Understanding And Leveraging Diversity And Cultural Differences

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The dawn of democracy in the early 90s in South Africa heralded the transformation agenda fundamental to the building of a just and equitable post-apartheid state, and as Jammine (2009) observes it is safe to say that the concept of transformation has become the central reference point that provides the momentum for the rebuilding of the South African state from its apartheid ruins.

Government had passed various laws to stimulate the diversification of the labour force (Employment Equity Report, 2001). Likewise, the South African labour market has increasingly integrated previously disadvantaged groups at all levels of the organisation though according to Düweke (2004) it is a slow and arduous task to bring equitable processes into parity within an organisation as a result of resistance and what she calls "new racism".

Increasing globalisation in the 90s

The democratisation of South Africa coincided with increasing globalisation. Globalisation counts up to the challenge of diversity management as South African organisations scramble for the advantages brought about by the opening up of the economic borders. For instance, due to the increase in trade between South Africans and Chinese, it has become essential for South African organisations to understand Chinese business negotiation styles and behaviours as well as determinants of cross-cultural negotiations (Horwitz, Hemmant, & Rademeyer, 2008). South African companies do not only have to contend with the many cultures across national boundaries but also within their organisations (Nkosi, 2007 & Nyama, 2009).

Workforce Diversity in South Africa

Managing South Africa's highly diverse workforce and integrating the previously disadvantaged groups at all levels of the company is not always easy. More and more black talent is job-hopping as a direct result of culture clash, stifling corporate cultures and hostile environments (Ngobeni cited in Zulu & Parumasur, 2009).

To democratise the workplace the South African government came with legislation such as the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995, the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 and the Promotion of Equality, Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act 5 of 2000 and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000 (Employment Equity Report, 2001).

Though these laws are clear in their intentions to encourage equality in the workplace, business is still lagging behind in diversity management, and employees do not believe that their companies have done enough to employ and promote previously disadvantaged groups as envisaged in labour legislation indicating a serious need for managers to walk the talk (Zulu & Parumasur, 2009)

The Case for Workforce Diversity

Marginalising the majority from key sectors of the economy, organisational control and management is both unjust and unsustainable. Likewise, women account for 52% of the population, yet only 7% of South African directors are female, 3% of chairs of boards are female, and 2% of CEOs are female. (Commission for Employment Equity Report, 2010). Levin and Matis (2007) report a gloomy picture in the United States. Duweke (2004) believes the implementation of employment equity is the key to trun this situation around.

Monolithic companies are losing out from the business and organisational qualities and the innovation of women and Africans (Zulu & Parumasur, 2009; & Davidson, 2009). Levin and Matis (2007:60) building a business case for the inclusion of women list the following reasons: women constitute the largest segment of the increasingly diverse US labour pool; Women are a highly educated group from which corporate America will need to recruit and develop future leadership; women have had a leading edge role in transforming the American workplace; the lessons companies learn from managing gender diversity will serve them well in developing initiatives to manage other forms of diversity; and women continue to be the primary buyers of consumer products.

Moreover, a more diverse workforce is likely to take advantage of the fact that there seems to be significant differences in how different racial groups perceive product and service value and quality (Terblanche & Boshoff, 2010:6).

Despite more and more South African companies beginning to see the value of a gender equality and social justice 16 years into the country's democracy has done nothing to change the status quo. White men still monopolise top management positions, and "are recruited, trained and promoted more" than any other group (Employment Equality Commission Report, 2010).

Conceptual Framework

2.1. Culture

Social anthropologists see culture as the qualities of any specific human group that are passed from one generation to another (Kotter & Heskett, 1992) mainly as a response to the inevitable vicissitudes of social life that galvanise social solidarity (Hofstede,1983).

Segall, Dasen, Berry, and Pootinga (1999) define culture as one's learnt behaviour that is passed on from generation to generation via mechanism of socialisation such as parents, mass media, and the school system.

