(Leslie D’Gama was a high school teacher for 21 years, a highly acclaimed corporate trainer with IL&FS Education for the next 13 years and now manages a software development centre at Kolkata for a South East Asian company, in between bouts of training for the last 4 years. His views are purely based on his personal experiences rather than any systematic study or research. He holds an M.A. in English, a B.Ed, a Diploma from ISTD, a certificate from Scottish Qualification Authority and is an accredited FIRO-B® practitioner – all of which he claims have added marginal value compared to his direct experiences.)

One of my first real experiences with diversity, when in a position of control, was when, as a teacher, I was asked to take a severely disabled young child with cerebral palsy into my classroom. It took me almost a year of regular study and training at the Spastics Society to prepare for this inclusive classroom. Continued reorientation of other teachers, parents and students resulted in this young child entering a mainstream high school with several unfamiliar requirements for both teachers and fellow students. Today this young man has not only passed through school with fairly decent percentages, not only is he a successful entrepreneur but he is also the father of a so-called normal child who is about to be admitted in the same school. Several years later, I struggled with the learnings from that experience – did we admit that boy as an experiment? Why did we all go through such a rigorous training to prepare the ground for that boy? Now that we have seen the fruit of mainstreaming a child who might have otherwise continued to go to a special school with other special children – what have we learnt?

What I have learnt is that people are differently abled but can reach the same goals in different ways. Will the mainstream workers go through rigorous orientation to take care of the differently abled? Will the organization reset the processes and goals for such a person? What if the differences are not so obvious – like a worker who behaves differently from the rest? Are we then prepared to reorient our understanding to make space for this person? And what about the orientation that HR Managers need to undergo?

The next big experience was, as a corporate training manager, we necessarily had to work with individuals from all walks of life. At an overhaul of the training for a major bank, my team had to work with in-service trainees from across the country. So in one training room of 40-50 trainees, there would be perhaps 20-30% women, a completely heterogeneous mix of people from different states, multiple languages being spoken as native tongues, at least 3-4 religions or sub-religions. If one had to delve deeper there would be a confusing mix of ability levels too. Most people love to call this “unity in diversity” or “nationalism at its best” or other such well-meant and totally useless epithets. Totally useless because at the end of the training day, the behaviour expected and laid down in the learning objectives, is standardized, not customized. So, the trick was to find one-size-fits-all training methods and vary examples, names of people and case studies to suit a wider range of participants. I spent 12 years working with facilitators across the country who in their turn would work in upwards of 12 languages to achieve similar learning outcomes – and we did. What did we learn?

Our workplaces are hotbeds of diversity – readymade for misunderstanding, confusion and miscommunication. While the aims and objectives may be the same, the last mile training was necessarily customized to get the best out of each participant at that venue. Like McDonald’s. No matter which country or state within the country they enter, they will create a local menu to attract and cater to the local palate – hence, McVeggies, Chicken Nuggets, Tikka burgers, Maharaja Mac in India, while the original Big Mac Beef Burger sits happily on your plate in Europe or USA.

In a more recent role, I manage a team of more than 35 software developers from different disciplines, all working on common products for a company headquartered in South East Asia. One glance at the roster will raise the warning flag! We have people from South, North, East and West India, alongside Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Indonesian, Malaysian nationals and perhaps a few other nationalities I haven’t encountered yet.

Some of our local engineers are very conscious of the clock – they need to leave on time, very often with good reason! In a recent visit here, our overseas engineers kept looking at the clock too – they were concerned about the time spent as it has an impact on the overall cost of the product. They expressed surprise that our guys focus on priorities which are different to theirs. In a recent example, a couple of the local guys did not work for a few hours because they were “hurt” at the tone in which they were addressed. The leads from overseas, using the most unreliable device, the telephone, had apparently spoken harshly – a process they found normal as they wanted to save time and get the job done! It took a lot of explaining at the managerial level, to impress on both sides that (a) you need to be polite and considerate at all times because you are from different ethnic races, and (b) you don’t strike work merely because you are feeling upset.

It will take a fair bit of reminding and reinforcement to impress on all that miscommunication will happen due to language barriers, differences in cultural expectations and emotional quotients. And above all, differences in managerial and leadership styles need to be understood and acted upon.
Add to this the preconceived notions and prejudices which are usually expressed in terms like “All Indians are …”, or “Women … “, or “The Chinese people …” – and you can see an explosive mixture in the making. Or we could talk about managerial prejudices which manifest themselves in highly varied management styles, leading to behavioural diversity within the organization.

One of the interesting researches I came across which addresses this is the work done by Geert Hofstede on Cultural Dimensions https://geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html

In his research Hofstede concludes that various nations have fairly well developed attitudes to six dimensions which distinguish the general nature of the people of that country. On the website I have mentioned, there are tools where different cultures can be compared and contrasted according to Hofstede’s studies. In later research he has gone on to study Organizational Culture along similar dimensions to understand the manner in which members of an organization relate to each other, their work and the outside world. While I haven’t gone into the details of the research, I feel that such analyses help deepen the understanding of the diversity that co-exists in our workplaces. This is required primarily for the management to study and understand the dynamics of diversity and inclusion before it can filter down to the workforce.

We are fortunate to live and work in a country like India where we have opportunities for practice in diversity management at the level of city, state and country or caste, creed and religion which are realities despite the politically correct position – where the disparity is available at our doorstep without having to go global. Rather than collecting secondary data from international studies, perhaps our own management should be doing empirical studies based on experience and work backwards towards dealing with diversity.