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TCPI News Vol. 3, No. 12

May 19th, 2005

In this issue:

  1. Group Dynamics and the Challenges of Diversity
  2. Diversity and Performance

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1. Group Dynamics and the Challenges of Diversity

Despite individual differences, members of a culture share similar interpretations and similar visions of the world. The link between communication and culture is not unidirectional. The verbal and nonverbal symbols we use arise from the culture into which we were born, and our personal and group identities cannot be separated from that culture.  

To understand the role that cultural diversity plays as part of group process, it is important to know how groups work. According to systems theory, "organizations are made up of components consisting of individuals, structural and functional groups, technology and other equipment." (Gottlieb, p.4 )   Each of these parts is dependent of the other. When a new member joins the team, the whole system is thrown into an imbalance. Each of us brings our own preconceptions and experience into the group. New members must adapt to the corporate culture and go through the process of enculturation. In a professional setting, enculturation links the newcomer with the existing group.

Diverse groups have one common bond that unites all members. This is membership. Each person feels as if they have a stake in the group activity. According to Baker, Landis and Noguchi, membership is based on 5 features. (Landis, p.417))

  1. Individuals must consider themselves part of the group.
  2. Individuals must recognize others as members of the group.
  3. The relationship is based on completing tasks through cooperative activities.
  4. Members must share a set of rules and procedures.
  5. Members tasks and rewards are interdependent and defined by the organization.

Cohesiveness is another determining factor of a groups' effectiveness. Does the presence of many cultures negatively affect a groups' cohesiveness? Will these new intercultural teams be able to work effectively as homogenous groups? Watson and Michaelsen have done extensive research on the influence of diversity on group process. They found that cultural diversity had several effects on groups in the early stages. Some of there were:

When groups are first formed, roles and procedures are created. With the influence of cultural diversity, this may take longer to take shape. Dr. Gottlieb, in Managing Group Process, discusses the importance of defining roles and responsibilities within a group." Clear delineation builds ownership". (Gottlieb p.45)  He encourages groups to have open discussions about the different role expectations, But for some cultures, this may be an uncomfortable process. Eastern cultures, are more collective, and have a more difficult time creating individual roles. For example, Japanese take a long time to commit to any decision and will not make a final decision without group consensus. Americans, being more individualistic are more apt to make individual decisions for a group.

Collectivist  Individualistic
  • More comfortable with group roles
  • Individual leaders don't emerge naturally.
  • Many leaders will emerge.
  • Clear roles and expectations important so team works effectively.

For a group to operate effectively, the roles and responsibilities must be put into the context of each member's cultural orientation. Depending on the cultural makeup of the group, this task might not be as easy. It is important to consider the types of societies people come from so that groups can be created and perform in the most effective manner. One of the first actions of a diverse group should be an open discussion of cultural influences and how to best manage them in the group.

Gottlieb, Marvin PhD. Managing Group Process, Praeger: Westport, CT. 2003

Bakir, Aysen, Landis, Dan & Noguch, Kenji (2004) Looking Into Studies of  Heterogeneous Small Groups, in           Landis, Aysen, Bennet, Kanet & Bennet, Milton. (2004) Handbook of Intercultural Training, Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks: CA

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2. Diversity and Performance

How does diversity contribute to performance? Do companies seek out diversity? According to Michael  Wheeler in the Harvard Business Review, "...diversity may, in fact prove to be the single most important performance factor of the 21st century." Wheeler talks about the creation of a CDO (Chief Diversity Officer) in many corporation. He says that there is a link between diversity and productivity, negotiation power and problem solving.

Companies have been using diversity as a factor in decision making since the 1990's. In 1992, DuPont led the way by using diversity as one of four actors in hiring suppliers or legal counsel. Sarah Lee did the same thing in 2004 by refusing to work with any company that was not diverse.

Why is diversity such an important topic? Norma Riccucci, in her book, Managing Diversity in the Pubic Sector Workforces, addresses this issue, "acccording to labor trends, white men will account for only 37% of the U.S. workforce by 2008." A diverse workplace is inevitable, and it does have many advantages.

When differences arise in an organization, they create what Frans Johannson, author of  The Medici Effect, calls an "intersection." This intersection can create feelings of unrest in the unknown or excitement within an organization. People will either embrace or ignore this intersection. For some companies, this intersection has proved valuable and created exciting results. For example, Aquavit, a restaurant in New York City was going along with one or two stars each year, by after the death of their chef, they wanted to do something different. They brought in a new Swedish chef, who began to combine foods that normally one would not associate together. The restaurant went on to receive three stars and they owe it to the unique combinations that Chef Samuelsson created.  In a diverse organization, many different ideas and ways of doing things are represented. By using diversity as an asset to create new ways of thinking, teams will be more creative. The problems arise when intersections produce culture clashes, miscommunication and misunderstandings. According to Michael Wheeler in the Harvard Business Review, "the results can be devastating" a failed marketing campaign a, lost contract..."

How can we better equip our organizations to embrace these intersections? The most important thing is to have an open mind and to reach beyond one's own field of expertise. Karen DeCuir-DiNicola, Manager of Diversity, General Motors, says that "breaking down barriers requires authentic, honest and candid dialogue about the issues that get in the way of our ability to be great". She also says that when people are uneasy in terms of diversity, "the best learning moments come in the form of "did you know" moment"  These moments happened when employees of General Motors posted messages on a message board or via an automated voicemail system in which they would post a fact about a culture or group which people may not be aware of. 94% of the employees found this helpful and remembered the messages when they would deal with diverse colleagues.

Diversity is becoming the status quo throughout the business world, and people need to learn to effectively perform as part of a diverse team. Members cannot let the intersections distract them from the final product. Michael Wheeler gives four critical steps to build competence in a diverse workforce which are essential to compete in today's global workplace.

  1. Understanding and overcoming barriers.
  2. Establishing a strong foundation.
  3. Recognizing universal themes about human and organizational behavior.
  4. Creating real intersection to leverage diversity and enhance performance. 

If team members in a diverse environment go through each of these steps, they will recognize the similarities and differences that exist in the way various cultures communicate socially and professionally. Embracing the intersections that will arise when these differences and similarities are uncovered will create a more cohesive team that can do the tasks at hand rather than spending too much time on overcoming issues which will arise in a diverse environment.

The Diversity Performance Factor, created at the MIT Sloan School of Management as a result of there research report, "The Effects of Diversity on Business Performance Report of the Diversity Research Network, complies all the various factors that a business organization can encounter.

The Diversity Performance Factor

This chart shows how diversity can positively or negatively affect business outcomes based on what initiatives are taken to address the issues. It is not an easy task to predict the factors and how they will affect the organization, but diversity can add depth and contribute to the overall performance of a team if the factors are  embraced and utilized.

If you have any interesting stories as to how you or your workplace addressed diversity, we would love to hear them. I will post responses in the next newsletter.

Send them to

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