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Your inner racist in a diverse team

At a cross-cultural workshop I facilitated for Asia-Pacific leaders of a global car firm, two managers gazed at their almost identical personality profiles. At a previous exercise, their answers to questions about daily routines, work style and communication habits sounded like two people reading nearly identical scripts. Shockingly, one was a Gucci-suited, blonde European man with a top executive job; the other, a headscarf-clad female manager from Central Asia. The subsequent group discussion offered hope to tackle long-unresolved conflicts between locations, departments and seniority levels at the firm.

For too long, companies approached cultural diversity in a way that has forced people at opposing sides of blast-proof observation windows. Back in the 80s, when white dancers were cool and corporate training a nascent genre, many scientists claimed that traumatic reactions over unfamiliar people was an evolutionary defence mechanism, a kind of phobia. They tried to treat it accordingly, and sometimes still do. Managers preparing for business in the Middle East are lectured on Islam, ones groomed for China on Confucianism and Maoism. They are encouraged to mimic the ‘values’ of their hosts. Looming in the background is the Iceberg Model, explaining that real differences will always stay hidden.

The more one listens to such narrative, the more suspicious diversity sounds. If other cultures are so weird, should we be working together at all? Will we ever succeed? Struggling with such thoughts, racial, sexual and social discrimination increasingly feels like shifting sand: the more one tries to escape, the firmer the grip and sharper the pain. But the metaphor also suggests a solution: the cause of both kinds of agony is a sort of panic whose taming takes awareness and practice beyond the lonely, struggling individual. The problem is not with team members but with their relationships, and solutions must reflect that.

Recent research proved that the brain’s alarm centre, called amygdala, responds to alien-looking faces and actions like it does to spiders and smashing noises. But unlike those, aversion to racial, gender and social diversity is conditioned (nurture), not innate (nature). Sadly, time is not on our side. The human brain is an organ of pattern recognition, and communities blamed unfortunate events on unusual behaviour since the stone age. Floods were caused by unbelievers, illnesses by witches. Modern versions of the same wisdom tell workers that West is smarter than East and South, women are more emotional than men, and advise them to behave accordingly.

When I coach diverse management teams, I first call attention to the damage caused by problem-solving based on simplistic patterns. During my work with a security organisation in post-war Bosnia, American peacekeepers tried to arrest a war criminal whose mugshot featured a peculiar hairdo. Sadly, that particular trim was the trademark look in Eastern Serbia, which lead to false alarms and mistaken arrests. Judging books by their cover promises fast and efficient solutions in complex situations, and our brain happily takes the shortcut. Through awareness and dialogue, teams can identify their (or the firm’s) misguided cultural assumptions. Doing just that already yields improvement.

But deprived of their habitual patterns of thought and action, people need new ones. The personality profiles I prepared for the afore-mentioned odd pair of automotive managers helps reduce cultural pressure and re-focus attention to shared human characteristics. Personality is also a better predictor of behaviour at work than nationality, gender, age, education and other favourite resumé items. Once people in diverse teams discover their innate communication, problem-solving, conflict and leadership styles, they inevitably discover similarities and patterns within their team. Trust improves and they can start discussing cultures (men and women, baby-boomers and millennials, etc.) if they wish to.

Old habits die hard, and lasting change requires consistent practice. Our inner racist is not born with us: those familiar with ethnically mixed nurseries know that young children mostly ignore racial differences until early school age. But recently enlightened individuals return to long-entrenched corporate silos, and often lose motivation for improvement. Each diverse team has what Charles Duhigg calls “cues”: situations that trigger unwanted reactions. Leaders of diverse teams have an enormous responsibility to re-create virtuous cycles on a daily basis: avert the conversation from cultural curiosities and re-focus the team on working with each other as respected individuals.

I usually suggest that such teams make a chosen personality system part of the shared professional language, because it helps explain and predict behaviour, reduce tension and improve trust. Differentiating between energised and patient, outgoing and contemplative styles is more constructive than clashing nationalities, gender or age groups. This also makes fun conversations: everyone loves discovering their own tastes and habits. As managers from five different ethnicities at the automotive firm’s workshop discovered, such discussions help peel away years, decades and centuries of bias, and start an honest dialogue about constructive solutions, sometimes the first one in the team’s history.


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