Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy and, recently, Blok: these are all statesmen and women who have declared that multiculturalism has utterly failed. Accordingly, in many countries, such as the Netherlands, proposed modifications in the tax system are deemed to make the labour market less appealing to expats over the long term. All this leads us back to a fundamental question: what is the value of multiculturalism when it comes to a workforce or, even, a nation? In this interview, the German-born and US-based cross-cultural expert, Christian Höferle, sheds more clarity on this complex though topical debate.
1. What are the benefits of a multicultural workforce?
“In my experience the most important benefit is diversity — that is diversity of thought. This is the antidote to intellectual myopia. Take, for instance, the circle of work of the average individual: your group of colleagues is made up of a wide variety of people. Some are from the same town, others may have attended the same university as you, one desk over you’ll find co-workers who spent their youth travelling around the globe and the teammate right behind you might be the holder of a different passport than your own. The global nature of the world economy is a fact no-one can ignore any longer. Gone are the days of working only with people who grew up where you did and were raised by the standards you are acquainted with. In this interconnected and international context, smart business decisions depend on the ability to bridge cultural differences. No company will be agile enough to do this without embracing diversity”.
2. Is it sensible to say that, at present, inclusive workforces are more relevant than simply multicultural ones?
“Any team can be multicultural. It’s simply a description of a group’s composition. Nowadays, many workforces fit this label. However, being inclusive is a behavioural choice. Inclusion strategist Vernā Myers says it best: ‘Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance’. In recent years, the buzzword diversity has, unfortunately, triggered an odd connotation in the Anglo-Saxon job market. The prospect of attending a ‘diversity training’ will most likely bring about a deep-rooted reaction amongst employees, especially in the United States. For years, diversity meant pretending that cultural and behavioural differences could be ignored as long as everyone agreed to get along with one another at work. This delusive mentality of ‘I don’t see colour’ is counterproductive to developing a mindset of inclusiveness within a team. Therefore, if your goal is to be successful on a global scale, I would argue that working towards an inclusive workforce is indeed more important than being merely multicultural”.
3. Some studies suggest that the US is still equally popular, at least amongst European labour migrants, despite the current US-political climate. Having said this, are work-related multicultural tensions merely a perception?
“No matter what you and I think or regardless of what we know about the interpersonal dynamics of a team, our approach will always be the result of our limited perception. Rather than bypassing multicultural tensions in the workforce, it’s crucial to address them — regardless of politics. Tension can be a good thing. It simply means that teammates don’t agree on how to do things or solve problems. Thus, the friction teams undergo when people from different backgrounds, with distinct opinions and world-views, work together can be an advantage. What’s more, when heterogeneous groups need to solve problems collectively or when they are expected to move a project towards completion, it’s not uncommon to see conflicts emerge. Many organisations shy away from this as they view conflict as negative per se. The fact is, however, that conflict is an energy which, when harnessed properly, could yield efficient solutions and lead to more creative results”.
4. Within the philosophy of inclusiveness, should multicultural opponents be antagonised or should they have an equal right of existence?
“If there is one thing that many of my clients, the majority being multinational companies, quickly realise after some interchange, it’s the fact that the word normal is completely arbitrary. There isn’t one normal way of doing things: the world is full of different normals. And all of them are valid — in their respective contexts. So, rather than seeing people with contrasting ideas of what normal behaviour should constitute as opponents, why not look at them as the carriers of different answers to the same dilemma? Culture-savvy organisations and culturally competent people know that providing space for more than one normal will open their minds to better answers. This might sometimes mean having to deal with cognitive dissonances, that is to say, psychological stress. This can be quite uncomfortable at times as we find ourselves having to negotiate a balance in what we, as individuals, deem normal. The beauty of all this, is that discomfort and confusion precede a higher learning: when our world view is challenged, we gain new insights”.
5. On the whole, what are the perks of a multicultural and/or inclusive nation?
“While I don’t want to downplay the challenges that many countries are subjected to as a result of migration, immigration and globalisation, I’m an advocate for diverse societies. The biggest challenge for current generations, worldwide, might well be engaging in the path to achieving inclusiveness in the different nations they originate from. At present, a great majority of all countries are multicultural to various extents. Some nations even pride themselves on being diverse. Yet, being fully inclusive is humanity’s most difficult task. The ultimate upside of becoming inclusive as nations is that we would then have learned to embrace the other instead of fearing it. It appears likely that overall we, as humans, are still stuck in our tribal phase. That is we look for characteristics which unify us within our small groups and at the same time separate us from other groups. Once we surpass this fear of the unknown, the biggest perk of inclusiveness will be peace. After all, it’s a lot harder to fight those we embrace”.
German by birth, American by choice and Bavarian at heart, Christian Höferle is an enthusiast of building bridges, across peoples and cultures, and thus not a supporter of walls. He has, since 2008, been operating a US-based cultural consulting and training firm that has helped, trained and coached hundreds of individuals, families and teams relocate from Europe, Latin America, and Asia to the United States of America. He has also trained numerous Americans who have pursued work assignments outside the U.S.