Diversity Squared: A review of THE MULTICULTURAL MIND by David C. Thomas
by Craig Allen Heath
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain
We have long recognized that a well-traveled person can gain a broad, balanced, and inclusive view of humanity. Samuel Clemens enjoyed fame as "a man of the world", circling the globe multiple times and writing five semi-fictional travelogues. Contact with other cultures is an excellent antidote to small-mindedness and can lead a person to better their lives and those of others through their work, personal pursuits, and charitable efforts.
Beyond the soul-deepening effects of travel, however, people who have embodied more than one culture can, with effort and support from the right organizations, develop even deeper understanding of the world, and can gain the capability to become highly innovative. Such a person, called a "Multicultural" in this small volume from David C. Thomas, can be an indispensable asset to any organization, and he recommends such people be sought, hired, and supported by businesses who rely on innovation to compete.
In the pages of The Multicultural Mind, David C. Thomas offers a roadmap to help organizations identify, understand, develop, and benefit from the capabilities of these Multiculturals. Most modern American organizations, in business, government and philanthropy, understand the value of diversity and inclusion efforts and devote considerable resources toward filling their ranks with people from all backgrounds and identities. Beyond singular markers that diversity efforts use, however, lies the possibility for what we might call "Diversity Squared" - people who have embodied two or more cultures and gain a rich perspective from their experience - Multiculturals.
Thomas defines such people this way:
"Multiculturals are individuals who identify with more than one culture. They have been exposed to and taken on board the values, attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about appropriate behavior of multiple cultures."
More than being well-traveled, Multiculturals are people who have lived in two or more cultures, internalized the values, assumptions, and worldview of those divergent peoples, and most important - they take active interest in understanding and honing the special capabilities that their varied background affords them. In an important passage, Thomas emphasizes this point:
"Culture is more than a random assortment of customs. It is an organized system of values, attitudes, beliefs, and behavioral meanings that are related to one another, to a society’s physical environment, and to other cultural groups."
A traveler may see and appreciate the attitudes, values, and beliefs that animate the people he visits but is unlikely to internalize them sufficiently to affect his worldview. Someone who has lived in two or more cultures, however, can benefit from such internalization. With this as a starting point, and with the desire to hone these benefits and the right support from organizations, such a person can develop a Multicultural Mind. Those who do, Thomas argues, are of the utmost value to businesses and others that rely on innovation for their survival and growth.
One aspect to the thesis not well supported by rigorous references, but conducive to reason, is the claim that people who develop a Multicultural Mind automatically come to the table with a set of valuable characteristics. Thomas argues:
"It stands to reason that the more cultures with which we identify (plurality) the broader the worldview. However, ... multiculturals also develop skills that result from reconciling the difference in their multiple cultures. These skills include perceptual acuity, empathy, sensitivity, and, importantly, a more complex way of thinking (cognitive complexity). "
These skills, Thomas argues, give people possessed of Multicultural Minds the ability to directly enhance efforts at innovation, by virtue of their broader life experience:
"Multiculturals can draw on their skills to engage in activities across the organization that can have a positive influence on innovation. These activities can include mediating, brokering, or negotiating between different organizational groups (sometimes in different countries), acting as language nodes to improve organizational communication, facilitating the integration of newcomers, helping to develop monoculturals, and leading organizations in the management of diversity."
In this way, if borne out in proof, Multiculturals can not only serve the need for creative thought and innovation; they can also enhance an organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Their world view affords them the ability to help others bridge gaps of culture, language, and workplace integration.
Important to this effort, Thomas argues convincingly, is how well organizations create workplace environments that support and reward innovative efforts by all personnel. The prescriptions in this area of the book are applicable across the board, no matter the background of employees, but are sine qua non when trying to attract and retain valuable workers with Multicultural Minds:
"Research has overwhelmingly indicated that an important way in which the work environment influences creativity is through the creation of intrinsically interesting work. People are most creative when they are intrinsically motivated (the desire to work on something for its own sake) rather than extrinsically motivated by surveillance, competition, superiors, or external rewards."
"The organization, because of its powerful influence on the situation, can either foster these roles to take advantage of the multicultural mind or suppress them by creating incompatible imposed roles for these employees."
Every day, more people enter the workforce who have developed the Multicultural Mind, or who have the background and potential to do so. David C. Thomas sees this trend as a gold mine of opportunity for organizations that thrive on creativity and innovation. He argues strongly for concerted efforts to attract, retain, and develop such people as drivers of product development, leaders of working groups, and champions of diversity and inclusion efforts. A prime directive for organizations is to align themselves with the type of work experiences such people want, seek, and in which they will thrive:
"Multiculturals are sensitive to the fact they are different. They will be looking for organizations where their multicultural background is valued. Organizations seeking to attract multicultural individuals must create visible signs of an inclusive environment."
This slim volume is a must-read for anyone involved in human resources, diversity and inclusion efforts, and leaders with recruiting capability and goals. Diversity is a strength in any organization. Multiculturals offer all the benefits of diversity, squared.
The Multicultural Mind - Unleashing the Hidden Force for Innovation in Your Organization by David C. Thomas is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions, and via other outlets