Ask yourself how your approach to diversity and inclusion either helps or challenges your team and your overall organizational performance. What else can you do to prosper from the differences in your workforce across culture, generational, and age differences for instance? I want to tell you my experience directly observing how this has been accomplished in a real life potpourri of multi-cultural existence, the positive impact on that community, and how this model can benefit you.
Earlier this month I had the chance to travel to a country that I anticipated would be much different than my own. I arrived in the “Rainbow Nation” of diversity after almost 30 hours of travel, finally touching down at Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport for a 2-week immersion into South African life, or as close to it as possible. I thought I would come back and write pages of interesting contrasts and comparisons because after all, I was 10,000 miles away and things just had to be astoundingly different.
Many approaches to diversity and inclusion were remarkably similar to our own. What I saw in business practice there today greatly resembles similar efforts here at home. Progressive laws protect individuals, and companies are dedicated to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, in religious beliefs and equality in marriage. What was more interesting to me were the cultural differences.
Historically, differences in African tribes resulted in wars between them. Fragmented groups of various tribes with their own interests did not reflect a majority unification for racial equality. Resistance against apartheid rule for 43 years provided an external point of focus outside of tribal differences, a common element that could be rallied against.
I observed during my visit outside Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship) that people from many different tribes live together in the same extremely poor conditions. The self-initiated efforts of individuals to bridge those tribal and cultural differences at the social level was amazing. There was a strong sense of community and spirit in Soweto, people helping people.
What was the glue that not only held Soweto together but made it a highlight of South African unity? Our tour guide provided an answer.
In addition to a strong sense of community the people worked hard on communication. It was essential to daily living between the many different cultures within one township. Much like the cultural diversity that makes up our organizations here today, South Africa has 11 official languages. Bridging those cultures is almost a greater challenge than any because every language contains unique culture. The solution to Soweto’s challenge is South Africa’s 12th and unofficial language. This language emerged from efforts to communicate with each other across those 11 different backgrounds. Although most South Africans are multi-lingual, this unique language is created with words from all different languages and bridges the communication gap quite effectively. There is also a common use of sign language to communicate with the fleets of informal taxis used extensively across the metropolitan region.
South Africans proved themselves to be spirited, ingenious, and survivalists and we can use these common elements to bridge the gaps in our own organizations.
One of the ways we can take this formula to the next level in our organizations is to ensure our diverse employees are communicating effectively while working towards the same organizational goals. It is essential to improve two-way communication, hold regular meetings to keep employees informed, and provide feedback on progress. We should build on this model to make our organizations thrive using simple techniques to improve communication such as building trust, encouraging two-way feedback, clarifying roles and responsibilities, and maintaining an open door policy.
The takeaway from this South African experience was seeing how communication and cooperation across cultures and working towards a common goal brought people together. As a whole, the cooperation helped individuals and groups.
This experience has caused me to reflect about how we handle diversity here in the United States and the benefits and challenges to the work environments I’ve experienced in my career.
Read more about the interesting diversity of South Africa’s people and culture here.