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Why the Same Inclusion Initiatives Don’t Succeed Everywhere in the World

Posted on November 30, 2017

Why the Same Inclusion Initiatives Don’t Succeed Everywhere in the World

How relevant are Western inclusion and diversity initiatives in India or China?

For global business leaders, efforts to capitalize on the benefits of diversity via inclusive practices are at an all-time high. When attempting to address diversity and inclusion issues, however, organizations based in the U.S. or Western Europe tend to focus their attention on differences in race, ethnicity, or gender, and their efforts often fall flat when exported to other parts of the world. Countries such as China and India demand attention to other factors as well.

Within both China and India one of the most daunting factors is nearly invisible to outsiders—regionalism, which is often tied to language differences. To understand this issue, it can help to think of these countries as being more like Europe (which contains numerous countries where different languages are spoken) than like Australia (one large country with a primary language).

In the multinational workplace, this regionalism can appear to outsiders as clannishness or cliquishness, and in some cases even as rudeness or unethical behavior. Here is an example that, on the surface, seems simple but required substantial effort to resolve:

The research and development arm of a major pharmaceutical manufacturer was housed on a campus several miles away from its headquarters. Most of the staff members, who hail from over 15 different countries, were scientists who spend more time thinking about chemical compounds than about nurturing relationships with colleagues.

As the staff grew and diversified, complaints about the behavior of two groups of colleagues—those from China and India—began making their way to the ears of the senior leadership team. For example, staff members mentioned that these employees sat together in small groups at lunchtime, talking animatedly and ignoring everyone else in the on-site cafeteria. Leaping to conclusions, the assumption was made that the Chinese and Indian scientists looked down upon other colleagues and therefore avoided associating with them in their free time.

What the other scientists didn’t notice was that, among the Chinese scientists, there were the northerners and the Shanghai group, and among the Indian scientists were three groups—southerners, northerners, and Gujarati.

Certainly, it is easiest to converse and socialize with those who share one’s language and culture. A close look at the diversity within China and India can shed some light on this topic.

Regionalism in China

China’s government tries to bring its population together by making the Mandarin dialect the official language, but this is perceived—and rebelled against—by some citizens as being a form of “majority privilege.” Political power, and to some extent corporate power, rest in Beijing where the local language is a variation of Mandarin. (In China, the Mandarin dialect is nowadays officially referred to as putonghua or “common language.”)

However, the province of Guangdong in southern China, for example, has a population of 108 million people—greater than any country in Western Europe—most of whom speak some variation of the Cantonese (Yue) dialect. This dialect is fairly unintelligible to speakers of other dialects without training or extensive exposure. Northerners often make fun of Cantonese people’s attempts at speaking Mandarin, occasionally quoting the old saying, “Heaven no fear. Earth no fear. Only fear Cantonese speaking Mandarin.” And some Cantonese speakers actually take pride in speaking Mandarin with a heavy accent.

Stereotypes based on regional differences in culture and language abound. Northerners tend to think that Southerners are slick and overly emotional. Southerners think the Northerners are humorless and stodgy. There are many other regional differences within China as well. Shanghai, for example, is located smack in the middle of China’s eastern coast. The people of Shanghai, like those of Guangdong, speak a variation of a regional dialect (Wu) that is unintelligible to speakers of other dialects. They’ve formed their own identity as being cosmopolitan and outward oriented, while others around the country may portray Shanghai natives as arrogant and boastful, regarding them with a mix of wariness and envy.

Regionalism in India

As one Chinese person remarked, “India makes China look downright homogeneous!”

The government of India has taken a different approach to managing language and regional differences. The Constitution of India acknowledges 22 different languages, including Hindi, which is spoken by over 30 percent of the population. English is also used in certain official settings and—despite its association with former colonizers—sometimes now serves as a neutral unifier.

A particular challenge for India is that its language base is drawn from two distinct language families: Dravidian (in the south) and Indo-Aryan (in the north). The writing systems among India’s many languages are varied, and one often sees signs written in three or more different writing systems. Most of China, on the other hand, shares one system of written characters, although the style of writing might not match the way a local dialect is spoken.

An additional factor in the diversity of India’s population is the presence of adherents of many of the world’s religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Historically these differences, while contributing to India’s cultural richness, have also led to violent confrontations and even the volatile partition between India and Pakistan.

Effects on the Workplace

Both within China and India, as well as when their citizens live in other parts of the world, “cliques” tend to form based on dialects and regional identity. Information is often shared with clique members, even at the expense of the smooth functioning of the person’s own department. Several people in a meeting might be excluded from an important discussion that takes place in a regional dialect or language. Employees who find themselves the sole representatives of a regional group can feel excluded—or, at worst, harassed—to the point that they resign from the company. In China, entire groups of employees have been known to leave a company to follow a departing manager who shares their dialect or regional identity.

Here are some tips for minimizing the negative effects of regionalism:

  • Purposefully create diverse teams.
  • Facilitate communication among team members until open discussions occur spontaneously.
  • Make sure that all incentives, monetary and otherwise, serve to reinforce teamwork.

One example of the latter suggestion is the factory in China that posted monthly team results according to a variety of metrics on a wall near the lobby for all to see. Many managers take their teams to lunch at least a couple of times each month in order to build trust and strengthen teamwork.

As for the case of the pharmaceutical manufacturer, intercultural consultants were hired to initiate a diversity discussion among the workers and scientists. The employees from China and India who had been causing such offense and paranoia in the cafeteria were stunned. From their perspective, they simply had enjoyed relaxing during lunchtime by speaking in their own languages and talking about preferred subjects. (For many of the employees from India, for example, favorite topics included cricket, Bollywood, and Indian politics.) Once the employees from China and India became aware of how other employees felt, they vowed to make more effort to integrate and socialize.

Lessons on Fostering Inclusiveness

In order to capitalize on diversity and foster an inclusive workplace, it is important to look beyond our own culturally-based assumptions and open our minds to other possibilities on a country-by-country (or culture-by-culture) basis.

  • Be curious about national and regional cultures; investigate what diversity means to others.
  • Ask local people about best practices for creating an inclusive workplace within their cultural context.
  • Make sure senior management team members are role models for inclusive attitudes and behavior.
  • Employ appropriate teambuilding techniques for domestic as well as multinational work groups.

While of course differences will continue to exist across national boundaries and attract our attention, it is also important to recognize the contrasting ways that various countries signal and describe differences within their borders and among their own people.

The Inclusive Behaviors Inventory assesses an individual’s inclusivity strengths and blind spots and provides a platform to develop practical steps for improvement. Individual employees can move from learning about their own biases to becoming inclusion champions within their organizations, and ultimately drive business results more effectively on a global scale.

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