Taking cultural differences into account can pay off in business

Culture-centered approach focuses on developing awareness, knowledge, and skills

Moving past celebration and getting to acceptance


Mary Connerley, associate professor of management at Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business

Paul B. Pedersen, multicultural counseling psychologist and co-author of Leadership in a Diverse and Multicultural Environment

Diversity Committee of Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business


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A GE leader’s take on diversity

GE vice chairman David Calhoun doesn’t just consider multicultural competence a very important set of skills, he also thinks they are tools that need practicing everyday, “somehow, some way — because I haven’t met anybody yet who’s great right out of the chute on that.”

When he assembles teams for new initiatives, Calhoun says he looks for a diverse group of people — “diverse in discipline, geographic origin; diverse in every respect.” He has found that it is vital to start with team-building exercises “to explain to one another what we’re bringing to the table.”

In a recent interview, Calhoun explained that “we try to do that on the first day, because in my view, if you do it even a week late, everybody’s already tried to figure out the other members of the team and already prescribed their behaviors … it becomes a hurdle that you have to overcome. And that’s hard to do.

“But if on the first day, you let everybody know that diversity and inclusion are important to the way we’re going to execute our job — on the first day, everyone has a chance to talk about why they come at this the way they do. All of a sudden, the barriers are way down and the setting is right to really develop an initiative the right way — with everybody’s oar in the water.”

Calhoun, who graduated from Virginia Tech with an accounting degree in 1979, says, “There is no better environment to promote and convey the importance of inclusion and diversity than a college campus. That’s just a subject that ought to be front and center for everybody — faculty, leadership of the school, students.”

As a new graduate and member of the workforce, he wasn’t as multiculturally aware or prepared as he now wishes he had been. He lacked “a thirst or a hunger to go seek out diverse people and to learn about them,” he recalls. “I allowed myself to be isolated in that sense, and that turned out to be a big mistake.”

It wasn’t until he lived in Southeast Asia for two years as an expatriate manager that the significance and value of diversity and multiculturalism “all came home” for him. “Once you understand just how big a deal that is, and how important it is to the world, our businesses, and our own personal development — that’s when all the lights go on.”




“What does a white girl from Iowa know about diversity training?”

The question was once asked, teasingly, by a friend of hers, but Mary Connerley understands the skepticism. The small-town Midwest was home for many years for Connerley, an associate professor of management at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. A native of Cedar Falls, Iowa, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Iowa State University and a Ph.D. in human resource management at the University of Iowa, where she also worked for five years in the executive development program.

Since coming to Virginia Tech 12 years ago, Connerley has developed a research specialty in workplace diversity and multicultural issues. Issues of diversity and diversity training exist everywhere, she says, even — or perhaps more so — in places assumed to be less diverse than others.

Connerley has co-authored a new book, Leadership in a Diverse and Multicultural Environment (Sage, 2005). Being multiculturally competent, she says, means being aware of the impact of different personal, organizational, or national cultures and having the knowledge and skills to work well with culturally different people. It is, she adds, essential for individual effectiveness and corporate competitiveness in an increasingly diverse workplace.

“Culture influences our thoughts, words, and actions in ways that are often unrecognized and that can lead to misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and less than ideal outcomes. No matter how highly skilled, well-trained, or intelligent you are — if you are making culturally inappropriate assumptions, you will not be accurate in your assessment, meaningful in your understanding, or appropriate in your interactions in the workplace.”

Cultural missteps have cost businesses. When McDonald’s launched its first restaurants in India, sales were slow to take off, she says. “The company had not acknowledged that Hindus, who account for 85 percent of the population, do not eat beef.”

When General Motors implemented Japanese “just-in-time” and “kanban” production techniques in its plants, it encountered strikes and factory shutdowns in some countries, which researchers have attributed to the company’s lack of understanding of the manufacturing techniques’ cultural underpinnings. These include the strong sense of economic vulnerability the Japanese felt when they were developing their techniques (“something with which most American workers, for example, didn’t identify”), their deep aversion to waste and inefficiency stemming from their country’s small land area and limited physical resources, and their cultural homogeneity and consensus-building tradition, all of which helped ensure that workers and suppliers fully supported the effort.

Connerley thinks that the main reason for the strikes in U.S. plants is related to the increased effort required to work more efficiently. “Reducing waste takes effort, and since American workers at the time felt no pressure, they did not see the reason to work harder. Add to this the U.S. individualistic culture compared to the Japanese collectivist culture, and you end up with American workers questioning the need to change, while Japanese workers accepted it for the good of the group.”

On a lighter note, an American TV ad campaign for deodorant, showing an octopus applying the product under each arm, flopped in Japan. The manufacturer later learned that in Japan, octopuses do not have arms, they have legs.

Though multicultural competence is particularly important for leaders in an organization, Connerley says, all employees can “get more out of workplace relationships by being more culturally mindful.” It can improve “a person’s decision-making ability by accounting for the many ways that culture influences different perceptions of the same solution.”

She notes, for example, that recent research found that resumés randomly assigned white-sounding names, such as Emily or Brendan, resulted in 50 percent more interviews than resumés assigned black-sounding names, such as Lakisha or Jamal. (The resumés showed the same experience, education, and skills for the phantom job seekers.) Moreover, the “white” resumés that included such credentials as experience and honors were also more likely to prompt job-interview requests than the “black” resumés with the same credentials. “Having an awareness of unconscious biases that may be affecting the status of job applicants,” she says, “is the first step to a fair and equitable selection process that hires applicants based on true ability and not perceived ability.”

Awareness, knowledge, and skills

In her book, co-authored with Paul Pedersen, a well-known multicultural counseling psychologist, Connerley advocates a culture-centered approach to leadership and training programs that focus on developing awareness, knowledge, and skills, in that order.