From the above definitions it appears as if culture has to do with the group's belief system, knowledge structure, and the way of doing things as relayed from generation to the next through both enculturation and as a response to external threats.

2.2. National Culture

McSweeney (2002:89) begin his critique of Hofstede's legendary National Culture Model with the rhetorical question: Do nations have cultures? Hofstede and Peterson (2000:401) believe nations have a culture and further define the dimensions that define such a culture:

Power Distance - the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

Uncertainty Avoidance - intolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

Individualism versus Collectivism - the extent to which individuals are integrated into groups

Masculinity versus Femininity - assertiveness and competitiveness versus modesty and caring.

Although McSweeney (2002) finds Hofstede's Model of National Culture as profoundly problematic, Schein (1985) and Pettigrew (1979; 1990) had earlier confirmed the existence of a national culture noting that it is influenced by the following: dominant religion, political system, economic development, social factors, class structure, and education systems. These factors will, in turn, influence how business people across cultures conduct business (see table 2 below).

2.3. Organisational Culture

Every business has its way of doing things or, aptly, its culture. There are many definitions of organisational culture and this essay will use Schein's (1985:9) definition: "pattern of basic assumptions...that have worked well enough to be considered valuable and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems". This definition sees organisational culture as something that the organisation "possesses" and must be passed on to new members through mechanisms such as training, organisational stories, rituals, legends, and symbols (Schein, 1985).

Notwithstanding Schein's description, new and old members also bring to the organisation their values and beliefs that can be shared by members of the organisation (Tsosa, 2008). According to Tsosa (2008) the dominant culture is often the stumbling block for business strategy, change, and innovation, as it is mainly used to inform employees of what is expected in terms of rewards and sanctions (Wilkins, 1983:35).

The power of organizational culture as a source of positive energy and synergy as well as organisational functioning is recognized. Pettigrew (1990) argues that organisational culture leads to, amongst others, coherence and consistence; and in an earlier study he observed that organisations use culture to legitimise authority (Pettigrew, 1979). Nonetheless, Morrison, Brown and Smit (2008:34) differ albeit slightly: "If the culture of the organization is too bureaucratic, hierarchical, and internally-focused, for instance, project management will hardly produce the results organizations hope for." Table 1 below gives the dimensions of organisational culture within the context of managing projects.

Table 1: Dimensions of the organizational culture


Orientation that is supportive of project management

Organizational direction

Presence of longer-term strategic direction that is shared across the organization.

Competitiveness orientation

Focus on the market and external environment as opposed to an internal, product-focused orientation.

Decision making rationale

Fact-based, rational as opposed to serving personal political interests.

Cross-functional integration

Well-integrated, comfortable with teamwork as opposed to a departmental (working in silos) focus.

Communication philosophy

Open and transparent in all directions, information is freely available.

Locus of decision-making

Well-decentralized and delegated as opposed to highly centralized.

People management style

Participative, supportive (leader-oriented) as opposed to a directive, command and control style (manager-oriented).


Flexible, innovative, and open to change as opposed to rigid, bureaucratic and resistant to change.

Philosophy about people

Theory Y (warm personal atmosphere) as opposed to Theory X (coercive, task only atmosphere).

Personal competency

Oriented towards specialized training and personal excellence.

Process and systems support

Oriented towards providing standardization and support through strong processes and


Performance management

Oriented towards a proactive, performance-driven culture as opposed to a reactive or laissez faire approach to tasks and goals.

Adapted from Morrison, Brown and Smit (2006:43)

There is a body of evidence suggesting that these cultural dimensions act as both a beacon for employees in organisations and an input in an organisation financial performance (Tsosa, 2008 & Nkosi, 2007). Davidson (2009), studying a South Africa investment bank, reports a tepid relationship between the financial performance and organisational culture.

2.4. Culture and inter-group dynamics

Samochowieca and Florackb (2010) report a strong correlation between intergroup contact and anxiety and uncertainty that implies that the solution to intercultural and diversity management is anxiety-reduction measures. Collie, Liu, Podsiadlowski and Sara Kindon (2010:147) advocate participatory action research (PAR) processes that "challenge social inequalities and support people sitting outside seats of power to seek social change to address issues affecting their lives".

