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Respect diversity, avoid stereotypes
Published on Thursday, 23 Jun 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung

Most multinationals now see the diversity of their workforce as an important commercial strength, giving insights into the mindset of a wide range of customers. So getting on with colleagues from different backgrounds is part of your job, but what does it mean in practice?

Some of what constitutes a person's cultural outlook is easily visible. Clothes, customs, food and body language all vary widely across cultures. Other aspects of culture, such as faith or lifestyle, can be identified if you ask or look closely. But being fully sensitive to your colleagues' diversity means understanding their differences in outlook. These are things that are not so easy to see or label, but which have great potential to cause disharmony.

Take attitudes to authority: some cultures encourage challenge and debate, while others value obedience. Yet either can be misunderstood, with challenge seen as insubordination, or quiet obedience seen as symptomatic of a lack of ideas. When an employee acknowledges his own weaknesses, is he displaying a spirit of modest teamwork or a fatal lack of spirit and ambition?

Try to appreciate that differences are not matters of attitude or personality, but of basic outlook. Go the extra mile to understand your colleagues, and you'll build a happier and more effective workplace. Of course, there is a balance to be struck between being aware of cultural differences and not falling into the lazy use of stereotypes. Be on your guard against making sweeping generalisations or unthinking assumptions. Treat everyone as an individual and embrace the differences.

Matthew Hill, managing director, Ambition

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