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Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity

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Category: Safety Culture Safety Culture
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: EUROCONTROL EUROCONTROL

This article is a broad-ranged discussion of the issues surrounding socio-cultural diversity and looks at the subject from two perspectives: the organisational and the personal. The aim is not to present a concrete solution nor a set-in-stone theory, but only to encourage new perspectives.

Socio-Cultural Diversity

Socio-cultural diversity concerns aspects of culture that can influence an individual’s interactions with others of different backgrounds. Furthermore, it can influence how individuals respond to management demands, operational requirements and company policies, or what could be summed up as the organisation’s culture.

Diversity will exist between employees’: nationalities, ethnicities, religious beliefs, social backgrounds, education levels, pathways to their jobs, professions, quality of training and qualification, training experiences, past employment, reasons for working, union membership etc.

On many levels, acknowledging diversity in cultural backgrounds is no different than acknowledging that human characters and personalities, within the same culture, are diverse. Therefore, the skills required to work effectively with both sets of diversity (culture and character) shouldn’t differ. It is all about understanding human strengths and weakness within an organisation – Human Factors!

Importance

Experience from developing and implementing Crew Resource Management training programmes has shown that cultural differences have led to misunderstandings and poor communication between flight crewmembers. When this happens at critical times and with critical information the results can be fatal. The same hazards exist in the Cabin, in the hangar, within air traffic service providers and on the Ramp where employees from different backgrounds work together.

Therefore, focus on socio-cultural diversity has rightly been placed on understanding and raising awareness of the differences between cultural attitudes, and improving communication within teams. This places responsibility on: organisations to provide education, training and awareness, facilitated through policies and procedures; and, on individuals to respect all colleagues, apply their learning and work well together.

The aim is to ensure safe working practices, through promotion of a ubiquitous organisational Safety Culture; a professional workplace culture that takes priority over other cultural influences when the situation demands. The theory is that all employees will hold shared values and beliefs about safety and safety management, and these shared values and beliefs will be reflected in their behaviour in the workplace.

Provoking a Different Perspective

Because the title of this Article is “Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity”, we need to ask the questions – why manage it, and how do we manage it? Are there any positive attributes of socio-cultural diversity? If so, then shouldn’t these be encouraged rather than managed? Should we ignore diversity, tolerate it, reduce it, eliminate it, or increase it? If we aim to “neutralise” diversity in cultures, then is a mono-culture so desirable, what’s so good about that? This last question might be an easier one to answer – in today’s global business and social world, not a lot! After all, it is easy to see how an organisation and workplace that consists of employees from the same socio-cultural background is less likely to be creative, less likely to make people ask questions, more likely to become complacent and more likely to blindly shift along a risky path. Certainly in terms of global business, such an organisation is less likely to resonate with the market place and keep pace with progressive ideas from “outside”, be they safety or business orientated.

Of course, the answer is not so simple. Culturally diverse workplaces are now common-place in aviation, perhaps more so in the Cabin and on the Flight Deck than the hangar floor (although it is reasonable to consider that engineers and air traffic controllers will only become more mobile in the future). So, like any change, new environments need to be accepted and understood, risks identified and measures taken to manage those risks. That is – manage the risks and not the differences. Therefore, it is worth adding something more positive to this equation, something that often gets overlooked, and that is - identifying the positive benefits of a diverse workplace culture and learning how to harness them for improvements in safety and efficiency.

The following quote from a paper written by D. L. Van Dyke for the RAeS Montreal Branch[1]. sums it up nicely:
Cultures have extraordinary capacity to create cohesiveness, to nurture growth and to give identity. Cultures provide norms that allow the diversity of mankind to coexist but they can also restrain flexibility, narrow scope and obstruct necessary change. International airlines are cultivated to traverse political, ethnic and social boundaries while offering products and services of uniform quality regardless of market setting. Knowledge of cultural influences can be leveraged to mitigate risk, contain costs and improve corporate effectiveness. Surprisingly, these noteworthy aspects of organisational behaviour are often overlooked or their effect underestimated.

So, aiming to adapt positively to Socio-Cultural Diversity is probably a healthier, and more realistic, attitude to adopt than aiming to just manage!

