Workplace culture has to harness cultural diversity

Cultural diversity does not imply enforcing a melting pot or values, but allowing individuals to add their values to the workplace, writes Mabila Mathebula.

Dickens and Dickens (1991) acknowledge the initial importance of affirmative action in business in these terms: “Something had to be done to initially open doors that had to been closed and create a critical mass of non-white males in organisations.

“Since most of these doors have been opened, there is a real need to advance beyond focusing on blacks, women, and other minority groups sequentially to focusing on the skills and talents of all American cultures.”

This statement was made twenty years ago by black management consultants in their book, The Black Manager: Making It in the Corporate World. These were the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Act which was passed in 1964 in the United States of America.

I would have squirmed sixteen years ago if someone said to me that: “Affirmative action is almost a dead issue. This is the age of diversity. We must become less concerned with the packaging of the resource and more concerned with the contents of the package”.

Yet this was a warning that was sounded already in 1991 by Floyd and Jacqueline Dickens. They came up with a concept called added value; those additional assets that individuals acquire as a result of belonging to a group and apply to some task or some environment.

These additional assets are the group’s unique experiences, values, behaviour, skills, and talents that have been learned and traditionally handed down from generation to generation.

Dickens and Dickens argue that different groups need to be treated in ways that pull the best from them, not the worst. They dismissed the melting pot concept as misleading and counterproductive to diversity management, because people are told assimilate.

Forced integration, in their view, does not work well. “In a melting pot, flavours lose their identity; the strongest flavour prevails… Our differences, not our commonalities, are what make us ‘special”.

Churches, however rigorous their dogmas, are increasingly accommodating the spiritual impulses of members to practice the rituals they feel a need for.

African Christianity is already very different from the charismatic brand that John Lake and others brought from the USA, which itself is different from the reformation that Luther and others drew from the medieval Catholic church.

Just as living inspiration and inspired scripture sustains religions, we need not re-write laws or rules to sustain health and safety culture. We need only to allow people to express their compliance in their own ways, and to find the compromises to allow them to do so together.

In response to an article on by Shane Lishman, on the culture of employees in the Middle East who work extra hours to receive Sheq training, I agree that we have to put the concept of added value to practice.

South Africans add different cultural values

Below are some universal cultural ‘added values’ that may seem like stereotypes, but serve to illustrate the Dickens’ concept, and begs the question of what our values, and value are as South Africans.

The Irish generally have a sense of humour. They also tend to teach neighbourliness involvement and a sense of obligation to neighbours.

The English are known for their ‘stiff upper lip’, perseverance against all odds. The words of Winston Churchill which he spoke in 1945 to high school children are worth recalling: “Never give in, never, never, never, never! In nothing great or small; large or petty. Never give in except to conviction of honour and good sense”. Despite Winston’s personal faults, he articulated national values.

The Germans are hardworking people and delight in precision.

The Blacks, because of a tradition of having limited resources with which to work, have learned how to be exceptionally good at creating something out of almost nothing, or ‘making a plan’.

The Jewish have learned to love debate and the knowledge gained from questioning and seeking answers.

The Dutch are frugal. They hate waste and value saving and investing their money.

Afrikaners are known for values that also appear in Afrikaans poetry, which centres around three themes; God, family, and the environment. They have a deep sense of loyalty and they are good at environmental management.

Xhosas are very strong-willed. Once a decision is made, you can count on them to see it through – for themselves and the organisation.

Shangaans are linguists – capable of speaking many languages. These are the people you need in communication or to man your call centre.

Vendas keep confidence. They would not let organisational secrets out, much like Swiss. These are the people you need in strategic positions because they could be trusted with confidential information.

Zulus are highly procedural people and believe in following rules, individually and collectively. These are people you need in shaping the organisational policies as well as security management.

Tswanas are like the Dutch, they are frugal. These are people who would accomplish more with a shoestring budget.

Indians are like Mexicans, they have a culture of building interpersonal relationships. They are natural in sales and have the skill of persuasion.

Coloureds are who are good at trades such as carpentry and plumbing. They also value practical skills and self-worth in others.

Culture is contagious

South African culture could be an export product, We should nurture the values to be had from our own heritage, and need not look to foreign examples. It is regrettable that South Africans tend to copy everything American.

The danger with cribbing is that one is also inclined to copy faults and transplant them into home soil, with unintended consequences.

What need we of America? I owed my first visit to the USA to affirmative action. When white employees went overseas, they had to take black counterparts along.

Where Abraham Lincoln signed the Declaration of Independence, I stood in awe at the opulence side by side with abject poverty in the land of supposed milk and honey. The USA may have failed at a task easier than our task as South Africans.

They continue to learn from the South African dream that Nelson Mandela exported to the world.

Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator. He writes on health and safety cultural issues in his private capacity.

