Rodriguez: Diversity is here to stay. Embrace it!

How managers can make sure that teams get along despite the large amount of differences

For the last few decades, technology has been connecting the world to levels undreamt of just by the time our parents were born. Empowering more people to join the connected economy, globalization has also brought fresh challenges for multinational corporations: how can managers make sure that teams get along and deliver success despite the large amount of differences among their members? How can today’s leaders navigate the unfamiliar waters of diversity easily, in order to benefit from the potential of each individual? This is the topic that Elisabet Rodriguez Dennehy, an international consultant on business leadership and diversity issues is dealing with in her first book: Can You Afford to Ignore Me? That was just launched on the European market this April.


Q: What was the first moment when you started to think about writing a book on diversity at the workplace?

A:
The book has been evolving for many years. I kept reading stories about successful women who were leaving corporate environments. It was a constant topic, so it has been in the back of my mind for a long time. I feel I have had a high degree of success in the corporate world, so I was asking myself why it is so difficult for other women to do the same. Why are so many of them leaving after all these years of giving their time and energy to their companies? Then I was invited to speak at a lunch with a group of Hispanic women who wanted to hear my perspective on the unique attributes they brought to their organization. It so happened that very senior representatives of the company were visiting and they joined us for the lunch. We had a great opportunity to have a very good discussion about the special attributes of Latin culture and thinking processes. Yet, I felt within the conversation that the pull was: yes, it is true your cultural background and gender are very important, but now that you work for us, you have to shift who you are into “who we are”… That is true; we all have to “adapt” our expectations and behavior to the corporate culture we belong, is part of what you have to do. During the wrap up of the session, I felt a subtle tension between the company representatives and their expectations… that somehow employees have to become what I call cultureless. As I got into my car and was driving home, it came to my mind: can they really afford to ignore these talented women, their unique attributes and perceptions? That was the beginning of it.

Q: What gender diversity issues is the book addressing?

A:
What the book addresses is what are the main core issues that are keeping women from fully engaging in the corporate environment  and what are the cultural or diversity related issues  that also need to be understood. I spent almost four years of research looking and reading experts in many fields like communication, socialization, culture, leadership  and scientific research of brain and hormones. I started to make a synthesis of their work and show in the book how I apply their findings to the work I am doing every day. And that is what the book is all about.



Q: So it’s more like compiling existing know-how on diversity?

A: It is a very structured and clear schema for a manager to follow so that he or she can read it and say: when I am meeting women of different backgrounds, or women and men of different cultural backgrounds, how is it that I should address this audience to leverage the most and the best of them. The book has a breakup of what the issues are; under each issue I explain   the root cause of the issue and how managers can overcome them. At the end of each chapter there is a series of exercises that allow managers to apply what they learned from the chapter into real life.

Q: Your book was launched in Europe this April. We are observing two divergent trends across the European Union. One is openness and globalization, the second is the rise of nationalism and calls for regional identity. In your view, is this divergent tension also perceptible at the workplace?

A: There is one thing we can’t fight with anymore: the global environment. We can try to go back to a safe place where we could create walls, but that is not going to be sustainable. It’s a paradigm that is just gone. One of the things we need to accept is that people want to be who they are and to be honored for what they bring to the workplace. People want to be appreciated for those attributes such as their culture, tradition, way of thinking, language, etc. Fighting it is not sustainable because technology is going to overlap all of that; the access we have to knowing what is happening in many places around the world at any given time is here to stay.



Q: If I’m a manager in charge of a truly diverse team, what should I do to make sure that we are successful together?


A:
One of the things that I do is to offer a series of different exercises focused on setting up the tone of your multicultural team. We try to focus on the things that you can do. One of the sections of the book talks about this; it explains the process by which we exchange very basic information of who we are and where we come from. It can be done in many different ways and it can be very creative. Each member of the team speaks about what’s unique in his or her environment and culture that we should be aware of. I always push for face-to-face meetings, but if the budget doesn’t allow it, technology can also be used for this exercise. In short make sure that you spend time in the forming stage of the group.

Q: Why is it so important to know personal details about the culture of the members of my team?

A:
These are many expectations on all sides and it’s important that they are expressed. In the book there is a series of options for a manager to look at and see what works best for the culture they are in, what makes it easier for them to create a sense of rapport and congruence as a team and then start to talk about how you create the team. Because we have the amount of technology available, videos and so many educational options online, I think it is a failure of imagination of managers not to use them to help their team understand who they are before they get down to work.


Q: So it’s more like compiling existing know-how on diversity?


A: It is a very structured and clear schema for a manager to follow so that he or she can read it and say: when I am meeting women of different backgrounds, or women and men of different cultural backgrounds, how is it that I should address this audience to leverage the most and the best of them. The book has a breakup of what the issues are; under each issue I explain   the root cause of the issue and how managers can overcome them. At the end of each chapter there is a series of exercises that allow managers to apply what they learned from the chapter into real life.


Q: Why is this aspect ignored nowadays?

A:
I think it is overlooked because we assume that if we are all engineers, the professional background somehow overrides the human condition-that we are engineers born in a specific culture and who bring our values to work. What I see is that when people run do the project wearing the engineering cap, without spending time getting to know who they are, specially values and perceptions, teams get stuck or performance is compromised. Excuse me, but again we are engineers and individual who belong to a social reality. And that will never go away. I always say, remember culture does not go away just because we are more connected through technology, and we travel through the internet to any part of the world. Culture does not go away. It’s there.


Q: How do you teach managers to respect their staff’s culture and identity, mainly in environments with a heavy recent history where the political regime was the first to disrespect its citizens?

A:
That is a really important question. The truth is there is a process, but it takes time and a lot of internal awareness and commitment to do the best for the company. It’s hard. When you were raised in a particular environment and that becomes who you are and how you see the world, it’s a challenge. But it’s something that is going to have to be dealt with in time, if one- you want to succeed in the organization and two- if you want your company to stay competitive.

In general the steps I follow are first, to create an in depth picture of the business environment: what are the trends and how these trends impact their organization. Then, we introduce data: scientific research that shows how performance is enhanced when we have gender balanced- ethnic balanced work environments. Third, we introduce behavior modification techniques to help start to assess present internal state and potential future developmental goals. Last but not least, we develop a sustainability plan for managers and senior executives who will be part of the support team for change. Can You Afford to Ignore Me? was written to give everyone who is involved in the business world tools to make their work environment more engaging, productive and meaningful, and with that enhance the organizations performance from good or average to extraordinary. This is the message of my book, and the higher meaning of my entire work.


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