Approaches to Managing and Harnessing Socio-Cultural Diversity

The way in which employees work and socialise with each other is influenced as much by the organisation and its culture, as it is by their own motives, characters and habits. Therefore, there are two dimensions to managing and harnessing diversity:

  • the organisational dimension – driven by management commitment
  • the personal dimension – driven by employee involvement

Of the two dimensions, it is key that the organisation bears main responsibility for encouraging and facilitating employee engagement. How employees respond is based on their perception of management commitment; which has two elements:

  1. Is the management commitment tangible in the provision of resources? Are employees provided with adequate training, directed with meaningful policies and assisted by functional procedures etc. or, is it merely all talk?
  2. How well does management promote their commitment? Do employees believe that management actually value diversity, or do they believe that management is merely going through the motions.

Resolving these two elements requires building trust, which, in turn, will directly affect the degree and quality of workforce engagement.

Trust

Trust is gained and given in different ways within different cultures. Organisations (such as those in aviation) that require team members to trust each other, and management and employees to trust each other, need to understand the cultural differences in building trust. Mistrust between team members and employees can be a hazard.

In some cultures colleagues are happy to work effectively side-by-side immediately, but trust needs to be demonstrated by deed; sometimes through consistent performance over a long period. In such cultures trust can be built entirely on a professional relationship level. In other cultures, colleagues might prefer to gain trust first before working side-by-side; yet this trust is gained through strengthening social bonds rather than professional ability. This means some people may seek and offer increasing levels of personal disclosure when building trust. Therefore, for some people, buying-in to the concept of honest self-reporting of human errors will take considerable time; and, for other people, attempts to gain personal information may seem like “one step too far”.

Role Modelling

Management’s responsibility to build trust can be helped through a policy of active role modelling; where all managers undertake the same training in cultural diversity, and are seen to apply the lessons in the workplace on a daily basis. Such diversity training is likely (recommended) to be included within resource management skills training programmes (CRM, TRM, Human Factors, Leadership, Teamwork, Assertiveness, Communications). Perhaps the greatest opportunity for management to build trust is through fair and proper response to accidents, incidents and safety reports. This includes a fair execution of a Just Culture, including measured discipline when required i.e. in cases of gross-negligence.

Organisational Strategies

It would be self-defeating for an organisation, whilst highlighting specific socio-cultural characteristics that present a hazard in the workplace, to attribute them to a particular “group” of people. Each member of the highlighted group would take it personally, and it will create, or reinforce, stereotypes; which does not help anyone adapt to diversity!

An organisation is far more likely to attain positive results by:

  • emphasising positive behaviours, for all employees, that reduce risk and promote improved safety performance
  • instilling the values and beliefs from which those positive behaviours spring
  • highlighting differences in values and beliefs that all of us may hold and how these can affect workplace communication and performance.

In taking this approach it is possible that employees will be able to adopt the desired behaviours, and no matter how diverse the individual cultures within a team, there will be common goals, and means of achieving those goals, that do not present any inner conflict. This work needs to start when employees are inducted into the company, and be maintained permanently.

Culture Shock - Welcome to your New Job

Organisations must learn to understand that new employees, coming from a different socio-cultural background may find their new organisation’s and colleagues’ views on how things are done hard to comprehend and this may challenge their own values and beliefs. In some cases, the differences can lead literally to a “culture shock”, which may become a hazard in the workplace.


People in other countries may think, feel and act very differently from yourself – Geert Hofstede.


For example, there may be large differences between how the organisation and a new employee view the following cultural markers:

  • directness of communication – getting straight to the point as opposed to implying messages
  • importance of hierarchy – overt deference to seniority and position, and blindly following orders as opposed to contributing ideas, engaging in debate, and asserting opinions
  • consensus decision-making is accepted and dissenting opinions welcomed in preference to a need for unanimity
  • individual performance and effort valued equally, and sometimes more, than team effort and effectiveness
  • management and employees work side-by-side to achieve common goals, as opposed to an antagonistic, or deferential, them and us environment
  • positive behaviour is rewarded equally, if not more than, positive results
  • evidence of mistakes, slips and errors is sought, offered and welcomed instead of ignored or covered-up
  • employees are expected to actively take on responsibilities and requesting help and support is not seen as a weakness
  • pleasing colleagues may be more important than pleasing managers or the organisation – and vice versa
  • attitudes to risk may vary from intolerance to complete ignorance, etc.

