Resistance to cultural diversity in the workplace impacts global business

TrainerEvery consultant has stories to tell of encountering resistance to cultural diversity training.  We also know that different levels of knowledge, awareness and information about culture within client organisations can impacts the acceptance or resistance to the topic. This also, unsurprisingly, extends to the success or failure of the organisation’s international business activities. One option is to accept intercultural training as an open learning experience to complement other business skills. Skills that sit alongside all the others learned since entering the world of business; such as presentations training, negotiations training, team training, leadership training. However, there are many people who respond to intercultural training initiatives with resistance – often quite complicated resistance.

Why can’t we all just get along?

Dr. Milton J. Bennett & Dr. Janet Bennett, leading intercultural theorists & practitioners have categorised the most typical responses. Some of them adopt a reductionist approach. This is what Bennett and Bennett have entitled; “It’s a small world after all”. Or in other words, “Can’t we all just get along?” This is often promoted by managers and business leaders who believe that the good intentions of their personal management approaches (such as their personal style or track record elsewhere in the organisation) will be sufficient to ensure good intercultural relations. Unfortunately, ‘good will’ IS a cultural defined phenomenon!

Home culture is always best

This group of resistors may also hold a belief that good intercultural relations are ensured by everyone adhering to the home corporate culture. This is often thought of as a truism by those managers who either never visit the other global offices or whose travel to the other global sites is restricted to short, intense visits during which the ‘local’ scene is simply that which is viewed through the taxi window between the airport, hotel and office. The local staff all work hard to ensure that the visitor has a positive experience and is looked after in every respect. The result is that they may return with the narrow belief mentioned earlier. There is nothing as powerful as personal experience to support an argument. I have often seen managers with some international experience be the ones who resist the most, supporting their arguments with personal experience.

How can we respond?

To respond to this kind of resistance it may be appropriate to inform them of how similar programmes failed due to the lack of this kind of training. There are many examples in the business books, usually during mergers and acquisition is when things really fall apart. The aborted merger between Volvo and Renault Trucks is a particularly poignant story. The acquisition was valued at $1.8 billion and was in process over the course of 7 years. The failure was due primarily to relationship challenges, between the American, French and Swiss members. The project failure resulted in reduced work productivity and time off for more than 6,700 employees, and the Volvo chairman was quoted as saying they were left with an “aborted merged and crashed organisation.” As a trainer, I can’t help but wonder how things could have turned out if there had been a higher investment in the human capital of the organisations.

If the merger had been approached with the support of intercultural leadership training, would things have been different? How could we have salvaged the relationships, if we first gathered interview data from the culture groups in the corporation, to then demonstrate how the cultural difference between the home culture and local culture actually vary in considerable ways?

[If you’re interested in the topic, some others to reference are The Egg Finance adventure in France as well as the aborted merger between Alitalia and KLM.]

From the perspective of using intercultural training as a way to increase the global competencies and cultural capital of the organisation, it is worth pointing out the differences between simply international and truly global companies.

Don’t let the resistors stop the good work

According to Nancy Adler, author of International Dimensions of Organisational Behaviour (2002) she highlights ‘cultural sensitivity’ as ‘critically important’ to the success of the global organisation. Adler points out something that Barlett & Ghoshal also discuss in their book Managing Across Borders (1989):

It is in every organisation’s interest to pursue the global business environment – not just for success but for actual commercial survival. Intercultural training and development should be a key factor in any organisation’s globalization strategy for success. Don’t let the resistors stop the good work.

Resistance does not just have impact on local teams and individuals, but also on the company as a whole.  For this reason, working on global people development programmes is not just about training people – it’s about implementing an effective global strategy.

Originally posted on TCO International

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