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3 thoughts on “Workplace culture has to harness cultural diversity

  1. So incredibly true.
    With this in mind, we are now ready to open our eyes, place prejudices in the garbage bag, appreciate each and every human regardless of colour creed or gender and find a way of bridging and melding our human resources.
    Make every type of job an integral part of our living – the street sweeper, the economist, the law enforcer, the law writer, the tea maid (remember in the days of your when you arrived at work and coffee, tea, milk and sugar were on parade and a smiling face poured it our etc, keeping the area clean and tidy? –When she was on leave all heck n wreck ensues and your day has a rotten start – at that moment her job rated well amongst that of the CEOs.)
    Draw from the strengths found amongst the huge cultural diversity we have at our feet.
    I would like to say it would be wondrous if at last we can now recognise ourselves as truly South African where colour, creed, gender or religion will not impede access to work “if the cap fits, we can wear it”. Every job gives us a feeling of achievement and earnings are based on the competence of the individual as long as he/she is a round peg in a round hole, a square peg in a square hole, and is prepared to go the extra to be able to earn the extra. No automatic increases simply because the cost of living has increased! Cost of living should not increase, should it? This unfortunately we still have to overcome – not all Whites have money trees in their back yard, poverty is not restricted to Blacks and so on. Give merit to every type of legitimate pass-time that leads RSA to climb out of the “them and us” situation that is prevalent.
    Crime? That is another chapter, suffice it to say, other than the mentally disturbed type like rapists etc, criminals are adaptive, resilient, fast learners and self motivated – manage that into being productive instead of destructive. ………….

  2. Quite a number of stereotypes.
    The reference to the Church:
    The Church is a congregation/assembly, meeting of people to fellowship, worship, pray and give of themselves (time & money) It is not a building or club membership.
    The early “Church” had no set way (see Acts). The Catholic Church was modeled on the Synagogue service, but incorporated a number of other “fit in” religious fluff.
    There was a Reformation but it still retained a number of non-essentials. Historically the people who fled persecution and settled in the Cape came mostly from the Protestant community. People demographically live in different areas and the churches that are located in them are mostly made up of people from the community. Yes you might see different “flavors”, but essentially the mandate is the same. Some are dropping their affiliations with the divisions and re-aligning themselves with the purpose – The Body/Bride of Christ Jesus. You see Jesus is the Head of the Church and essentially the term can only be applied if it functions as such – A tree is known by it’s fruit.

  3. Thank you for the article. Firstly, if at all possible, please seperate religion from the discussion – it might have cultural impacts and affect the view on life and the value placed thereon – but Health and Safety should be based on scientific fact, and where insufficient evidence available, a hypothesis used to make an informed risk assessment. I take exception to some of your statements and respond accordingly:

    1. “We need only to allow people to express their compliance in their own ways, and to find the compromises to allow them to do so together.”

    This has not worked in many developing countries, hence the need for regulation and enforcement. Legislation and regulations should be based on scientific fact and international best practice. Whilst compromise can be sought, certain approaches are non-negotiable to ensure rates of disease, ill health and death are being suitably managed – yes, culturally, due to economic imperatives, certain developing countries will comprimise in areas to gain advantages – but this will come at a price – human suffering and loss. South Africa needs a rigid system of regulation and enforcement to ensure compliance – it worries me that industry could be left to its own devices.

    “Coloureds are who are good at trades such as carpentry and plumbing. They also value practical skills and self-worth in others.”

    This is a generalisation that is shocking. A person of mixed race – could be the product of a german and zulu union or a afrikaans and pakistani union – mixed race people may have many cultural infuences as a result of their parentage and ancestry. In South Africa, the term ‘Coloured’ has been used to identify a population group whose ancestry is very diverse, including indidgenous peoples such as the Khoi-San, but could include Malaysian, Indian, Dutch, German, British, Zulu, Xhosa and so forth. The term Coloured is actually frowned upon in countries such as the USA and UK. I think the generalisation you have used could lead people to believe they only make good trades people – I have met Coloured Nuclear Physicists and Rocket Scientistists amongst others who would take exception to the generalisation. Next you might say they like to laugh and drink alot.

    “The Blacks, because of a tradition of having limited resources with which to work, have learned how to be exceptionally good at creating something out of almost nothing, or ‘making a plan’.”

    Again a generalisation which if rephrased to say ‘Whites’ would be found shocking. Besides Africa is so diverse – many cultures, tribes and nations – the various tones of brown and black do not not mean everyone responds in the same way. I preferred your analysis of the various tribes/nations of South Africa, who happen to share a similar skin colour.

    “Indians are like Mexicans, they have a culture of building interpersonal relationships. They are natural in sales and have the skill of persuasion.”

    I appreciate South Africa has many people of Indian origin – but I would say that there are Cape Malays, Pakistani’s, Bangledishi’s, Sri Lankans who make up this population group. Yes Indian is the catch all term, but its a bit like the black/white debate.

    Personally, I like to think of myself as beige, or the colour of nice strong cup of tea when I’ve been in the sun.

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