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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

We’re One But We’re Not the Same

The author, a “Third Culture Kid” with a unique global perspective, sees more similarities than differences among us in our diverse, yet increasingly connected, world.
We’re One But We’re Not the Same

by Nikki Dy-Liacco

A few months ago, I sat in a briefing for an upcoming Asia-Pacific conference. The organizers shared their plans for bringing in speakers from several countries to make sure there was a balance of perspectives on leadership practices from the East and the West. I shifted uneasily in my seat until I finally had to speak up. “Can we change it to ‘global best practices?’” I asked.

That view of East and West wasn’t one I could readily accept, as it struck me as both overly simplistic and misguided. While I recognize there are distinct characteristics that stereotype managers in Asia versus managers in Europe or in North America, it seems to me that, as the world continues to shrink and flatten through globalization, best practices are no longer necessarily from the “East” or from the “West.” I was happy that my voice was heard and that the discussion was redirected to one about global best practices.

While “global” has become an overused term, it’s close to my heart in a special way. I am an adult “Third Culture Kid,” a term coined in the 1950s by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem to describe those of us who have spent a significant part of our developmental years outside our parents’ culture. Before my 20th birthday, I had lived in four countries and attended international schools with students from all over (my best friend in high school was Swedish), where I discovered firsthand how truly small the world really is.

These life experiences taught me early on to value differences, to celebrate our common human condition, and to always work toward collapsing barriers between and among worlds. If I were to write an anthem for us Third Culture Kids, I would have to ask Bono if I can use some of his words—we’re one but we’re not the same.

A New World at Work

I realize, however, that it’s not just Third Culture Kids who are experiencing the world in a different way. For many of us, our work environment is far more diverse than ever before, with individuals defined by various ethnic groups, educational backgrounds, generations, life experiences, and personalities.

I am fortunate to work and live in Singapore, where one out of every three people in the workforce is from another country. This island state takes pride in its diversity and it provides a true melting pot for its citizens, residents, and visitors. I see how this diversity is equally reflected in the workplace, where it is not uncommon to have a meeting where three or four countries (and accents) are represented, or a client workshop with participants who either flew in from other continents the night before or are expatriates based here.

As I go through my workday, I understand that when it comes to people, we can create as many profiles as there are permutations of however many categories we choose. But while we will never really be exactly the same, are we really all that different?

One of DDI’s American senior consultants recently shared with me his experience working with our clients across the five major continents. Wherever he is, when he asks those in his training classes to recall the qualities that define their most admired leaders, the answers clearly transcend cultural differences. No matter where in the world or in which level in the organization he or she is from, each individual tends to remember a leader not by the tasks or assignments given, but by how the leader made him or her feel—valued, worthy, and respected.

People remember that others listen to them, or that they felt good being able to make meaningful contributions. While people may behave differently on the surface, we all want to be treated with dignity and respect. At the heart of it all, we just want to connect with each other as fellow human beings.

Making Connections

Because there’s no turning back on how the world and the workplace are changing, and how we’re becoming more interconnected, we are faced with an important question: What does it take to work in and truly celebrate a diverse workforce? More important, what can we do to embrace the reality of our “Small World After All?”

Developing individuals to thrive in a diverse, global work environment is one part of the equation; the other part is management’s role in helping to support that development while continuing to enhance productivity in the workplace.

According to a recent study published in McKinsey Quarterly, the key to higher productivity is to identify and address the barriers knowledge workers face in their daily interactions. Setting performance metrics and rewards is important, but because knowledge workers spend half their time working with others, it’s the quality of their day-to-day interactions with their peers and managers that ultimately counts.

Late last year in Pittsburgh, I had the chance to hear Josh Bersin, CEO and president of Bersin & Associates, share his thoughts on upcoming talent management trends. One stood out that echoed the McKinsey study: All of talent management comes back down to the individual manager. While HR provides the necessary systems and tools, talent management is really about each manager taking the organization’s needs and the individual’s aspirations, and having an honest-to-goodness, one-on-one conversation—not an e-mail thread!— to ensure alignment, engagement, and success.

The way I see it, the pressure is on managers to have these meaningful conversations, whether they are about upcoming projects, progress on assignments, or even poor performance.

While there is no shortage of recommended tactics to manage diversity in the workplace, leaders cannot take a cookie-cutter approach to managing people simply based on their generation, their cultural background, or any other assumptions. By focusing on and addressing both an individual’s personal and practical needs, leaders can create higher levels of engagement, increasing not just their chances of being admired and remembered, but more important, of realizing meaningful results for their teams and the organization.

So what will it take for us to not just successfully navigate, but fully appreciate a diverse workforce? It will take us moving from the East to the West and back, within and outside of our own culture. It will also take us getting to a point where we can value our differences while also celebrating our similarities as we remember with pride where we are from and where we’ve been. Along the way, I hope we seek opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations that connect us in a truly authentic way.

Once we can do that, we’ll all be singing a similar tune.

All together now: We’re one but we’re not the same…

Nikki Dy-Liacco is DDI’s marketing manager for Southeast Asia. She is a Filipino “Third Culture Kid” currently living in Singapore. You can e-mail her at nikki.dy-liacco@ddiworld.com.

 

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