Guest Opinion

Beyond Inclusion: Why Cultural Understanding Is Important

--By Wema Hoover

As a global culture and diversity practitioner, I often reflect on the path that led me here. Some say that you don’t choose a calling; it chooses you. This was definitely my case. My career spanning human resources, culture, and organizational development (OD) roles brought me to work in more than 25 countries—three of which I lived in. These experiences sparked in me a curiosity for deeper cultural understanding - to build cultural intelligence an important trait for an inclusive leader. It gave me a strong desire to be a connector of people and customs, and an ambition to build stronger working relationships across global communities.

I was able to live out these personal goals in my career while working extensively in India in my OD role—to foster greater engagement and organizational alignment and enable increased productivity between the U.S. and India operations. To do this, I had to use my own experience as an outsider to shape the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices. The efforts and approaches used to architect and support this work meant that I essentially became my own case study.

What I found is that the often-used phrase “leading by inclusion” doesn’t truly embody the approach needed to bring real inclusivity while working globally. Instead, it was leading with empathy, openness, and a genuine appreciation for differences, which are the ingredients to creating an environment that taps the power, strength, and magic that is diversity’s potential. Good intentions are not enough. Anyone who has worked internationally or with communities or teams different than their own knows this to be true.

When in Rome (or India)…

My time in India brought many interesting learnings that challenged my conventional approach to building professional relationships and what I thought was critical to establishing credible and authentic connections in the workplace. I found myself initially declining numerous dinner invitations from my Indian colleagues. This immediately yielded constant questions about my health and visions of me coming down with sudden illnesses that must have prevented me from attending these dinners. From my vantage point, I was merely trying to decompress and rest after long working days filled with meetings, training, and establishing the cultural connections to drive productivity. I was soon counseled that strengthening my personal relationships with my Indian colleagues was of the utmost importance to create and maintain productive working relationships. And the way to do so was through accepting these invites to dine and meet the husbands, wives, children, grandparents, and extended families of my colleagues. It was a quintessential olive branch being extended, and my refusal was basically burning those branches. I quickly took heed and honored the advice and was thrust into 4–5 dinners per week at my colleagues’ homes. Much to my surprise, I adapted and immensely enjoyed getting to know them and their families outside of the office. It became clear it was not about an informal dinner. It was about respect and a deference given to each colleague—valuing their character, community, and integrity, which shaped the basis of our working relationships.

Lost in Translation

Fast-forward ten years later: I moved to Paris, France for work and attempted to apply the same learnings acquired in India. I sought to build close personal relationships outside of the office, initiating opportunities to meet and bond with family and friends. I thought to myself: lesson learned. Never again will I turn down an opportunity to connect in a more meaningful, social manner. The age-old adage You cannot fit the same shoe on every foot hit me like a brick as I tried to enact the adopted practices from India to my working relationships in France. In my attempt to replicate the success I had in India, I offered to bring my colleagues a specialty French pastry (mille-feuille) sold at a famous boulangerie chain in Paris. One was located near me, so I offered to bring it to them on the weekend. I thought this would be a great way for me to learn the city via public transport and to also build deeper personal relationships with them. A win-win situation, of course. WRONG! When I followed up on the weekend plans and sensed some hesitancy, I paid no mind and pressed on. Well, needless to say, they both went dark and never responded. Again, I didn’t understand what had happened.

On Monday, to my complete surprise, I was told by HR that as a senior leader, I had made people feel uncomfortable by pressing them for their phone numbers and addresses. My stomach dropped! How could this be? I thought I was establishing a personal connection. I thought I was extending myself by offering to come to their neighborhood or home. What had just happened? What did I do wrong? When I shared my experience in India, they thankfully saw the humor in it. Apparently, it’s very much the opposite in France. There is a huge divide between professional and personal relationships, which often is never crossed. I was asked not to apologize or explain anything to my colleagues for fear I would make them feel even more uncomfortable. It most definitely was another learning opportunity. After some time, my French colleagues and I were able to laugh about it as one of my many social faux pas experiences adapting to the French culture. Eventually, I was able to improve my cultural fluency and successfully form strong relationships and friendships despite my cultural hiccups.

What learnings did I take away?

· Agility is key to effectively working across cultures. You must be ready, willing, and able to be flexible with your communication, style, and approach.

· Suspend judgment of common practices and customs that you are unfamiliar with. Be open to creating new paradigms, belief systems, and behaviors based upon your new experiences and deeper understanding of the culture you are in.

· Be humble if given feedback that your actions and/or behaviors are not in line with the norms of said culture. Humility will allow you to be less defensive and more accepting of recommendations to shift and change behavior to show respect and deference

· Assume good intent if you have an experience or interaction that is different from your own culture. Maintain a positive attitude while seeking to learn the work and social dynamics of your new environment.

The Richness Is the Reward

These are just a couple of the discoveries one finds working cross-culturally that inform the complexity around implementing effective DEI policies and practices. These learnings can be scaled and applied across any country, culture, or community. Recognize that cultural competence comes from an understanding that cultural norms involving hierarchy, status, and relationships vary widely and are often expressed indirectly. Embracing these learnings in India and France through my lived experiences allowed me to build authentic and credible relationships. By seeing DEI through a new lens, I enhanced my ability to influence leaders and employees across the global market to do the same. This new approach places agility, respect, openness, and humility at the center of all culture and DEI agendas to build a more engaged, collaborative, and dynamic work environment.

These experiences illustrate how understanding culture can help or hinder leaders, teams, and companies from being effective, innovative, and transformative. No matter who you are, mining the wealth of these experiences expands one’s toolbox so that you can actualize the potential of diversity and promises professional and personal rewards beyond one’s expectations.

The opinions expressed in this article is solely those of the author and not necessarily those of DiversityGlobal Magazine.