions. ‘Around 24% of the Australian population has a non-European ethnic background or Indigenous background, yet people from these backgrounds represent only 5% of senior leaders in Australian organisations,’ Dr Martin says.

The effects of stereotypes and biases can be complex. ‘While overt discrimination certainly may occur in workplaces, it’s likely that a more pervasive (and harder to spot) issue is unconscious biases regarding culture, ethnicity or race, which can affect attitudes towards people from different cultural backgrounds,’ she says.

If employees feel they are not being treated equally at work, this can have negative personal outcomes. ‘It can be harmful to their self-esteem, sense of belonging, and motivation,’ Dr Martin says.

According to Dr Martin there are some common challenges when different cultures work together in a group because everyone comes with a different set of norms and preferences. This can sometimes lead to conflict. ‘Communication can also be difficult and misunderstandings can arise more often,’ she says. ‘And then you have the possibility of group members who share the same culture forming subgroups, which can make it even more difficult to build trust among the whole team.’

'The ingroup bias means that if we feel that someone belongs to the same cultural group as we do, we tend to judge them more favourably than we would judge a person from a different culture.'

Dr Lee Martin,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Everyone benefits when cultural diversity is prioritised

Addressing the challenges of a culturally diverse team is an important step towards building not only equality, but also employee job satisfaction and loyalty. It’s about creating an environment where employees can meet their maximum potential.

Dr Martin explains: ‘Organisations need to build and maintain a positive diversity climate at work – that is, a shared perception that the organisation promotes fairness and values diversity – because organisations that have such a climate are more likely to attract and retain diverse talent, and to reap all the benefits that come from having a more diverse workforce.’

While unconscious bias can’t be eliminated altogether there is a lot that we can do about it. ‘As humans, it is natural for us to each hold these biases to a greater or lesser extent,’ Dr Martin says. ‘We should strive to become more aware of how the biases affect us, and try to keep our biases in check so that they don’t drive our judgements and decisions.’

Fostering a culturally diverse group

Something that has been shown to reduce cultural biases is positive interactions with people from other cultures. ‘While doing this, we are also getting opportunities to develop our cultural intelligence, which can then help us to have better interactions in the future with people from other cultures,’ Dr Martin says.

Organisations can do their part in reducing bias in the workplace by fostering positive diversity mindsets and offering diversity training. ‘Managers can also try to ensure the right team conditions, such as making use of multicultural individuals in the team to help bridge cultural differences, and developing positive diversity mindsets and cultural intelligence within the team,’ Dr Martin explains.

If the challenges of managing a culturally diverse team are addressed effectively it can benefit individuals. ‘For a person working in a culturally diverse team it can be a great opportunity for personal and professional growth as you learn about other cultures and diversify your network,’ Dr Martin says.

According to Dr Martin, a culturally diverse workplace is also a great asset for organisations. ‘Bringing together people with different perspectives can also be a wonderful opportunity to produce more creative solutions to complex problems, as more different ideas are generated, exchanged and combined to form new ideas. It can also improve decision-making quality as any given issue is considered from more angles and debated more thoroughly.’

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Dr Lee Martin
Dr Lee Martin

Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour/Management, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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