“We borrowed a lot from counseling psychology literature,” she says, noting that this discipline has developed a wealth of knowledge about multicultural training that puts it far ahead of the management field.

She and Pedersen discuss the three-step (awareness, knowledge, and skills) training model and ways to enhance training effectiveness, as well as such topics as white privilege, learning styles, identity models, and constructive conflict. Each chapter offers questions, role-playing and other exercises, and a “critical incident” for group discussion.

The exercises are designed to allow participants to examine their culturally learned assumptions and roles, analyze cross-cultural situations from different perspectives, consider how individuals from different cultures may make decisions, and assess their own multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills.

The critical incidents, while fictional case studies, aim to capture the very real challenges of dealing with a multi-cultural workplace. One example describes how Stan, a well-meaning vice president at an auto plant, used, to his great regret, an intentionally different style of performance evaluation for his Hispanic and non-Hispanic managers, rating the former collectively and the latter individually. Another example considers the bewilderment of Jane, who is white, at the angry response of her friend and colleague, Linda, who is black, to her observation that “it was weird that all African Americans eat together in the cafeteria.”

In another illustration, an American executive unwittingly commits a series of blunders, based on erroneous cultural assumptions, during a presentation to prospective clients from Japan. The mistakes cost his company the contract.

Other critical incidents get participants to examine the effectiveness of company picnics celebrating cultural differences, the appropriateness of office Christmas decorations, and employee cynicism toward multicultural training programs.

Connerley, whose classes include a course she developed, “Managing Diversity in the Workplace,” says her teaching and research have benefited from her work on the book. For her lectures and discussions, she has drawn on the new scholarship she discovered. “I find myself bringing issues of diversity and multiculturalism into all of my classes more, which I think almost every class in the college could do. I think that it is a mistake to compartmentalize issues of diversity and multiculturalism to one diversity class.”

She has discussed with her faculty colleagues “how diversity can be an important part of studies that do not necessarily focus on issues of difference,” and some of them are now considering ways to include diversity in their research.

Though corporate America has embraced the idea of diversity, judging from the pledges of commitment posted on websites, including those of General Motors, UPS, and Citicorp, multicultural competence, she says, is too often consigned to a lesser role in an organization’s priorities and strategies.

It’s easy to see why: developing multicultural competence at work is often costly and time-consuming, race and ethnicity are awkward issues for Americans to talk about — and the bottom-line benefits for a company are typically hard to measure.

Surveying participants for feedback on training programs is simple enough to do, as is testing trainees for changes in knowledge, skills, and attitudes. What is tough, Connerley says, is assessing the behavioral changes (the degree to which trainees apply what was learned to the job) and organizational performance improvements (increased sales, productivity, and profits; lower employer turnover) that can be attributed to the multicultural training.

“How do you put a dollar figure on a welcoming climate — although you know instinctively that it can do a lot for employee productivity and retention?”

Moreover, Connerley points out, academic research has yielded mixed results on the benefits of multiculturalism and diversity for company performance: some studies report positive effects, some show negative effects, and some show insignificant effects.

“We need more studies, studies that are better designed, with better measures.” Some of the research, she says, has been classroom-based, using student teams, which do not provide good comparisons with businesses.

“There are just too many business realities that suggest that diversity is more than just the right thing to do — it is good for business. If your workforce doesn’t represent your global market, you won’t thrive or survive.” A diverse workforce means more knowledge, more creativity, and more market opportunities. True, different views can also mean more confl ict, but if team members have a common goal, she says, “they can get past the demographic differences.”

Developing multicultural competence need not be expensive, Connerley says. Many company training efforts stop after the awareness or knowledge stage, “but skills building is where it really comes together for employees.” There are ways of developing skills that won’t bust the budget, she says. For example, “you can learn a lot by role playing if it is set up correctly and if participants take it seriously.”

Cultural immersion programs, such as the one at UPS, which sends 50 managers each year to live and work for a month in a distant community and culture within the United States, require a hefty investment. But some of the same benefits, she says, can be obtained through less costly workshops using employees who agree to discuss their different cultural backgrounds and perspectives. Done properly, such training can give employees “confidence that they will be able to interact effectively in a wide variety of cultural situations.”

Connerley herself has participated in diversity training and intercultural programs sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the University of Hawaii. She has received two GM Sullivan grants to promote the Sullivan Principles of corporate social responsibility, and she serves on the Pamplin College’s Diversity Committee, which meets regularly and advises the dean on diversity and multiculturalism issues in the college.

Moving from celebration to acceptance

Selected as a Virginia Tech Multicultural Fellow in 2000, Connerley found kinship in a small circle of faculty and staff members who are committed to furthering diversity on campus. Its members have great ideas, but also “a great frustration” with the slow progress at the university.

“We have celebrated diversity. We now have to move past the celebration — to acceptance and building on it. We have the pieces in place to be a truly functioning multi- cultural university, but there’s room for improvement. And it has to start with top leadership, with not just words but action, including placing a greater value on the research and service that’s done.” Even for those who are passionate and dedicated, she says, “it’s hard to continue to provide energy to move these things forward when there are no resources to back up the rhetoric.”

In some ways, the situation on campus is no different from that of the rest of the work world. “Culture is a topic that is very diffi cult for leaders, or anyone for that matter, to deal with,” she says. “It is often easier to ignore it than to deal with its complexity.” But doing so, she says, is like “driving down the highway and taking your hands off the steering wheel. You may have started out in the right direction, but the vehicle will quickly veer off in unintended directions.”

No training program can possibly teach all the skills needed in every situation, Connerley says, “but developing multicultural awareness, accruing knowledge, and learning skills provide a solid foundation for being multiculturally mindful.”


— Sookhan Ho, Pamplin College of Business