The list of relevant factors where humans can hold polar-opposite beliefs is endless. For each factor a desired attitude can be promoted, but changing people’s beliefs is a subtle art and not possible through blunt selling or imposition i.e. this is how we do it, so this is how you’re going to do it!

For someone to change a belief they need evidence; different people need different degrees of evidence. A well-designed and executed training programme would provide several degrees of evidence, specifically:

  • explaining how values and beliefs drive behaviour and performance
  • explaining why a particular behaviour is hazardous
  • explaining why a particular behaviour is valuable, or even necessary
  • being shown several examples confirming the preceding evidence
  • demonstrating the relevance of these past examples to the current workplace
  • allowing employees to test the theory for themselves and apply new skills in their specific workplace.

Despite all the above, humans attribute far more weight to any “evidence” that supports an existing belief (no matter how factual) than a large amount of factual evidence supporting a new belief: this is known as Confirmation Bias. Hence the need for a continuing programme of education and training.

Failure to identify cultural differences and take action to make integration less challenging, can lead to symptoms of culture shock, including:

  • feeling isolated
  • anxiety and stress
  • frustration and anger
  • reduction in job performance
  • accident prone-ness
  • erratic and inconsistent behaviour
  • helplessness
  • resignation.

Any of these symptoms could place a strain on team resources and create a weak-point in safety defences. New employees will need to understand that they may experience symptoms such as these, and to recognise them as resulting from differences arriving from their past experiences. Organisations will need to value the investment they are making in every new employee and facilitate an easy transition into the organisation.

The scope of organisations’ induction programmes mostly encompasses administrative orientation, regulatory requirements and skills training; all conducted within a short time. This process may not “feel” very personal to new recruits. Culture shock can be avoided by acknowledging the individual and socio-cultural background of each new employee, rather than a robotic brain-washing process of induction. After all, new employees, if encouraged and facilitated, can provide a company with new, and improved, ideas!

Behaviour Policies

The way each of us behaves is partly driven by our past socio-cultural experiences. There are legal and regulatory requirements on aviation organisations to “ensure” certain standards are met, and many of these impact on individual’s behaviour. For example, use of alcohol and other drugs, reporting occurrences, reading back clearances, restricting hours of work and obtaining adequate rest, monitoring others’ work and using safety equipment etc.

Also, it is natural for organisations to desire that certain standards of behaviour in the workplace are met at all times; this can be considered as trying to maintain a certain company “ethos”.

Within both these examples are definite “no go” areas, such as: violence towards others, and wilful gross negligence. But, there will also be some grey areas, which are harder to define, such as: loss of temper, and repeated cases of failing to take suitable care.

Therefore, it is advisable for organisations to “spell out” clearly and concisely in a policy, or policies: what behaviours are desired for all employees (including management); what the “no go” areas are; and what will happen (i.e. the disciplinary procedure). Furthermore, employees need to be educated in the content and application of such policies.

For an airline that has implemented a Just Culture this policy alone could feasibly encompass all the aspects described above, and be adequate for all forms of behaviour and all employees. Other behaviours that will certainly need addressing are expectations that employees will follow Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), use authorised checklists, use the company reporting system, and always voice safety concerns.

It would be unusual for employees to suffer an “inner conflict” with most of these demands because of their socio-cultural experiences. However, it is possible that the concepts of self-reporting errors and asserting themselves contrary to authority figures may be difficult. These need to be overcome through training and application.

The days when workers started work with a shot of alcoholic spirit may be gone, but other external socio-cultural norms may pressure employees to bend or break rules, or to behave inappropriately. Some people’s attitudes towards the opposite sex may be accepted in certain societies (outside the wire), but would not be appropriate or tolerated in an organisation. Some employees may be “expected” by their families to hold-down a second job, and this would not be acceptable (or legal) for most aviation workers.

Behaviour policies can be explicit about the issues discussed here, and also address local issues pertinent to the socio-culture in which they exist.

Training

Training delivered by role models is an excellent way to ensure the desired values, beliefs and practices that define the company “ethos”, or culture, have any chance of being adopted by every single employee. Furthermore, training is ideal for helping employees to become self-aware of those elements of their own behaviour that may need to change (at least whilst at work).

