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back to index backASIAtalk December,  2005

Asia: Variety - The spice of business


The demographics of the Asian workforce today are dramatically different from the past.

No longer dominated by a homogenous tag of colour, race or geographical boundaries, the labour pool is now overwhelmingly represented by people from a vast array of backgrounds and professional experiences.

Furthermore, competitive organisations across Asia have realised that discriminatory practices relating to cultural diversity only impedes attracting the best available talent within that pool. As a result, the emergence of multinational teams within organisations is growing. Today it is very likely that an expatriate worker in a team in Hong Kong or Shanghai will be an Indian or a Singaporean. Although falling under the same umbrella of 'Asian culture', each employee may carry with him or her a clear streak of his/her country-specific culture while he/she is doing business. So, how can HR ensure that multinational, multicultural teams handle their cross-cultural differences and perform effectively as a team?

A truly diverse workforce can have people not only of different gender, religion, country/origin or culture, but also part-time workers, older or younger people and people with diverse educational backgrounds. As Vinit Taneja, senior vice president, corporate human resources, Bharti Televentures, India, puts it: "Diversity comes in many flavours." If your aim is to reflect and facilitate understanding of one's customer-base, Taneja says, it is essential to create a team that brings in as many different viewpoints and life experiences as possible.

Moreover, diversity is not just a matter of skin colour or ethnicity. Professor Stewart Black, affiliate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD Singapore, believes that diversity of educational background, work experience, cognitive orientation and culture is equally important. "To recognise that leveraging current or existing diversity within the organisation is critical, line managers need to understand the sources of diversity and how to leverage it. HR can then facilitate this education and training," he elaborates.

Colourful patches of a unique quilt

Managing a culturally diverse team essentially means handling different perspectives on life and business, and zeroing them down to a common goal. However, HR experts agree that there are far more similarities than differences among people working in multinational companies and the issues of cultural differences do not hinder the positive work environment on most occasions.

"Being able to identify and leverage the positive differences and marginalise the negative becomes the ultimate challenge. However, I do think some managers make too much of cultural differences. As long as the goals are clear and there is a degree of flexibility in how these are achieved, and assuming that the means used are legal, then a culturally diverse team will generally produce a better outcome than one which is not," Ritchie Bent, group head of human resources, Jardine Matheson, Hong Kong, says.

However, if a team is truly diverse and balanced, there are very few problems. Taneja points out, "Issues may arise if there is a small minority and in that case, sensitisation is the key. It should not be a one-off exercise, but should be done on a continuous basis.

He also suggests, "Make people listen to each other in meetings, draw out the minority members to present their opinions, share work fairly and based on objective criteria etc."

Finding the true leader

While managing a culturally diverse population may seem like a tough exercise for most Asian countries, the story is a little different in Malaysia. "With three major cultures existing in harmony within Malaysia, finding diversity in the workplace is common," Stephen A Cokkinias, general manager, The Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shares. However, he points out that the primary challenge is to find leaders from a balance of cultures to assist with management responsibilities. "Leadership is important as the leader must set the tone and the vision for a workforce that embraces the concept of diversity. This direction must come from top down a cross the entire organisation," he maintains.

Bent concurs, "Leadership is absolutely critical to success in this regard. I have seen people adopt an authoritative approach and come badly unstuck, either through sidelining a less outspoken culture, or misinterpreting them as having nothing of consequence to say. It ultimately comes down to having an adaptable style of leadership. That is to say, one in which the leader can accurately read the situation and then adapt his or her style to fit that situation."

Taneja, however, goes one step further and advocates that a team stands or falls with the leadership. "If the leader is insensitive, the team will not work well. If the leader genuinely wants to make the team work, it will work. This involves educating himself/herself on what makes the individual members of the team tick, what their talents are, and how individual and different perspectives can contribute equally," he claims. Most importantly, Taneja believes that the leader should not assume that he/she knows everything. "It's because he/she will naturally be inclined to judge from his/her own background and experience. Empathy with an open mind is crucial to success," he emphasises.

INSEAD's Professor Black, who directs 'Leading for results', a leadership development programme, reinforces Taneja's opinion. He explains that effective leaders not only understand the assets and leverage them but also recognise the natural liabilities and limit them through effective management. "Effective leadership is the difference between success and failure. On average, diverse teams under-perform more than homogeneous teams because the level of actual leadership capability does not match the level of required leadership capability in diverse teams," he continues. "Just as you cannot simply put the best athletes on a team and automatically get world champion results without an equal calibre of coach, neither can you simply put a highly diverse set of individuals together with an OK leader and get great performance. The level of leadership capability needs to go up and be commensurate or exceed the level of diversity in the team."

Diverse teams need to be colour blind

The source of diversity is not the issue. The key is matching the extent and nature of the team diversity to the problem, Black opines. "If you have a global problem, you do not want to limit your team diversity to just North Americans or Asians. We forget that diversity is a tool, not an end," he maintains.

Taneja argues, "Team members from East Asian countries would have been brought up with Confucian values in which group effort is considered more important than the individual. People from the West tend to be driven more by individual achievements and goals. This difference may manifest itself in many things, but most poignantly in meetings and decision-making processes. Also, a person from the East may not be so vocal in expressing an opinion. He/she may wish to understand what the group thinks about a certain topic before making a comment, and would then also give priority to the senior person in the room to make that comment. Their approach is naturally consensus-based. For a person from the West, this silence and deference is often confusing, and misunderstood as non-engagement. "Creating a team of people from the east and the west is not easy. It really asks for a lot of sensitivity," he stresses.

Regarding the Indian workforce, Taneja adds that Indians tend to find their role models in the West. "As individuals, Indians are highly achievement-focused and although there is a strong family ethic, the group-ethic of the East is not part of the make-up of a typical Indian employee. Therefore, an Indian-Western European or US match is bound to work out better," he advises.

Bent from Jardine, Hong Kong, agrees that as a general rule in Asia, it does help if team members are all from Asian countries. He says, "Eighty per cent of our Holding Company graduates are Asians. However, almost without exception, all were educated in the West and are readily capable of crossing that grey cultural divide that can stump or confuse many people."

Bent shares an interesting HR experience in a multicultural environment. "I remember a Western manager who continually criticised his report for not being innovative, and reflected on this for two consecutive years in the performance appraisal. One day, he decided to ask his report what he thought 'innovative' meant. He discovered that the report thought it meant highly structured and procedural, which is what he felt he'd been."

In short, we all imagine that in our 'ideal world', every person is treated equally when it comes to getting a job, advancing in their career, and dealing with colleagues. However, in reality, we know this is not the case and racial discrimination - an offshoot of cultural differences - still exists in hiring, firing, and promotions. But this phenomenon is rapidly changing. Today's HR gurus foresee that in time, the most successful Asian HR managers in the public and private sectors will be the ones who acknowledge this diversity and build an inclusive work environment.

Source: Human Capital Asia - GAI

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