Cultural Diversity Is Hard… But Worth It!

This post is sponsored by Visa Business. For more information, please see the end of this article.
 
 

Culture is the total communication framework: words, actions, postures, gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, the handling of time, space, and materials, and the way she works, plays, makes love, and defends herself. All these things and more are complete communication systems with meanings that can be read correctly only if one is familiar with the behavior in its historical, social and cultural context.       

                                     —Edward T. Hall


 
 
 
While working over the past 7 months toward our upcoming site relaunch, my team and I came to understand firsthand the benefit of a culturally diverse team. The varied perspectives that arose out of our cultural differences served to sharpen, clarify and bolster both our brand messaging and our business. But those benefits didn’t come without a struggle…
 
The truth is that cultural diversity in your entrepreneurial team can be an invaluable resource or an intractable liability, depending on the attitudes, paradigms and resiliency of those involved.
 
It is our tendency as humans to take in the world through the construct of “schemas” or pre-conceived categorizations. Generally we tend to feel neutral about our own point-of-view, not recognizing it as one of many possible perspectives, but rather experiencing it a as a universal, visceral and self-evident truth. And this is where we get into trouble in intercultural communication: most of us have a knee-jerk tendency to view a dissenting perspective as antagonistic or threatening.
 
That knee-jerk tendency is a privilege the entrepreneur cannot indulge. To be truly entrepreneurial in your thinking is to approach every situation with openness, compassionate curiosity, innovation and the vision that more is always possible.
 
 
 

Cultural Diversity Is Hard…

Below are some guidelines, born of our experience, for leveraging cultural diversity to enhance your vision and take your business to a new level:
 
 
1. Engage with empathy
Acts of creation are tremendously vulnerable expressions of our deepest selves. Anyone who has ever shared her own creative inspiration publicly understands this to be true. Add to this picture that most people are by nature change averse, and you have the recipe for heated and conflictual elements in collaborative projects.
 
It’s important to understand that something primal and emotional comes to bear when we’re engaged in collaboration with people who have a cultural paradigm different from our own. Usually these emotions take the form of perceived threat or intimidation, and behaviors born of these emotions are often combative and lacking in curiosity.
 
According to Rogers and Steinfatt, authors of Intercultural Communication, “Taking the role of the other (empathy) usually leads to important differences in the perception of the situation.” It’s been my experience that the shift in perception that comes with empathy is an effective diffuser of cultural conflicts. The challenge lies in getting to an empathic state of mind.
 
A good place to start is to practice imagining the experience the other is having. Be generous with your listening, and try to assume that the other’s intentions are constructive and generous as well. Remember that if the shoe were on the other foot, you would want to be extended the benefit of the doubt.
 
 
 
2. Embrace the detractor(s)
During the course of our launch preparation, my team and I spent an agonizing weekend determining the copy of the new splash page. There were 4 of us working 12+ hours to write a mere 171 characters! It was made more frustrating by the fact that 3 of the 4 of us agreed on our initial idea (formulated in the first hour) and wanted to move forward. But one of us was adamantly opposed.
 
We knew intrinsically that we should embrace the detracting viewpoint because if we’d actually managed to hit our vision precisely in the initial copy, our teammate wouldn’t be taking issue with it. We knew more was possible. And yet, we were exhausted, rushed, behind schedule. Couldn’t we just call it good enough and move on?
 
But we didn’t move on (until the decision was unanimous) because we realized that as a member of our team, the detracting individual was raising a salient concern. We labored through an additional 12 hours of brainstorming, heated conversation and near meltdowns, until the final vision (the unanimous vision) rose from the ashes of all that struggle and conflict. And it was perfect—an encapsulation of our collective vision with the right length, right voice and right message. It was an ecstatic high to realize we had pressed through and come out in a new plane of possibility.
 
And this is precisely the value of diversity in your entrepreneurial team: with diversity comes dissent. By embracing dissent, you introduce a whole new level of depth, nuance and reach to your vision and messaging. When you perceive dissent as antagonistic and threatening, you cut yourself off from the open curiosity that is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. Despite the additional time, work and frustration that came from the dissenting voice in our team, we recognized and embraced the value of that perspective and came out so much stronger for it.
 
 
 
3. Don’t misinterpret the inability to communicate as the absence of a good idea
In addition to influencing our perspectives, culture determines the way we go about communicating our ideas to others. It is easy to disregard an idea that isn’t presented well. But communication is it’s own skill set, and just because presentation isn’t in someone’s wheelhouse, doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to contribute to a project.
 
This was illustrated to me recently in a Startup Weekend Terrence and I participated in. The purpose of the event was to give aspiring entrepreneurs the chance garner support from a community of entrepreneurs/experts to launch their own startup. Each was given a chance to pitch their ideas to a voting crowd and those with the most votes would receive the support of investors and a team of experts to help them launch.
 
The effectiveness of these pitches varied widely, but we noticed right away that the ideas given the best presentation received the most votes/attention, while some of the best ideas were overlooked (often because the presenter was a scientist, tech geek or otherwise specially skilled and not a marketer or public speaker). We decided to pool our votes and put them all in the direction of one individual whose presentation suffered but whose idea held real promise. He was given the chance to move forward to the next level and by the end of the weekend, he emerged head and shoulders above the rest as the most viable startup idea of the whole weekend.

When people from different cultures talk to each other or interpret world events, the meanings they assign to messages are automatically filtered through the collection of attitudes learned from their own cultures.

                                                          –Rogers and Steinfatt, authors of Intercultural Communication

 
 
 

…But Worth It!

Though it’s important to select your entrepreneurial team on the basis of common vision, too much commonality can actually weaken the success of your endeavor. Admittedly, working within a culturally homogenous group may streamline your process and enable quicker and more efficient work, but likely at the expense at your quality and creative possibility.
 
By cultivating diversity in your team, embracing dissenting views and working patiently through differences, you will arrive at the best possible iteration of your vision—one that has been clarified and distilled through constructive critique. Have the patience to see it through, and it will pay off!

Have you encountered communication hardships while working amongst culturally diverse partners? Have you leveraged a benefit from building a culturally diverse team around you and your business? Tell us in the comments about your struggles and triumphs!

 
 
 

I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business.
 
The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently. Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

 

Megan Barnes

Megan Barnes is the former owner of The Mogul Mom. She is a creative writer residing happily in Mississippi with her beloved husband and two dogs.

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