Table 2: Intercultural Negotiations Styles


Objective, efficient and competitive negotiators

Prefer informality, rationality and detailed contracts


Emphasis on harmony, cooperation, conformism, and long-term business perspective

Latin Americans

More outgoing and emotional ; Little or no mixing of business with pleasure; The relative unimportance of work; Recognition of social and ethnic distinctions, respect accorded the "Patron" ; Titles & protocol important

Western Europeans

Low context Europeans emphasize objectivity in business dealings, focusing on contracts. "plain talking", and efficiency ; Medium context nations put more emphasis on relationships, trust, less on lawyers; Key aspects: like procedures, titles; negotiate many points simultaneously; legal contracts part of relationship; looser negotiating postures

Eastern Europeans

Cautious, tough, and disciplined negotiators; Focus on general agreements; Relationships built on after-hours socializing; Still cautious about western profit motives (though changing)

Middle Easterners

Religion (Islam) is paramount; social relationships are all-important; Avoid conflict situations; Many social formalities and courtesies; hereditary aristocracy are 'men of respect'

Adapted from Samochowieca and Florackb (2010); Palmer & Varner (2007) and Horwitz, Hemmant, & Rademeyer (2008).


According to Fouche, De Jager and Crafford (2004:7) diversity is "race, gender, age, language, physical characteristics, disability, sexual orientation, economic status, parental status, education, geographic origin, profession, lifestyle, religion, position in a company hierarchy, and any other differences

Benefits of Workforce Diversity

Typically the goal behind business strategy is to capture new technologies, increase market share, gain a competitive advantage, and ultimately optimise profits. Nyama (2009) reported that cultural diversity, as influenced by religion, race, gender, education, upbringing, and language, has a positive effect on the working relationship of various groups. Roberge and Van Dick (2010) note that the team members' greater variety of perspectives improves creativity and innovation.

Roberge and Van Dick (2010:300) further warn that diversity, if poorly managed, is likely to reduce intra-group cohesiveness leading to tensions and squabbles which, in turn, can lower employee satisfaction, citizenship behaviours and increase turnover. Che Rose, Kumar, Abdullah and Yeng Ling (2008:54) reveal that "companies that know how to develop their cultures in an effective way most probably have the benefit of advancement in productivity and the quality of work life among the employees".

Internationalisation and Global Diversity

Global diversity in the workplace is a mix of people skills and cultures that enable a range of viewpoints to challenge traditional thinking (Palmer & Varner, 2007). Though the composition of corporate boards of multinational giants has not kept up with the increased focus on global operations in the USA, they are beginning to value diversity (Palmer & Varner, 2007).

Section B: Personal Reflection

Do you think there are much cultural differences in your immediate work environment? Substantiate your answer by providing examples.

My organization is the Hospital Association of South Africa (HASA), an industry association which represents the collective interests of the majority of private hospital groups and independently-owned private hospitals in the Republic of South Africa (www.hasa.co.za).

As a representative of the industry it is imperative that HASA is diverse. Lack of diversity remains the Achilles heel of the association, nonetheless. HASA's Board of Directors is drawn from the industry where blacks and women are still under-represented. The Board of Directors of 17 members has only one woman and four black males. The Hasa office comprise of a Chief Executive (white male), two executive officers (one white women and one black male) and the administrators are women (one black and two whites).

What kinds of challenges/problems exist with being exposed to cultural differences?

Most of the challenges that emanate as a direct result of cultural interaction are mainly related to communication especially on a personal level. Factors like context including small talk and jokes are generally culture-specific. More often one may be accused of being distant and humourless as a result of not finding something that a colleague thinks funny. This may cause anxiety and uncertainty that may stifle relationships beyond working.

Is it more important to pay attention to cultural differences or similarities? Motivate your response. What are the similarities and differences?

