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Global Mobility: Essential Best Practices

Meaningful Engagements Across Difference

International Schools to Transnational Organisations

If I was to ask you to think of phrases that we associate with cultural difference, it may be words like ‘conflict,’ ‘clash,’ ‘confusion’ that come to mind. This is often the way we are trained to think, to focus on the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The media is a good example of how these ideas are perpetuated, with discussions surrounding the recent ‘migrant crisis’ in Europe highlighting a difference in culture as a threat to well-being.

The consequences of this pervasive fear of cultural difference often results in a lack of engagement, a metaphorically building of walls which seeks to protect ‘us’ from ‘them.’ Because we fear difference, our instinct is both not to engage and to seek the comfort that familiarity offers us. For those organisations seeking to develop a global mindset in their employees, this seems contradictory. If employers are looking for people who can easily negotiate difference, then they must be able to engage with people from different cultures. However, we can see the ways this plays out in practice among those who do global work, with research illustrating that although they may embrace and engage with difference within the confines of their job, outside work they tend to socialise with other migrants who share the same nationality as them. This can lead us to question: how do we promote meaningful engagements across difference?

Last month, I was fortunate to attend the Council for International Schools’ Symposium on Intercultural Learning in London. Part of the reason I was there was to try and think about how we can take the ideas about managing and engaging across diversity from international schools and apply these more widely.*

Throughout my research that has looked at global work, international schools have been lauded as a microcosm for how to meaningfully engage across cultural differences. For example, one respondent suggested that international schools could work more effectively than the UN. She suggested that if we put the major world issues to classroom of international school pupils, they would soon be resolved, because ‘without focusing on differences, the real issues can be seen.’

One of reasons why international schools are seen to be different to other spaces is the expectation of the co-existence of different cultures within them. Here, difference is seen as normal. This normality means difference is not something that results in ‘conflict,’ ‘clash,’ or ‘confusion’.

As workplaces increasingly become more diverse, and the expectation becomes to work more globally, we can think of how cultural differences can become seen as normal for organisations as well. Therefore, instead of focusing on the potential conflicts that working across differences can bring in transnational organisations, if we start from the position that this is normal, we can then think about how this serves to strengthen organisations. For example, if diversity is understood as the norm, then to stand out from the crowd organisations can seek to promote the positives that this brings. Like my research respondent suggested, we move away from cultural difference as obscuring the point, and think about how the real issues—whether that be business decisions, or wider societal goals— can be solved.

* This is part of an ongoing research project. If you would like to find out more information, then please get in touch.

By Dr. Sophie Cranston, Loughborough University

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