Anticipating and interpreting cultural differences
Students engage in frank exchanges during Johnson’s interactive diversity training
In a world where cross-cultural and international work teams are increasingly ubiquitous, cultural assumptions are questioned, and respect for individual differences is paramount, how can you improve your awareness and understanding of individual and cultural differences as well as your own biases, and reduce the likelihood of committing cultural gaffes that could put a strain on interpersonal working relationships?
At Johnson, discussing differences and sharing points of view with your cohorts is the place to start, and that’s just what first-year residential MBA students did as part of their orientation here on August 10. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) hosted two innovative diversity training sessions: In the first session, Craig Storti of Craig Storti & Associates, focused on the impact of cultural differences and how business is conducted in other cultures, punctuating his presentation with humorous, germane anecdotes. Next, actors from CSW Global Associates, Inc. tackled issues of diversity and cross-cultural awareness in the business environment as part of an interactive theatre, which included audience commentary and questions led by facilitator Connie Wong, shared observations gleaned from small group discussions, and questions, answers , and observations between audience members and the actors, who stayed in character throughout the session.
In both interactive sessions, students were directed to form small groups, as diverse as possible in every respect – a process that in itself generated joking and cajoling, smiles, welcomes, and introductions. Storti asked groups to confer on several categories of cultural assumptions – including attitudes toward risk, management style, and direct or indirect communication styles – and rate where their cultures’ tendencies fall in each. The result was telling: Assessments of attitudes in the U.S. consistently fell on the opposite side of the spectrum from other cultures. “Right siders need to understand how left siders think,” said Storti. “Here at Cornell, in a class that is 35 percent international, these cultures and attitudes are all represented in your classmates. You are incredibly fortunate to be able to take advantage of learning from each other.”
In her preamble to the interactive theater performance, Wong asked students: “What’s the most challenging diversity issue leaders face today in your culture or country?” The overwhelming response placed culture, and especially, understanding cultural differences, at the top of the list. As part of a larger discussion about how to determine if race is a factor in feedback, students identified specific words and phrases that indicate “coded language” pertaining to various distinct groups. After watching actors role-play several scenes that revealed the work relationships and attitudes among a team of corporate executives, the audience shared perceptions of the tenor, underlying assumptions, and inherent equity of these interactions. In response to the facilitator’s question, “do you have to manage people’s perceptions?” one student said, “Yes, you do, especially in a corporate environment. You have to take action to connect with people who have a certain perception of you, and in certain environments, you have to confirm regarding appearance and behavior.”
Throughout, the questions raised were tangible and provocative, and the discussion elicited was frank, engaging, lively, informative, enlightening — at times, heated, and at times, provoking wry humor.
“This is the beginning of the discussion,” concluded facilitator Wong, at the end of the interactive theater’s performance and discussion. “Race is not a U.S. thing; it’s a global dynamic. As global leaders you need to understand this.”