Heather R. Keller, owner of communication consulting firm Successfully Communicating, wants to remind organizations that promoting cultural diversity through communications is still vital to success in today’s globalized world. Keller recently spoke with SmartBrief’s Akoto Ofori-Atta to discuss the importance of diversity initiatives, and what companies risk if they chose to ignore it. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
AKOTO: How has the importance of understanding cultural differences grown in past years?
HEATHER: With the rapid expansion of technology, a more global workforce, and communities becoming more and more multicultural, understanding cultural differences and learning how to effectively communicate with people from diverse cultures is imperative. In fact, today’s Generation Y is the first global-centric generation whose members have a natural appreciation for diversity; it’s such a significant part of their everyday experience and interaction.
What have you found to be the most effective way to get employees excited about understanding cultural differences?
First, begin with creating personal awareness — that is, understanding why we are the way we are. We often notice the unique characteristics of other cultures, but we fail to examine and understand our own cultural uniqueness. For example, it’s always an “ah-hah” moment when behaviors, attitudes, and values are pointed out to Americans that seem rather peculiar to people from other cultures. Take, for instance, the notion of work versus family or the quality of life. People from other countries often say with dismay, “Americans live to work rather than work to live.”
From your experience, can you share with me what methods do not work to properly communicate the importance of understanding cultural differences?
There are four critical elements to understanding cultural differences: Acknowledging differences exist; understanding why those differences exist; appreciating the unique values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of different cultures; and adapting our behavior — including our communication style — to meet the needs of others.
Oftentimes, people will focus on step one — acknowledging differences exist. This is an important step, but it’s only the beginning. By adapting our verbal and nonverbal communication to meet the needs of people from other cultures, we are truly displaying our ability to understand and appreciate their way of life and what’s important to them.
What do companies risk by ignoring cultural differences?
Ignoring cultural differences can result in many things, including low morale; decreased creativity and innovation; conflict situations that are difficult to resolve due to a lack of cross-cultural understanding; negative workplace relationships and an overall negative reputation for the company.
Why do you think the topic of cultural diversity fallen under the radar?
Well there always tends to be a topic of the moment. Right now, social media happens to be the new hot topic. Conferences that used to focus on a variety of workplace issues are now solely focusing on social media. Diversity is a very important subject that cannot be ignored, but because of its popularity, the topic of diversity is no longer in the limelight at these conferences. My hunch is though, that once social media finds its place in business culture, diversity issues will be addressed more aggressively.
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