Some employees will benefit from specific assertiveness training, and others from leadership training. All will benefit from learning effective teamwork, problem-solving and decision-making. Typical airline flight crew CRM training, both the content and the manner in which it is delivered and facilitated, is a useful model to apply when training employees to work with cultural diversity; and it can cover all the subjects mentioned above. A great benefit of this type of training is that it can be integrated into all types of professional and workplace training – induction, qualification, refresher, recurrent etc.

An open and effective reporting system should provide useful feedback to amend the training programme and methods, and the application of lessons learnt will be visible in how employees communicate with each other. Communication being the skill through which people with different cultural values and beliefs try to understand each other and ensure that, despite any personal differences, safety goals take priority.

Goals

Wherever diversity in any form exists, a method of working effectively together is to find common ground. In the case of an aviation organisation this can be the required company behaviour policy, relevant regulatory requirements (reflected in rules and procedures), and production goals (turnaround, flight, airspace management, aircraft servicing).

Whilst there can be differences in interpretation of the above, and differences in opinion of how to achieve these, there can be agreement that the overriding factor in all these cases is that the outcome must be safe.


A core organisation/personal value that impacts direct on social culture is fostering a strong obligation to support and protect the welfare of each employee, passenger and the wider society at-large[1].


The organisation has a responsibility to cultivate a safety culture in which the safety of employees, passengers and the wider public is paramount, regardless of what the production goals may be. This may be counter-intuitive to some people, especially when under stress. For some, they may feel that to not fulfil a production goal (i.e. divert rather than land at the scheduled arrival aerodrome) is a personal failure and will mean others’ opinions of them will be poor. A desire to please others can be a barrier to effective communication and therefore a safety hazard. Most rule-bending occurs when individuals feel they have to “get the job done” at all costs. This attitude may be part of an unwritten sub-culture within an organisation, and is undesirable.

Whereas a “business” has to balance production goals with the costs of reducing risks, employees, when working, need to be in no doubt that this balancing act does not apply to them and their decision-making. Their shared goal and priority should always be safety regardless of costs. This belief underwrites the safety performance of an organisation and can cross socio-cultural boundaries and differences – manifest as a shared common goal.

Personal Strategies

People will often behave differently “at work” than they will at home or “outside”, and this has much to do with their relationship with their profession, their colleagues and their employer. This emphasises the ability of an organisational culture to influence employees behaviour. For example, an organisation that does not punish rule-bending as long as the task is completed safely, will see its employees openly bending many rules; whereas, if rule-bending is severely punished, then employees will be generally rule-bound, and when they do bend those rules they will cover-up. Neither situation is good for safety.

However, an organisation can only do so much, and there comes a time when each employee becomes responsible, and must be accountable, for his/her own attitude, words and actions. So, personnel can be provided with the skills, support, resources and encouragement to manage diversity in the work place in an effective manner that enhances both safety and production efficiency. However, whether they apply and use these resources is down to them; if they believe it’s beneficial to do so, then they will.

Most safety critical tasks in aviation require coordination and cooperation with others, whether working as part of a team/crew, or using outside agencies for support. It is in the close face-to-face teamwork that socio-cultural diversity can be most pronounced and visible, and therefore, where colleagues need to be able to “get on” with each other.

Rapport

A large part of working successfully with others involves a degree of socialising, and in particular socialising with people who wouldn’t normally (outside work) have much in common, nor have much natural affinity. This requires employees to develop rapport-building skills and the capability to establish a professional working atmosphere.

Prejudice

When considering socio-cultural diversity, the key to building rapport and a professional environment is the ability to respect others and their differences. Whatever, our own prejudices, assumptions and beliefs about other cultures, people from different backgrounds, sexes, and professions etc. we have to respect every person equally. Otherwise, we will be liable to make errors of judgement, poor decisions, and will risk losing team/crew cohesion and synergy.

This is not always easy to achieve. Humans when faced by behaviour that they do not understand, often interpret the other person involved as "abnormal", "weird" or "wrong". The key phrase here is when humans do not understand! Ergo, attempting to understand others (what they believe, how they think and why they do things certain ways) is a step to considering them as “normal” and “right”. It is also respectful to try and understand.

Understand and Learn

Useful awareness of cultural differences can only come from learning to understand other people, and learning to understand other people creates a positive working environment. This is a classic positive feedback loop!

In the spirit of a learning culture[2] use these differences to challenge your own assumptions about the "right" way of doing things and as a chance to learn new ways to solve problems.