It is essential to understand the nuances that come with cultural diversity. Paying attention to cultural differences allows one not only to appreciate the "other" culture but also to understand and work well with others. Culture is interactive and influences how we relate to others. It helps one to listen better to what "others" are saying, read between the lines, which may encourage mutual trust amongst colleagues. In turn, paying more attention to other's cultural differences may open one's eyes to the many similarities between cultures. For instance, there are many similarities that relate effective communication, similar goals or interests, or comparable ways of seeing the world.

I find that personal responsibility cuts across cultures. Nonverbal communication tends to be similar as compared to the obvious accents in verbal communication. The major differences between the male and female staff are that the latter tend to value work-family balance more than the former. Males are likely to leave the workplace way after knocking off time as compared to the female staff. Again male staff are likely to extend their working relationships beyond the confines of the office.

Africans may find eye contact uncomfortable which is contrary to the corporate culture based on the dominant western culture. In western cultures not maintaining eye contact may be interpreted as a sign of low self esteem or dishonesty. African cultures see this as a sign of respect.

Do you make any specific efforts to find out more about the different cultures in your organization? Please provide some examples that are organization specific.

Of course, I am always on the lookout for more ways to appeal to our Directors and members, and this can only be achieved by being culturally sensitive. For instance, I ensure that when the office organizes events all cultures are accommodated. For instance, some cultures find it uncomfortable to meet on a Friday afternoon.

I find that other cultures prefer an elaborate way of showing affection such as hugging and kissing. For me a simple hand shake will do. Well, though Africans may prefer an elaborate and lingering handshake, the English and Afrikaans handshake is fleeting.

Depending in upbringing colleagues usually has different tastes when it comes to sports and entertainment. I make an effort to understand this from their perspective that means also visiting the same restaurant, for instance. During or after hours we try to alternate restaurant. A colleague has a choice to choose a restaurant (or entertainment) for the rest of the staff. This helps us learn about all the different cultures in the country and what makes each other tick.

Hofstede's (2005) Dimensions within my organisation

Individualism vs. Collectivism - I believe in collective leadership and solidarity more than my white colleagues. They tend to value more individual responsibility and reward.

Power distance - most Africans in our association distaste ranks and titles as compared to our white colleagues

Masculinity vs. femininity - though I value competition it is subordinate to the team. I found my colleagues, though mainly female, to exhibit more masculine values.

Uncertainty - situation with clear rules is preferred to a more ambiguous one by almost all the cultures. We are more tolerant of risk.

Do you try to adapt your communication to people from different cultures? Provide some examples.

An approach that is culturally-sensitive means appreciating other people's ways of communicating, and applying these understandings in order to enhance relationships across cultures. Most of my colleagues are expecting me to hug and had to adapt.

In your interaction with other cultures have your ever questioned your own cultural identity. Substantiate your answer with some examples.

Not at all. I believe being culturally-sensitive does not mean questioning who you are but finding ways of accommodating the "other". I take it upon myself to educate my colleagues about the nuances that define my cultural identity and they do likewise.

Section C: The New Path

Strategic Management

Business strategy is influenced by the culture of the organisation and managers should have an excellent understanding of both the organisational culture (Tsosa, 2008) and cross-national cultures (Palmer & Varner, 2007) to ensure that their organisations function optimally. In today's global economy managers need to have an informed understanding of different cultures. Despite the culture of consumerism that is important in understanding your customers and clients, each culture has its own language, boundaries, and challenges and understanding these helps the company to appeal to a broader audience.

Again, understanding cultures beyond your immediate borders is the catalyst to international business. Exposing staff across all levels of the organisation to different cultural patterns and relationships between culturally distinct groups will augur well for both business and workplace harmony.


The cultural boundaries and challenges determine how members of a culture practice economic activities, organise settlements as well as establishing rewards and punishment systems. Departments and organisations must launch training courses organized around issues of cultural diversity and sensitivity such as integration and cultural diffusion and how this influences organisational performance.

