We have all heard or read the definition of “TEAM” – “Together Each Achieves More”. We live in a world dominated by iPods, iPads, iPhones and iRobots. I realised, one day when working with a difficult group, that we need to add to the definition of “TEAM”. We need to focus on the” iTEAM”. Because, no matter what we do if “I”, the individual, is not committed at the beginning, because they feel left out, unappreciated or misunderstood because they are “different”, then “TEAM” will be far more difficult to achieve.

As Personal Assistants/Executive Secretaries you need to support and be supported by many different people. Your iTeam, more than likely, consists of many “diversities”. One of the aims of any business will be to promote a work environment where all people, regardless of race, ethnic group, language, gender, age, ancestry, marital status, social-economic or educational backgrounds, will demonstrate respect and insight for one another so as to enable them to work better as a team. In this way each individual can optimise his/her potential to achieve common business goals.

In South Africa, my place called home, this is a huge challenge for businesses. I realised that this is not something unique to South Africa. It is visible all over the world.

But let’s go back to the beginning and look at “What is Diversity?” A definition we use in our Diversity Training is: “It refers to differences in race, gender, age, language, physical characteristics, disability, sexual orientation, economic status, parental status, education, geographic origin, profession, lifestyle, religion, position in the organisation hierarchy, and any other difference.” In short, any difference between individuals.

So how do we create an inclusive and supportive business culture, leading to profitability, when the definition is so wide?

I would like to share with you some points that I have found to be very effective when working within organisations in South Africa.

1.Ask and learn about others
When there is a lack of knowledge, we fill the gap with assumptions and every event that strengthens the assumption is seen as strengthening a “fact”. Only once we are aware of our assumptions, can we make deliberate choices about how we think, feel and behave towards all those who are different from us. Ask your colleagues why they do things in a certain way. Learn about the different cultures people come from and what is expected of them in that culture.

2.Avoid stereotyping
Most human beings tend to generalise and classify people and objects into groups based on direct and indirect experience. We do this as a strategy to cope in a complex world. This generalisation about a person or group of people can become stereotypes. We develop stereotypes when we are unable or unwilling to obtain all of the information we need to make further judgments about peoples or situations. In the absence of the total picture, “stereotypes”, in many cases, allow us to “fill in the blanks”. Our society often innocently perpetuates stereotypes, but these stereotypes often lead to unfair discrimination and persecution when the stereotype is unfavourable.

3.What is the impact of role status in your organisation?
Social status is given a great deal of importance in many nations of the world. Status is often attached to formal organisational roles such as the level of authority in a chain of command. Thus, in much of the world, men of the majority racio-ethnic group are accorded higher social status than women and minority group men in matters relating to business and economics. Older people are also granted a higher status than younger people in many parts of the world.

4.Be aware of role conflict
A different kind of conflict occurs when roles that a person is expected to perform outside of work conflict with the expectations on the job. The most obvious example of this is women with younger children who are also engaged in managerial and professional career roles in which long hours, extensive travel and geographic mobility are expected. Despite the changes in recent years, women continue to bear the responsibility for the majority of childcare and home care (Powell, 1988). As a result, job demands for long hours and extensive travel creates severe role conflicts for many people.

5.Identify similarities
There are three things that we all want in all areas of our lives, no matter who we are or where we come from. We want to be:
•Included – ask me, invite me, work with me.
•Respected – what is respect for you will not be respect for me as we come from different backgrounds. The trick is to find out what does respect mean to me. In South Africa, an example of this would be for one cultural group the lady goes through the door first. To another cultural group the man goes first as he needs to ensure that it is safe on the other side of the door before the lady comes through! I could disrespect you simply because I did not know.
•Acknowledged – thank me, don’t sell my ideas as your ideas.
When people feel good, they work at their best. Feeling good lubricates mental efficiency, making people better at understanding information and using decision rules in complex judgements, as well as more flexible in their thinking.

6 Build trust and respect (Stephen Covey)
Behaviours in high-trust organisations:
• Information is shared openly
• Transparency is a practiced value
• Mistakes are tolerated and encouraged as a way of learning
• The culture is innovative and creative
• People are loyal to those who are absent
• People talk straight and confront real issues
• There is real communication and real collaboration
• People share credit abundantly
• There are few “meetings after the meetings”
• People are candid and authentic
• There is a high degree of accountability
• There is vitality and energy – people can feel the positive momentum

The Final Key – The Fruit Salad.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if we were all the same?” Think of it this way. We are all fruit and together we make a wonderful fruit salad with different tastes and textures. The organisation is the bowl. It provides us with the boundaries and Business Culture in which we need to be the fruit salad. This gives you the peace of mind that you don’t need to change to be in the fruit salad. You just need to follow the boundaries and Business Culture that the bowl requires in order to create an inclusive and supportive business culture, leading to profitability and productivity.”

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Joanne Barnfather is the Managing Member of MindLeap, a training company in South Africa. She works in the private and public sector, focusing on skills that inspire people and organisations to want to be better.

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