Campus & Community

With inclusion as the goal

3 min read

Conference focuses on working well across cultures

“Diversity is not a code word for ‘race,’” said Shilpa Pherwani, organizational psychologist and presenter at the 16th Workforce Management Conference, “Working Effectively Across Cultures,” at the Student Organization Center at Hilles.

According to Pherwani, the principal of Ibis Consulting Group, diversity is often about counting heads. Inclusion is about making each individual count. “People who feel included perform to a higher level,” she said, and that “leads to a higher innovation level.”

Harvard Vice President of Human Resources Marilyn Hausammann opened the May 6 session of lively exchanges among staff attendees representing a myriad of Harvard’s Schools and Departments, from both sides of the Charles River. The purpose of the conference was to give employees “actionable tips and tools” on diversity that they could “bring back to day-to-day work,” she said.

Hausammann hoped the conference would give “opportunities for leadership skill enhancement, to aid managers as they navigate increasingly complex workplace issues, regulatory pressures, and increasingly heterogeneous work teams,” and “help with understanding and capitalizing on the benefits of an increasingly heterogeneous workforce through vigorous dialogue and interactions.”

In addition to innovation, Pherwani guided attendees through exercises focused on the impact cultures make on collaboration and teamwork, as well as the skills to help them to work effectively with and through cultural differences.

Why is this important? Besides reducing the risk of litigation, Pherwani said, studies show, for example, that organizations with women on their boards of directors are more successful. The effort also engages, and so retains, employees. Studies demonstrate that “groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers.”

The first exercise Pherwani led asked everyone to share their names, positions at Harvard, and one thing that no one would know about them or expect. So people shared their backgrounds and current avocations as a Caribbean-born and -raised country singer, a professional tennis player, a Baptist minister. The exercise offered “a small window into what people like to do outside the workplace,” and served as a unique segue into discussing diversity and inclusion.

The session also addressed effective tools to understanding and bridging key dimensions of culture, including communication styles, orientation to time and hierarchy, problem solving, and conflict, along with dos and don’ts for connecting with people.

It also addressed, and gave tips to overcome, unconscious biases, using the “FLEX” model: Focus within, Learn about others, Engage in dialogue, eXpand the options.

The conference was sponsored by the Office of the Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity and Equity.