As Palmer and Varner (2007) suggested such training program must enable a range of viewpoints to challenge traditional thinking. This will reduce the job-hopping of the talent that comes from the less dominant cultures. PAR has been found to allow interaction and reduce anxiety and uncertainty amongst groups (Collie, Liu, Podsiadlowski and Sara Kindon, 2010).

Human resources must, first, obtain the support of all members of the organisation before launching the diversity training. The training will not yield the desired results if some employees don't see it as part of change management (Cavaleros, Van Vuuren and Visser, 2002). Employees are likely to embrace a diversity management programme if it is seen as driven in a democratic manner and with the genuine support of top management perhaps in some form of a diversity workplace forum (Fouche, de Jager, & Crafford, 2004; Zulu & Parumasur, 2009).

Employment Equity Measures

The biggest challenge plaguing my organisation is the lack of diversity (especially women) within our Board of Directors despite an express intention that value empowerment of the previously disadvantaged. Duweke (2004) believes a program that value employment equity is a stimulant for gender diversity. Marginalising the majority of South Africans such as woman from key sectors of the economy is both unjust and unsustainable, and so the organisation must begin to take active steps to change the status quo.

Experts in organisation behaviour must help devise a human resource strategy that is geared to attract and retain the talents of blacks and women. Organisation psychologists must investigate the organisational dynamics that ostracise these groups and prepare plans to deal with them. According to Lewis-Enright, Crafford and Crous (2009) an employment equity programme must show great potential for exposing issues in a non-confrontational manner, encouraging a participative approach to solution-seeking, appreciating the current context and setting bold objectives for the future.

A new organisational culture

To achieve its long-term goals the association, as it deals with various stakeholders including the government and the public, must adapt or perish. There is a strong need to appeal to all South Africans to capitalize on the new opportunities brought about by the emerging black middle class and women's increasing buying power.

Organisational culture is likely to reflect hierarchical power and strategy as well as what is important for the organisation (Tsosa, 2008) but what is important for the organisation changes with the whims that come with the changing national culture (Holfstede, 2001). As espoused by Farrer, (2004) the new culture should be designed to link diversity to organisational performance.

Adopt a culturally-sensitive communication strategy

Every culture is reflected in communication, and there is a need to investigate a way of communication that is sensitive to all stakeholders of the association. Unlike in other sectors, it is hard to divorce cultural diversity (or lack) from the healthcare specific challenges such as the belief that healthcare costs are high already because those at the top (read white capitalist) are not sensitive to the needs of the poor (read blacks).

It will be interesting to learn how hospital owners negotiate this conundrum as users of healthcare facilities are likely, though incorrectly, to interpret high prices in a racial way. Left unresolved, this paradox will inspire critics of private health. But a culturally-sensitive communication strategy is likely to engender a more inclusive image thus protecting the business interests of the association. Including cultural diversity awareness in all organizational communications, both formal and informal and in executive speeches and communiqués will lead to a positive image for an organisation (Vallario, 2006).

Future developments

As a result of both government legislation and the King III the next decade will see a number of changes in the field of diversity management. Despite the compulsory publication of workplace transformation figures, companies will have to link diversity and business strategy as there will be increased shareholder engagement on issues of diversity and sustainability.


In conclusion organisations need to see the marginalising of the majority of South Africans from key sectors of the economy not only as both unjust and unsustainable but also as unsustainable. As it is companies are not benefiting from the business virtues of women and Africans. Establishing plans to nourish the strengths of different individuals in the workplace are essential to an organisation's potential, strategy and financial performance. Fortunately, more and more South African companies are beginning to see the value of diversity in the workplace.

The industry must heed Roberge and Van Dick (2010:300) warning and implement diversity management correctly and for the right reasons to avoid tensions and squabbles which, in turn, can lower employee satisfaction, citizenship behaviours and increase turnover. The right way is to ensure training and PAR to raise awareness on cultural diversity.