Leaders

Individuals who hold positions of leadership have the additional responsibility of fostering team cooperation and cohesion. Where a team consists of members from different socio-cultural backgrounds, it is more important than usual to invite participation, to seek differences of opinion and to clarify points of confusion. Furthermore, it is essential to provide feedback on performance in a manner that encourages rather than discourages.

Self-Awareness

We often act in a manner designed to prompt a reaction, and we have learned what sorts of attitudes, behaviour or words “push others’ buttons”. Beware! Where we may expect a certain reaction (meekness to our temper, anger to our off-handedness, humour to our cynicism, and fondness to our charm etc), these responses may only be typical within our own culture; others may react in a completely different manner, or just feel confused. Behaving in a manner which others may find hard to read should be avoided, such behaviour is often motivated by self-gratuitous means anyway, summed up as “one-upmanship”. In short, aim to maintain your own and others’ dignity.

Communication

All the possible ways of working with harnessing socio-cultural diversity described above have the common thread of communication running through them. The effective application of communication skills is a useful goal to set oneself when arriving at work every day. With an experimental attitude, open mind and a desire to be creative, any individual can quickly learn what styles of communication work best, with which people and in which situations. As a basic starting point, and promoted in all good CRM courses, one should aim to avoid active and passive aggression, avoid passivity, and make sure their style of assertiveness is respectful. Building rapport and learning from others through open questioning will help reduce potential conflict and harness the strengths of others.

Accidents

It is useful to look at the contributing factors assigned by accident investigators, many of them will include poor communication, and some of these will cite cultural differences as possibly contributing. The two accidents indicated below highlight differences in culture that have nothing to do with race, religion, nationality etc, but possibly everything to do with the “messages” given during training which stay with us, especially in times of stress. In particular with growing numbers of airlines starting up and failing (it seems), and the free-flow of personnel between them growing as a consequence, perhaps the most hazardous cultural differences are connected with organisations and professions. What strong messages and “ways of doing things” do aviation workers carry round with them, from one company to another?

  • The 2002 mid-air collision of a Tu154 and B757 over Uberlingen, Germany[3],and
  • the 2000 fatal crash of a Saab 340 soon after departure from Zurich[4]

Tips for Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity – A Summary

Tips for Organisations

Summary of Tips for Organisations in Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity

Tips for Individuals

Summary of Tips for Individuals in Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity

Dignity

Donna Hicks, Ph.D. has spent over two decades facilitating resolution of international conflicts and has devised her “Dignity Model”[5] which she uses with corporations and organisations worldwide. The key points of this Model are shown below to offer a counterpoint to the usual “aviation” take on cultural diversity. This model is a useful personal tool for working with people from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds.

  • Acceptance of Identity – approach people as being neither inferior or superior to yourself; interact without prejudice or bias; accept that people will identify themselves through their cultural backgrounds (race, religion etc.)
  • Inclusion – make others feel they belong
  • Safety – put people at ease and help them feel free to speak without fear of retribution
  • Acknowledgement – give people full attention and respond to them
  • Recognition – validate people for their efforts and be generous with praise for their contributions
  • Fairness – treat people justly and with equality
  • Benefit of the Doubt – start with the assumption that people are trustworthy and behave with integrity
  • Understanding – give people the chance to explain and believe that what they think matters
  • Independence – encourage people to act on their own behalf so they feel in control NB:this point may not be always appropriate to the aviation setting; however, workers are more likely to be, and feel, engaged when they have a degree of control over their own futures
  • Accountability – take responsibility for your own actions – apologise if you violate another’s dignity

References

  1. ^ a b Van Dyke, D, L. 2006. Management Commitment: Cornerstone of Aviation Safety Culture. Royal Aeronautical Society, Montreal Branch
  2. ^ SKYbrary: Safety Culture in ATM.
  3. ^ German BFU Accident Report into accident involving TU154M and B757-200, on 1 July 2002, near Uberlingen.
  4. ^ Swiss Federal Air Accident Investigation Bureau Report on the accident to Saab 340B, HB-AKK, Crossair Flight CRX 498, 10 January 2000.
  5. ^ Hicks, D. Ph.D., 2011. Dignity: The essential role it plays in resolving conflict. Yale. Yale University Press.