Engaging Multicultural Employees
In this episode of Engaging Internal Comms, The Big Picture People’s Craig Smith talks to Shira Tabachnikoff. Shira is a Stakeholder Relations and Internal Communications Manager at ITER, an intergovernmental organisation established in 2006.
ITER involves a hugely diverse audience of 35 nations, using 40 different languages, and covering approximately 80% of the global GDP.
Shira has been with ITER for nearly three years, raising awareness of intercultural differences and ensuring all are aligned based on understanding and communication. Before this, she held senior internal communications roles at the European Food Safety Authority and the European Science Foundation. She has many years of experience of leading communications in diverse and multicultural environments, and engaging multicultural employees, which is the subject of this episode’s podcast.
Creating multicultural employees in a multicultural organisation
In large organisations in which cultures and languages differ so greatly, and so broadly across vast variations of roles and seniority, internal comms becomes a gigantic challenge. Internal comms must:
- Create awareness within employees
- Help employees understand the multicultural challenges they face in a project
- Show employees how they can adapt to not only survive, but thrive in a multicultural environment
- Help employees recognise the benefits of working with people with different backgrounds and perspectives
It is therefore hugely beneficial for such organisations to run introduction programmes and workshops to new employees. “It’s the study of behavioural change – you have to start with awareness and that’s your main objective of this induction,” says Shira.
Organisations should use this introduction to allow employees to question and identify where they may have found multicultural tension before and how they can develop and leverage from it.
Being aware of people’s differences
Communication and interpretation of an organisation’s values is a challenge even for internal comms leading an English-speaking audience. So how can internal comms of multicultural employees best tackle communicating values and ensure the audience has interpreted it as intended?
Shira discusses studies from researchers who have helped her develop workshops that can identify gaps between cultures, and how these can be bridged for multicultural employees to work in sync. Such researchers were:
- Andy Molinskey
- Erin Meyer
These researchers look at why different cultures behave differently and receive information differently – and it’s often based on their historical cultures.
Differences can include:
- History of democracy
- Economic situation and the impact it’s having on the culture
- Gender inequality
- Short or long term vision
- Detail-oriented analytical approach, or preferring ‘bottom line’
Without stereotyping and appreciating that every individual may have their own beliefs, understanding differences and why people may react differently to each other, or why they might feel uncomfortable about something, allows a more empathetic approach. Which is essential to engaging multicultural employees “I think empathy is truly the most important ingredient,” says Shira.
However, identifying gaps doesn’t always help an employee adjust to a multicultural setting. Instead, Shira believes organisations should spend resources on creating and taking ownership of their own organisational culture.
“What I’ve found really helpful is to create our own culture, so that you’re talking to people about how they can best adapt, but then you have to give them something to adapt to,” Shira explains. “It’s not as easy as saying, oh, you’re an American and you’re going to go work in France.”
With employees often coming from international careers, they may have a good knowledge of the culture of their new location. It’s getting everybody to work in unison that is the challenge, and the most effective way to do this is to create a common ground for everyone to adapt to, allowing self-awareness of each individual and appreciating colleagues’ personal perspectives.
Defining values in a mutual context
To create an organisational culture to which all multicultural employees can adjust to, an organisation should set clearly defined values, such as:
- Team spirit
Whilst all these values can be agreed by all cultures positively, an organisation must then consider how to integrate them into behaviour; and take onboard how they may be interpreted. For example, one individual may view the value of honesty as exposing every honest feedback truth as critical, whereas another individual may see this type of honesty as disrespectful and deliver it differently.
Internal comms people must create time and space for employees to discuss how they interpret meaning, and then figure a way they can agree to deliver accordingly.
Having these values in place allows for different individuals and cultures to work as a dedicated team with agreed cultural values. This sometimes requires adjustments from employees so they can collaborate and enjoy the values harmoniously.
The result will be a feeling of belonging amongst multicultural employees, who bring their own values to the table while equally appreciating and welcoming others.
Challenges of internal comms
Internal comms must ensure that such values are not set merely as a box ticking exercise. They must be respected and believed in by all in the organisation.
Shira emphasises how crucial it is for internal comms not to defend senior management who are not practising the values themselves. Doing so will cause hugely damaging effects throughout the organisation, with employees expecting internal comms to be little more than propaganda.
Instead, internal comms must protect the values to ensure employees feel safe, supported, and listened to confidentially. This will allow communication to flow. However, to thrive in the most successful multicultural organisations, employees must be led by role models in senior management.
Summing up engaging multicultural employees
The values promoted in a multicultural organisation are values that should be enjoyed by all organisations, no matter their size or cultural ‘differences’. There are many key attributes that an employee can maintain in a successful multicultural organisation. These help them become better individuals and teams throughout a positive and enjoyable career. Shira concludes:
“Most people have such good intentions, they just sometimes don’t know how to channel them, or they’re blocked. They don’t understand why someone is different than they are. And I think culture is one aspect, that there’s so many different things that make us different.
“Understanding how to help people overcome those things and work together with people with all different sorts of backgrounds and values is really something that I’ve learned so much by doing these workshops, and the ability to just listen and hear it and give kind of nudges, or give a little bit of an awareness of where that might be that helps them develop on their own.”