By IESE Insight
When we think of cultural diversity, we usually think of the diversity in our environment. We perhaps have suppliers, customers, partners or competitors from other countries. Maybe our company is a multinational corporation and we work with people from different countries — either on a daily basis, face-to-face, or in a virtual team.
Cultural diversity can also exist within a person. Multicultural individuals are those who have internalized and identify with more than one culture. The children and sometimes the grandchildren of immigrants frequently internalize and identify with more than one culture.
These multicultural employees can help international organizations operate across borders by connecting people across cultures and using complex thinking skills to solve international dilemmas.
According to research by Stacey R. Fitzsimmons, IESE professor Yuan Liao and David C. Thomas, the unique perspectives of multicultural individuals allow them to bring a different set of skills to their roles as expatriates, members of multicultural or global virtual teams, or global leaders.
“Individuals with more cultural identities were found to have more social capital and higher levels of intercultural skills than those with fewer cultural identities…,” the co-authors write in their article published in the Journal of International Business Studies.
However, organizations rarely plan to utilize multicultural employees’ skills, in part because they and their managers often fail to recognize their contributions to the workplace. So, what are the benefits of multicultural employees?
One obvious advantage of multiculturals is their language skills, which means they are able to help with translation inside or outside the workplace. In our study, we found that — in a health-care organization — multicultural employees were often asked to translate for patients informally, even though there were professional interpreters on staff.
Multicultural employees may also have better intercultural skills, such as adapting or problem-solving across cultural situations. This happens because people develop a wider range of cultural tools when they have experienced more cultures, meaning they understand values, norms, and appropriate behavior for more than one cultural context. For example, a Chinese-Canadian will be more capable of both communicating directly and speaking in an apparently more roundabout fashion, depending on his or her audience.
In addition to developing cultural tools, multiculturals also develop complex thinking skills as a result of their experience handling conflicting cultural demands. They will try to understand where each perspective comes from, the consequences and constraints, and any commonalities. Through the process of differentiating those competing perspectives and drawing links across ideas, individuals develop more complex cognitive structure and become more skillful at developing alternative strategies in intercultural interactions.
When individuals belong to multiple cultural groups, they naturally have more diverse social networks. This happens because people tend to see fellow group members favorably, and therefore develop more social ties within their cultural groups than outside them.
The process of differentiating between fellow cultural group members versus outsiders becomes difficult when individuals have three or more cultures, because the boundaries become blurry. If you have close friends who are Canadians, Spaniards and Chinese, then you are less likely to use a cultural dimension to draw a boundary between your fellow cultural group members and outsiders, and instead use other criteria to build strong social ties, such as personality, shared interests, profession and so on. As a result, your friendships are not restricted to your own cultures, but instead span a wider range of cultures.
Despite the advantages of being multicultural, there are also challenges. It is psychologically difficult to reconcile conflicting demands from multiple cultures, such as conflicting sets of values, norms, assumptions and expected behaviors. For example, a second-generation immigrant may note that the culture of her birthplace (e.g., Canada) encourages her to be independent and autonomous. In contrast, the culture of her parents’ birthplace (e.g., China) may encourage her to become the person her parents and/or her boss expects her to be.
So, when people identify with more than one culture, they are more likely to be torn by conflicting demands from their multiple identities, and may even feel inconsistent and uncertain about who they are.
An Undervalued Resource
Multicultural employees and their leaders often fail to recognize the unique contributions they can offer to their organizations. A change in the way multiculturals are seen in the workplace would result in increased confidence in their potential to make positive contributions to their organizations.
At an organizational level, a different shift should take place: from only considering cultural diversity between individuals to also considering it within individuals. Managers of multicultural employees should facilitate the transition of this growing demographic from an unrecognized entity to a valued resource.
Teammates commonly expect their multicultural team members to act as liaisons because they are more likely to have boundary-crossing social networks and additional language skills.
Although this is a valuable use of multiculturals’ skills, the co-authors caution organizations to be wary of overuse; when this expectation is added on top of employees’ usual work expectations it can cause multicultural individuals to feel overburdened.
Managers working with multicultural teams should examine the amount of time their multicultural employees spend performing liaison, coordination or translation (cultural or language) activities. They should also consider whether this role is central to their performance in their organizational context, as it would be for international hotel front-desk staff, or peripheral, as for health-care providers who may be spending their time on cultural translation tasks that would be better done by specialists.
If the time is found to be excessive, managers could either find a replacement liaison to take over some of those activities, or reduce multicultural employees’ other work expectations, compensating for these important — but often unrecognized — activities.
Methodology, Very Briefly
The co-authors carried out three studies, involving nearly 1,200 people, to test the relationship between multicultural identity patterns and personal, social, and performance outcomes at work. The first one involved multicultural students, the second was conducted among employees of a hotel chain, and the third involved workers from a healthcare organization.