Diversity in management classrooms is advocated not for the sake of it, but as an experience that impacts who you are and what you do in the workplace. In today’s globalized multi-cultural business environment, diversity at the workplace is common. More often than not, employees are working in teams comprising people from different countries, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, educational backgrounds etc. Such a diverse work environment can create significant challenges to overall team performance and organizational effectiveness if employees do not have adequate exposure and training to work with people from different backgrounds.
It is well known that high-performance teams require a common and shared understanding of the vision and what needs to be accomplished. Typically, organizations have one corporate language and employees who are less fluent in the language of the majority are unable to express themselves effectively and are not understood by the people who are fluent in the corporate language. This can result in these employees feeling isolated and excluded from the rest of the group, their contribution to the task at hand can suffer and overall team performance can be negatively impacted.
Diversity of languages
Beyond just the communication challenges, diversity of languages can have a deeper impact on team dynamics. Research by cognitive scientists has shown that language can shape the way we think and how we view the world. For example, in English nouns can be countable and have plurals (example, books) or be non-countable with no plurals (example, you say “two grains of rice” and not rices). Other languages like Japanese don’t make this distinction. This may cause English speakers to have a different understanding of the distinction between substances and individual objects. Exposure to people from other languages at an early age can improve the comprehension of the differences in how people think and thus prepare individuals to interact and work better in a diverse team environment.
Understanding the norms and behaviour patterns of different cultures is important to create an atmosphere of trust in the workplace. For example, Indian employees (as compared to some of their western counterparts) working in MNCs are known to have problems meeting deadlines, are generally less punctual, and have difficulty saying “NO” to tasks even if they know they will not be able to deliver on time. It can take months or years of working together before these cultural differences are understood. By then, considerable damage may have been done in the form of lost trust. Many global companies now routinely conduct cultural diversity training to change the mindset and behaviour of employees working in a culturally diverse environment in order to create an organization that is more inclusive, respectful, trustful, and ultimately more productive. The above points highlight the importance of preparing students for a diverse workplace where they have a deeper understanding and respect for the differences between people and are able to not only overcome the hurdles created by these differences but in fact, are able to use these differences to succeed in the workplace. One of our goals as educators is to prepare our students to thrive in a fast-paced, unpredictable, and fundamentally diverse and international business environment. Increased diversity in classrooms can go a long way in achieving this goal.
Despite the several challenges that diversity can create in the effective functioning of teams, it has been found that if these challenges are adequately addressed, diversity can actually enhance team performance. So, diversity in classrooms not only better prepares students for today’s workplace but also can enrich their learning experience and raise the standard of discourse in a classroom. Culture influences the way we see the world. A variety of viewpoints along with a wide-range of personal experiences can offer new perspectives that inspire students to see the world differently. Students with differing viewpoints have unique things to bring to the table, enabling more creative solutions. Diversity of thought has been shown to enhance creativity and drive innovation, helping to solve problems in new and exciting ways.
A valuable learning
Student learning can be enhanced from understanding different cultures, regional and gender differences and applying this knowledge in their courses whether it be in the production of effective marketing strategies or understanding customer needs and preferences or price sensitivity of different socio-economic categories. This is valuable learning which students can leverage in their jobs. Companies with employees who are culturally diverse can be quicker to spot a gap in the market. They will also have the market-specific insight and experience to help a new or adapted product to meet changing consumer behaviour—and succeed.
Impact of women involvement
Educational institutions need to encourage women to pursue higher studies or else they would be missing out on the talents and abilities of half of the population. Classrooms with both men and women benefit from different points of view and different life experiences. Varied perspectives trigger creativity and innovation. Having both genders on teams helps to improve processes and boosts collaboration. A field experiment conducted to estimate the impact of the share of women in management teams on their business performance showed a causal inverse u-shaped impact of the share of women in a team on the business outcomes of the team. Team performance peaked when the share of women was around 0.55. The research further suggests that this positive impact of gender diversity is caused by more intense mutual monitoring and more equal learning in gender diverse teams.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review argues, the challenges of working in a diverse team are one of the reasons why diverse teams perform better: “working on diverse teams produces better outcomes precisely because it’s harder.”
To summarize, a diverse classroom can enhance the learning experience and productivity of students in the classroom as well as make them “future-ready” for an increasingly diverse workplace.
The author is Dean, School of Management, GD Goenka University