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Ignoring Differences Is No Longer a Viable Solution in Increasingly Diverse Organizations

Feb 19, 2024
A collage of different people. In one picture a woman is using the computer. In another, a group is gathered around a table.


Imagine the following situation:

Alex is a manager at a multinational company headquartered in a culturally diverse city. He oversees a team of employees from various cultural backgrounds, including Asian, African, European, and Hispanic. However, in his eagerness to treat everyone the same, Alex tends to overlook the importance of cultural diversity in his team dynamics.

One day, the company plans a team-building event where Alex decides to organize a barbecue party at a local park. While he intends for this event to foster camaraderie among his team members, he fails to consider that some of his employees may not consume pork due to religious or cultural reasons. As a result, a few employees feel uncomfortable attending the event and sharing a meal with colleagues, causing a divide within the team.

Additionally, during team meetings, Alex often assumes that all team members communicate and express themselves in the same way. He tends to overlook cultural differences in communication styles and inadvertently dismisses valuable input from employees who are more reserved or indirect in expressing their ideas. This leads to frustration and disengagement among certain team members who feel their voices are not being heard.

Over time, these oversights begin to impact team morale, productivity, and overall performance. Some employees start feeling marginalized or undervalued, leading to increased turnover and decreased job satisfaction.


The United States is changing due, in great part, to the demographic changes that have been taking place, including a significant increase in net immigration. Managers today are very likely engaging with workers who have different backgrounds, beliefs, languages, religions, and value orientations.

While a diverse workforce can bring many benefits to the company, it will also pose some challenges. In fact, managers today are experiencing increased levels of discomfort because of their inability to deal with this increased diversity in the workplace.


Despite Increased Diversity, There Is Still Reluctance in Noticing Differences

There are many reasons managers may feel reluctant or uncomfortable to acknowledge differences.

Some may adopt the “cultural blindness” approach. In other words, they choose to ignore differences among employees. Imagine telling a Black employee you do not see him as Black. While you may be trying to suggest that this particular element of their identity will not influence your judgement of them and that you will be fair and unbiased, the impact, however, will be quite different. By doing so you will be (1) denying a significant part of their identity, and (2) driving the unintended message that “I like you despite your being Black.”

Other managers may fear they will be perpetuating stereotypes by acknowledging differences. Let’s say, for example, you have this notion that Minnesotans are nice and that Southerners are hospitable. While these statements will apply to some, they most certainly will not apply to all Minnesotans or all Southerners, and surely not at all times. This type of thinking will, undoubtedly, result in stereotyping.

Managers need to understand that acknowledging differences is OK and, quite frankly, inevitable in today’s work environment. The key is not to treat certain characteristics as universal truths because that will unquestionably lead to stereotyping. The actions taken after noticing those differences are what will matter.


Creating An Environment That Truly Values Differences: Five Strategies to Consider

Managers today can play a significant role in building a truly inclusive organization—one where all employees, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability level feel their differences affirmed and are inspired to reach their full potential.

When working across differences, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Cultural diversity is here to stay and your success as a manager will increasingly depend on your ability to work effectively with culturally diverse employees. You need to strive to become a culturally competent manager. Cultural competence development, however, takes time and it needs to be seen as a life-long, developmental journey.


  1. Although you are being called upon to make adjustments and compromises in your interactions with culturally diverse employees, you are not being asked to change your cultural perspective. Furthermore, you are not expected to adopt specific features of your employees’ culture. For example, you are not expected to look away just because the Asian employee is more comfortable with indirect eye contact. Nor do you need to stand very close to the Middle Eastern male technician because that is the behavior he would demonstrate. Your job is to understand where your employees come from without evaluating their behavior negatively.


  1. Good intentions are not enough. Managers need to learn about the cultural diversity within the organization. They also need to understand the impact of their words and actions on those around them. Well-intended individuals can harm without ever knowing they have done so. The end result of that is an even larger divide within the company.


  1. All acts of intolerance as well as misunderstandings must be acknowledged, but done so in a respectful way. Effective interventions seek to educate. Also remember that saying nothing or choosing the cultural blindness approach are no longer viable options.


  1. Rest assured that differences are just that – differences. The more comfortable with differences you are, the more comfortable you will be in hiring, working with, or promoting culturally diverse employees. If you do not notice, learn about, or respond appropriately to cultural differences in the workplace, you will be seriously compromising the efficiency and productivity of your team.


Final Thoughts

Acknowledging and learning about differences within your team is crucial for several reasons.

First, it enhances your effectiveness as a manager by allowing you to understand better and accommodate the unique needs, preferences, and communication styles of each employee. By recognizing and respecting cultural differences, you will foster a more inclusive and supportive work environment where every individual feels valued and heard.

Second, acknowledging differences communicates respect for diverse employees. When employees see that their manager values and appreciates their cultural background, they are more likely to feel valued and motivated to contribute their best work. This can lead to higher levels of employee satisfaction, engagement, and loyalty.

Lastly, understand that as your comfort with diversity grows, so does your readiness to invite more diversity into the organization. When you recognize the benefits of diversity and inclusion, you may actively seek out opportunities to recruit and retain employees from diverse backgrounds. You are also more likely to recognize that valuing diversity will enrich your team and contribute to the company's success.


👉 👉 Mastering Cultural Differences offers workshops for organizations interested in ensuring team leaders understand and work well across cultural differences. Contact me if you think your team could benefit from this training.

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