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Boss’s Tip of the Week #30: Cultural Values: How to Get Past Race and Ethnicity

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Don’t do diversity training! (Well, not the way it’s done most often.)

For more than two decades now, American business has had an obsession with diversity. We’ve spent millions on diversity training. All of this has been well meaning, but much of it has been misguided. Why? Because too often, race, ethnicity, and gender have been shoved front and center, and that’s the last place they should be. Instead of examining people’s external characteristics (what they look like) we need to explore their underlying values, because the real reward in diversity training is learning to work effectively with people who think differently than we do.

Consider this: native-born Americans generally value directness. We tend to “tell it like it is.” As managers we’re encouraged to be straightforward and offer constructive criticism. Well, if we’re managing people with that same value, this is no problem. But suppose we’re managing people who value indirectness. To them, saving face can be very important; straightforward criticism, even politely offered, can be humiliating. It can even undermine your suggested changes. You’d be far more effective if you offered a subtle suggestion: “When Mary tried it this way, she had great success.” If that seems uncomfortably vague, it’s probably because you’re an acculturated American.

Be wary of the stereotypes, however. Consider Latinos who have lived in the U.S. for a decade. Are their values Latino? American? Or a blend? And what are “American” values anyway? Any presidential candidate will tell you that the core values of Jews in New York City are not identical to the core values of Louisiana Creoles. Ultimately, each of us has values all our own.

Understanding those values and observing the behavior that reflects them will make you a better manager. The better you can see another person’s point of view, the better you can communicate with her. You’ll get the results you need, and people will feel respected. What better retention tool could you have?

Take Action

Learn the core values. There are 13 basic, or core, areas in which people’s points of view determine much of how they function in the world. Do you feel you have a lot of control over your life, or do you believe that what happens to you is fate? This question has no “right” answer. Most people’s view is somewhere between the two extremes. The same is true for each of the 13 core values (described in “The Values Continuum”). Getting familiar with the list will begin to give you insights into yourself and your employees.
Learn basic American business values. No articulation of values applies across the board to every member of a group, but some basic values are generally accepted in American business (see “The Values Continuum”). Learn what they are, not because they are absolutes, but because they’ll offer a framework for understanding differences.
Identify your own values. Think about what you really believe. Place yourself on the continuum. How does your perspective affect how you manage? Think of ways in which you reflect values without even thinking about it.
Identify your employees’ values. Where do your employees fall on the continuum? It’s helpful to look at them individually. Are there places in which their values are different from the American norm? If you aren’t sure about their values, ask. Keep the conversation respectful. Don’t make assumptions (“You people don’t really care about being on time, do you?”) and don’t ask employees to speak on behalf of a group (“What do people from your country think about this?”).
Where appropriate, ask employees to respect the business values. Employees want to do a good job. If people fall short of your expectations, it may be a reflection of differing values. For example, if an employee is chronically late, she may have a different value about time. Share the American business value of timeliness. Be respectful and make it clear that her values are not “wrong.” Ask the employee to respect your values while at work. (These are complex discussions; if employees aren’t fluent in English, consider using a translator.)
Meet employees half way. When it’s a matter of policy or business necessity, asking employees to adapt is reasonable, but in other cases, making the effort to respect other values is a gracious thing to do. For example, if an employee’s values make it difficult for her to accept praise on public, adjust your style and offer praise privately.
Offer training. If you have a large number of employees with different cultural backgrounds, offer training in the underlying values of American business culture. Make sure that all your employees are trained, not just those from different backgrounds.

 

The Values Continuum
People’s views in each of these areas determine much of how they function in the world. Where do you fall on each continuum? Where do your employees fall? Where does your company fall? In most American organizations, the dominant values are those on the left side of the continuum.
I have control over the environment; what happens in my life is up to me. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 What happens in my life is fate; I’m living out my destiny.
Change is progress; it’s a good thing. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 Tradition is our strength.
I control my time; being late is rude. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 I don’t control time. If I meet a friend on the street, I must stop to honor the relationship; I’ll get where I’m going when I get there.
We’re all equal, and I try to be fair to everyone. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 I show my respect to people of higher rank or status and I expect respect from those of lower status.
It’s every person for him- or herself; I do what’s best for me. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 We’re all in this together; I do what’s best for the group.
If I work hard, I can do anything and get anywhere in life. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 My place in life will reflect my birthright.
I feel good when I win. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 I feel good when I help others.
I’m focused on a better tomorrow. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 I honor the past.
It matters what I do; I need to get things done. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 It matters who I am; I value each day.
I’m informal; it’s friendly and democratic. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 I prefer formality; it shows respect.
I tell it like it is; honesty is the best policy. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 I am not direct; it’s important to people to save face.
I do what I need to do to get the job done. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 I follow the best proven method for getting a job done.
Success is a big house and a nice car. 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 Success is inner peace and contentment.
Source: Adapted from The Values Americans Live By, Robert Kohls, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, 1988
Boss’s Tip of the Week #30: Cultural Values: How to Get Past Race and Ethnicity
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