Category: testimonial, diversity and inclusion, Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace, diverse workforce, What Our People Say, Staff Testimonial, Siemens, Diversity of Thought
The purpose of this article is to shed the light upon another diverse group that fuels the British and global economy, contributes to technology, social flexibility and financial performance, yet does not always make the headlines on the Diversity agenda. By exposing some of the struggles this group faces, I hope that I will make it slightly easier for managers to help unlock as much of the hidden potential it carries. This article is a tribute to “the internationals”; the not-born-and/or-raised-in-the-UK group that lives amongst us.
In the last few years we have seen (and for very good reasons) a surge in discussions, campaigns and events around the topic of Diversity and more importantly Inclusion (D&I). There are many quotes about D&I but my favourite one is Nichelle Grant’s: “Diversity is about being invited to the dance, but Inclusion is about being asked to dance once you are there”.
There are many groups falling under this category, the most popular of which are: Women, LGBT, BAME and lately more and more of Neurodiversity and Mobility groups. In my opinion, there is a group that cuts through all the existing ones, is of paramount importance hence deserves the right level of attention. I refer to the group of “internationals”; the ones that work in the UK but were not born or raised in this lovely island.
My personal early epiphany with the beautiful mosaic of nations
I was born in 1978 in a lovely Mediterranean country where the sun shines for the best part of the year. At the age of 15 I participated in a school exchange programme between my school in a rural area of Northern Greece and a Belgian school in Flanders. This trip changed and defined my life. It exposed me to a different way of thinking and acting; to a different and very progressive educational system based on interactive ways of transferring knowledge rather than the “ex-cathedra” still prevailing in the Greek educational system of the early 90s; to a country setup whose conscious (or unconscious) mindset was that of progress and growth. An explosion of ideas started happening in my mind, as well as an increased sense of humility, since I understood for the first time that any sense of entitlement I was carrying was simply in my head, thus unfounded.
This is when I realised that the world is full of very interesting, smart and knowledgeable people, who see things from a refreshingly different standpoint, and one should feel grateful, if not blessed, just for the opportunity of interacting with them.
Being an “international” comes with some “baggage” though…
Whether ending up consciously or opportunistically in a different country, the “immigrant” life is not as easy as we might think. Ok, urban legend has it that the ex-pats are drowning in bathtubs of golden ducats, but the rest of us (under normal payslips), regardless of whether we came willingly, forcefully or unexpectedly, carry the invisible label “immigrant” since we look or sound different, despite being naturalised on paper.
As people, questionnaires and corporate statistics drag and drop people like me in the “white-and-soon-to-be-middle-aged-man-who-will-buy-the-motorcycle-he-always-dreamed-of” category, it’s easy to forget the hurdles people with no British background had to go through while learning a non-mother tongue and acquainting themselves with the nuances of a new language. Or the impostor syndrome I have to fight quite frequently when I have my audiences raise eyebrows every time I fail to pronounce an English word using the Queen’s English? Or even when my daughter is told at her school that she has a “tricky surname” making her pout and come home asking me “why do we have a tricky family name?”
I can’t help but wonder, if these unconscious biases and behaviours manifest on the everyday life level, where personal things are only at stake, imagine the impact and most importantly the opportunities lost when we consider them on a corporate level? What happens when these small “exclusion” experiences start adding up?
Five reasons why we should embrace our “internationals” more attentively
National diversity, i.e. incorporating properly, smartly, decisively people from different countries (aka national backgrounds) has the following benefits in my opinion:
- Attracting talent: if an organisation really wants to attract international talent, there is a higher likelihood of this happening if the organisation already has a diverse flavour, proving that it knows how to attract and maintain this very talent. And the best advertisement for any corporation who wants to attract such people, is its existing international workforce, who if they feel embraced, empowered and valued, will go above and beyond on making sure the whole world knows about it! And they will bring even more of these super stars from their international network.
