Our team recently prepared a proposal for an organisation which described itself as having ‘a diverse community of cultures’. It was looking for a programme that would assist its staff in ‘building successful relationships’ and ‘cultural synergy’. They requested something to ‘enhance their understanding of the impact of culture on work behaviour, decision-making and problem solving, and develop skills for working with fellow colleagues’. It seems reasonable to assume that they were experiencing some challenges in this area!

We have worked extensively with cross cultural teams, in fact almost every large international company and many small organisations too, have a diverse mix of people with different nationalities and cultures who need to communicate, relate and work together to deliver the mission of their organisation.

We wondered whether our potential client might be, at least in part, ‘mistaken’ in assigning the challenges they faced to their diverse community of cultures. Was the collaboration they were seeking really being impacted by differences in culture or by something more fundamental to all humankind?

Might it be that what we are actually dealing with most of the time is simply the wide spectrum of individual difference that exists between us? In our experience and ‘measurement’ of peoples’ motivations, behaviours, needs and perspectives, the differences are greater within cultures than between cultures. We may be quite mistaken in attributing cause, and labelling lack of synergy between people, as ‘cultural’, when in fact, it may simply be how we all are as ‘people’ - hugely diverse and unique.

Of course, there are real challenges and misunderstandings that arise when cultural practices and behaviours meet and express themselves in the work place and especially when bias and discrimination are unfairly exhibited. Expectations and differences that arise from culturally related values or expectations regarding e.g. etiquette, behaviour towards authority relationships or issues around individual vs collective emphasis clearly exist and these need to be addressed, so that each individual can be heard, understood and have the right support to make their best contribution.

It can give us a convenient ‘out’ to make a cultural judgement about someone who is challenging or different and to excuse ourselves from the effort required to get past the cultural veneer (which can definitely be there!). We so easily think and say certain things and characterise x or y culture as being like this or that. It really is very deep seated in our national identities, and in human nature itself, to consciously or subconsciously believe ourselves to be better, and to see ourselves in a more socially desirable way, than others.

Dr Roger Birkman who developed The Birkman Method® demonstrated, through empirical evidence, that our individual differences arise from fundamental, unique motivations, behaviours and perspectives that are determined by our expectations of ourselves and our expectation of how the world around us operates. These motivations, behaviours and perspectives can be objectively measured and compared and are not biased by ethnicity or national culture but are common across cultures and experiences.

The CHRO of one of our clients put it this way: ‘What I love about Birkman is that whether you are from Tokyo, Houston or Sydney if you have the same scores, then we will see the same behaviours and perspectives’.

When we work with diverse groups using their Birkman data, they quickly realise that their differences and the difficulties they experience, are much less to do with their nationalities and/or cultures and much more to do with their fundamental and unique differences. They learn that these differences are critical to their collaborative success and become highly motivated to work out their relationships, manage their performance and collaborate for brilliant outcomes.

As Sandra Bushby (formerly Global Director of Diversity for Pfizer) says, “it would be tragic to leave a cure for cancer on the table because a team couldn’t work out that their diversity is their strength.”