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Viewpoint: How to Build Trust in a Diverse Culture

Diversity takes on different meanings and styles with each business

A crowded street with many people walking down it.

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with Chief Executive to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

When I first launched my business about 10 years ago and started working in Mexico, I noticed co-workers and friends greeting each other with a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek. So I started doing that too, as I believed it was the custom, until one day my business partner pulled me aside and said, "Can you stop hugging and kissing the receptionist every time you come into the office? I think it sends the wrong message."

I didn't understand the culture well enough to appreciate the nuances and unwritten rules. Yet, as CEO of a fast-growing multi-national company, that's exactly what I needed to learn—and fast. I not only wanted to stop sending the wrong message, but I wanted to start sending the right messages. I wanted to understand how to tap into the diverse aspects of Latino culture while staying true to the culture of my own country and business. Expanding to other geographies only increases the importance of sending the right messages that support a more open and diverse workforce.

Diversity takes on different meanings and styles with each business. At my own company, diversity means men and women working in an intellectualized environment in three different countries—the U.S., Mexico and Northern Ireland. It also means working with male and female engineers and project managers from places like Cuba, Russia, Ireland and Colombia. I have had to develop the ability to quickly build trust and relationships within cultures that I didn't yet fully understand.

"As a CEO, it's important to learn some of the basic phrases in the native languages of your employees—it shows your respect for their culture."

Every culture has its own set of primary cultural drivers. In the U.S., we tend to be driven by popularity, success and financial reward. Other regions' drivers can include family pride or community contribution. By learning these drivers and how they impact your relationships, you can build trust authentically within your company. For example, in Northern Ireland and Mexico, I learned that family units stay close together and often meet every week for a meal, and co-workers are occasionally invited to these family functions. While this is not a regular practice in the U.S., I found that joining these family meals was crucial for building trust with my colleagues.

As a CEO, it's also important to learn some of the basic phrases in the native languages of your employees—it shows your respect for their culture. Each year, I give part of my annual staff speech in Spanish to help bridge the cultural gap.

Yet, making diversity a primary goal is a fool's errand. The primary goal always needs to be centered on hiring hard-working people who want to do fantastic work. As a company grows, the landscape should become more diverse naturally. Leaders in the organization need to encourage it, speak about it and write about it, and, in the end, the message will be clear. One example of this is at NTTi3, a Silicon Valley-based innovation lab and a leader in diversity. Recently, I asked CEO Nina Simosko about how NTTi3 has cultivated a geographically and generationally diverse team from around the world.

"I've looked at diversity first as [being] defined by a diversity of approach and temperament," Nina said. "And then I look for people who are like me in terms of their commitment and work ethic. Even without race or gender as primary criteria, we still have ended up with a team who reflects the global community we serve."

Over the years, I've learned to talk openly about these awkward aspects of culture and diversity. They need to be addressed head-on to come to a solution. By doing so, you can build trust and bridge large differences that lead to better productivity, higher levels of innovation, and a more enjoyable company culture that represents every culture that makes up your business. As leaders, it's our job to put these issues on the table and hammer through them with integrity—no matter the cultural divide.

Mike Barrett is the co-founder and CEO of Unosquare LLC, providing healthcare and financial services clients with IT consulting and software engineering services from offices in the US, Mexico and Northern Ireland, UK. Mike has more than 30 years of sales and marketing experience, with 12 years in tech leadership roles with offshore and nearshore companies. Follow on twitter: @mikebarrett10 or @unosquare

This article is reprinted from Chief ExecutiveMagazine with permission. All rights reserved.


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