- Enhancing communications: I have experienced multiple times situations where the language nuances create miscommunications. When Rob says “if you do this, there is a chance you might not be very popular”, James understands “Don’t do this!” but Louis might understand “Do it, but bear in mind your popularity will take a hit, but if you do not care about popularity you are good to go”. Assumptions driven by full or partial understanding of language nuances have led to tricky situations and ugly escalations. Equally, literal translations from people with international background have created a similar set of challenges. Think for instance Greta Thunberg’s “put them against the wall” controversy.
- Getting the best out of your people; removing invisible self-imposed barriers: As a manager of international teams, you might not be able to get the best out of your international team’s potential. Why’s that? – statements and unconscious behaviours/bias, trigger insecurities, disappointment and kill desire to over-achieve. As a manager you want to focus on motivating your people and to keep fuelling their burning desire to go above and beyond. And your (international) workforce might not be able to do it properly if they do not feel they belong.
- Unleashing the “magic” (also known as diversity of thought): As a manager of high-context culture teams (i.e. predominantly British, predominantly Japanese and so on) you might not be able to extract one of the jewels of differentiation: Diversity of thought comes in many forms and formats. The best way of getting diverse thoughts and opinions is through diversity of background and ethnic diversity is a key part of it. Someone who was born in a transactional culture will most certainly have higher probability of bringing this attitude in his/her way of acting. Same for someone who was raised in a high empathy culture or someone who was born in an entrepreneurial culture. But unless you as a manager constantly foster a culture and attitude where these “voices” are encouraged to surface and are put into good action, you will not get your hands on this treasure.
- Enhancing financial performance: As the old mantra has it, “money talks, B.S. walks”. For years, publications focused on correlations between diversity and analytical thinking, innovation or collective accuracy. However, in the HBR article “The Other Diversity Dividend”, Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovvali proved for the first time a correlation between diversity and the hard metric of financial performance. According to this article: “How do the financial outcomes of homogeneous partnerships compare with those of diverse collaborations? The difference is dramatic. Along all dimensions measured, the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments’ performance. For example, the success rate of acquisitions and IPOs was 11.5% lower, on average, for investments by partners with shared school backgrounds than for those by partners from different schools. The effect of shared ethnicity was even stronger, reducing an investment’s comparative success rate by 26.4% to 32.2%.”
So, with the above thoughts in mind, the question is: how can we encourage our international workforce so that they bring their full self at work with dignity, open mind and creativity (exactly what every corporation expects from all their staff)?
For you see… not understanding the challenges the internationals face can, at times, result in a heavy load … a load that erodes all desire to do even more, to lift the bar and stand out, to strive for raising the standards in this society making us all better. A load that makes the “gremlin” in their head shout even louder “you do not belong here! You are not made for this; you are not good at this! Just shut up, disappear into the wall and everything will be fine…”they” know better. You are an impostor!”
One of my all-time favourite movies is the… (surprise surprise) “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. Towards the end of the movie, Mr Portokalos, (the father of the Greek girl -Toula), who dared getting married to a “xenos” (aka foreigner)), gives his wedding speech and says:
“You know, the root of the word Miller is a Greek word. Miller come from the Greek word "milo," which is mean "apple," so there you go. As many of you know, our name, Portokalos, is come from the Greek word "portokali," which mean "orange." So, okay? Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We all different, but in the end, we all fruit.”
I firmly believe with every single cell in my body that it is important to not only have one type of “orange”, for life would be too predictable, too clinically perfect…too boring. It’s great to have a bowl with big oranges, and small oranges; lean… and out of shape. Oranges that look left… and oranges that look right. Male oranges, female oranges, in between oranges, asexual oranges…. Oranges who are chatty and oranges who are introvert. Oranges that are super colourful and oranges that are pale. Oranges that are ripe and oranges that are not. Oranges that are super sweet and oranges that are not that much.
But wouldn’t life be more interesting, complete, colourful and creative if we also had other fruits in the bowl? If the bowl consisted of pears and apples, oranges and bananas, pineapples and lychees, pitayas and passion fruits that would fill the room with their powerful and divine aromas, make up unique desserts and allow us to enjoy our rich pallet to its full extent?
Written by: Nikolaos (Niko) Kavakiotis -Transforming Buildings & Industries into Sustainable & Energy Efficient places where humans can thrive. Love to tell stories that matter.