Creating An Inclusive Culture in a Global Organization

We must recognize that DEI is not the same everywhere.

people working

How do you say "diversity" in Japanese?

A few years ago, I was in Denmark running a workshop to support ongoing change management initiatives for a client. Many of the participants were HR professionals working to deploy diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives across their global organization.

During the change workshop, one participant from Japan admitted he was struggling with the initiative. He understood why DEI was important, but he was uncertain about how to talk about DEI with his colleagues or implement the initiative in his own country of Japan. He felt challenged to convey the importance of diversity within his organization when it did not contain the cultural variety seen in other countries.

Unlike many parts of the world, Japan is a fairly homogeneous society. There is not a diverse range of people from many different ethnic backgrounds. In North America or Europe, the cultural diversity within an organization is obvious when we enter a meeting or walk through the offices. We may look at a group and see people of Latino, African and Asian descent working together, for example. There are likely both men and women present; people from across different age groups or generations; and so forth. Some of these differences are visible and some are not. But in Japan, the visual cues that convey cultural diversity are less obvious.

His dilemma highlights the challenge that many global organizations face when implementing DEI initiatives. It is important for organizations to be diverse and to welcome people with different backgrounds who bring different ideas to the group. We want people to feel as if — regardless of where they come from or who they are — they are treated equitably. They need to be comfortable that their ideas carry weight during internal dialogues and help shape the thinking of the business. Those who want to participate in these interactions need to feel that they are a part of the organization.

While this basic philosophy is generally understood, one challenge of DEI initiatives arises from how they vary at each organization and how they are applied. In the United States, we expect to see diversity represented visually in a meeting or when we assemble a leadership team. In other countries, you may not see the same images reflecting diversity. There may be other, more subtle variations that are based on such factors as longstanding cultural, tribal or language differences among people.

Regional disparities in culture mean organizations cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to DEI. "Particularly when managing global teams, employees' implicit values and beliefs can lead to misunderstandings and tension," J. Yo-Jud Cheng and Boris Groysberg wrote in the Harvard Business Review about their study of global corporate cultures. "For example, when eliciting participation in meetings and conference calls, managers should consider whether potential differences in culture may drive participants to reserve comments until their opinions are specifically solicited or whether they might offer their views voluntarily."

From this view, the meaning of DEI at a global level can be quite different from its connotations in various parts of the globe. DEI is not a singular objective that can be achieved solely from the perspective of what we all may see or experience in our own culture or own country. Rather, it is a set of values and principles that have to be talked about in an organization and internalized, perhaps uniquely and differently in each culture.

DEI issues result from perceptions of differences that form the basis of a barrier or a boundary within groups of people. This can create a culture where people feel uncomfortable, are unable to be themselves or perceive that they are unable to contribute. They do not necessarily feel psychologically or socially safe within that environment.

The solution is not simply a matter of coming up with more rules and dogmas to address those perceptions and discomforts. Creating an inclusive culture requires us to take a broader view of the challenge.

"Regardless of leaders' specific goals and ambitions, making an active effort to understand and acknowledge the cultures that operate within the organization is a critical undertaking for effective management in today's global environment," Cheng and Groysberg wrote.

I believe that was the root of the struggle my Japanese colleague in Denmark faced. He interpreted his company's DEI initiative to be a certain set of rules and expected outcomes. The organization said, "We want to see a racially-diverse group of people sitting comfortably around the table together, contributing equally." However, he knew he would not see that in Japan, so he was unsure how to apply DEI when he returned home.

His dilemma should not imply that DEI is irrelevant within his culture. Instead, we need to take a step back and ask a broader question: "What does DEI look like in Japan?" Most of the people do not look that different from each other, but differences do exist (such as between men and women in the workforce). Thus, if I think about what diversity, inclusion and equity mean in Japan, it may have little to do with racial diversity. Instead, DEI may be more about allowing both men and women to contribute in an equitable way and about making everyone feel they are part of the team.

We only back up and ask ourselves larger, more comprehensive questions when we realize that the typical approach to DEI does not align with the circumstances that exist in certain places. We must recognize that DEI is not the same everywhere. When we start by asking, "What does DEI really mean in this particular place or situation?" we can better uncover how to apply DEI locally and foster diversity in all parts of the organization.

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