Human Factors in Diverse Teams

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We’re the same but different.

I like to remind people that “we’re pretty much the same, you and me.” 

Are we? Yes, in the same way that two computers with similar specifications are pretty much the same. If they have identical hardware and identical operating systems, they’re very much the same. But they don’t stay that way.  Over time, the way they interact with the world changes as we install different applications and they accumulate different data.

You can decide if you like this metaphor, but people are alike and different in much the same way as computers. In the absence of education and experience, we all have a reasonably similar set of capabilities. As we grow, learn, and socialize, those capabilities and the way interact with the world changes. At this level, we become more and more different, you and me.

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede, an IBM researcher and professor, conducted groundbreaking research into national and organizational cultures. Our natural cultures can be a very strong source of some of the differences between you and me while our organizational cultures have a less permanent effect on how we think and behave. Hofstede defined culture as, “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.” He and his colleagues identified the relatively independent variables that describe the differences and similarities between national cultures. 

Space does not permit us to dive deeply into Hofstede’s model, but we can look at one of the dimensions as an example. Hofstede identified “power distance” as one of the independent variables which describe national culture. Power distance expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This element of national culture has a practical application in understanding interactions in organizational settings. There is an free tool to compare the national cultures of countries that interest you here:

Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is a leading theorist of organizational culture models. Schein’s model can be used to describe organizational culture as a function of three dimensions.

  1. Artifacts – These are specific, visible realities. They range from published mission and vision statements, to dress codes, to expected behaviors in meetings and office parties.
  2. Values – This is the set of beliefs, imperatives, and principles that individuals in the organization are expected to share and enact in their daily activities. They are overtly communicated and formally or informally reinforced by the organization’s leaders.
  3. Assumed values – These are beliefs and facts which generally hidden but affect the culture of the organization. They are closely tied to human nature and our natural responses to the internal and external organizational environment. As the elements of the organization’s personality which are not discussed, they can be very hard to describe. Most of the time, people follow the social norms based on assumed values without a second thought. But when somebody violates the norms that arise from them, everybody recognizes the violation.

What does all of this mean on a practical, daily basis? How can we apply these theories? First, recognize that these cultural characteristics are generalizations. Every person is different. But on the most basic, operating system level, they’re about the same as you and me. Second, recognize that cultural differences need not be mysterious. They can be understood. Do a little homework. When you are working with people from other cultural backgrounds, try to understand how they might see things differently than you do. Their way of interacting might be different from yours. Think about how your behavior might be viewed through their cultural lens. The better we become at understanding how we are different, the clearer it will become that we’re not so different, you and me.