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Navigating The Complexity Of Cultural Diversity

Cultural complexity is a relevant topic for business leaders around the world, but with South Africa’s vast tapestry of cultures, learning to successfully navigate cultural complexity is all the more important.


Craig Stewart of The Warehouse gives practical advice on how to engage the diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of partners, staff and suppliers. Drawing on his years of advocacy and race relations experience, he explores the difference between compliance and commitment to change, and challenges leaders to identify the different cultural lenses affecting the way they view the world.

In his book Running the Amazon, author Joe Kane captures the incredible journey of their team of 12 adventurers who made history by navigating the entire 4,200-mile Amazon River journey. It was a pioneering expedition, from source to mouth, that pushed the boundaries of human limitation around virtually every bend. In one particular instance their team had come to a narrow canyon, the river bending sharply to the left and disappearing out of sight. All that was heard in the distance was the sound of rushing rapids. For a day or two, the team did their best to see what was on the other side, or to find an alternative route. But in the end, they realised, they just had to keep going forward.

They had to face the point of no return.

As leaders today, we face our own set of rapids. The world in which we now live is complex, the journey often uncharted. It’s tempting to become paralysed by that rushing sound of what may destroy us, and to beach our progress on the shore, hoping that the moment will somehow pass. But we no longer have the choice of a smooth, safe paddle.

Gone are the days when one dominant culture shaped the workplace or organisational agenda. God is calling us to a higher ethic that is based on cultural diversity, gender equality and a rich collaboration of perspectives. The key to navigating these complexities is making Christ the fulcrum. As Galatians 3:28 puts it: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

With the gospel as the great leveller we can move forward into complexity, even when it’s risky and counter-intuitive. Here are a few things I have learned along the way.

  • Compliance or commitment? You choose


We have a choice to make. We can either comply with current regulations based on necessity – or we can commit to the change with rigour and conviction.

Donors want to back initiatives where diversity is not lip service, but a lived reality – expressed as gender equality, and ethnic and cultural inclusivity. It’s easy to be diverse on paper in order to accommodate funding preconditions and donor expectations. But an attitude of half-hearted compliance is a bit like taking permanent residence on that river bank – although we’re not risking death around the corner, we will never go anywhere.

The better way is to choose to keep going, in spite of the risks around the bend. By committing to a new and more collaborative way, we take a whole-hearted approach that sees the unfamiliar as an opportunity. Culturally transformative spaces will foster better work in time, because that kind of synergy unlocks strength and resilience when based on relational trust. It leaves room to be wrong, and to write new narratives together.

  • Apply a different set of spectacles


How we see things, matters. As a colleague of mine says, “What we see is not what we’re looking at, but what we’re looking with.” Particularly in this cross-cultural space it is important to acknowledge that the lenses through which we frame our truths and shape our agendas, are often drastically different.

Take the process of grieving, as a cultural case in point. On the one hand, when a family within a western culture suffers the loss of a loved one, we respond respectfully by giving them space and stepping away to accommodate their privacy. Many South African cultures, on the other hand, do the opposite – death is a time for the community to step in, to draw near. Recently a colleague passed away from cancer, and we had to learn a more compassionate way of mourning – based on our presence, not on our absence. We had to be around – not just for the first night, but for the weeks following. We had to see the world through someone else’s lenses.

  • Make space for other voices


There is a kind of learning and recognition that happens when we allow other people into the centre of sensitive conversations. We develop a capacity for debate and divergent thinking, which cultivates imagination and creativity. We see that coherence, not competition, emerges when all these different perspectives are assigned a value and voice.


To grow this dialogue capacity, I am learning to hold back, to stay quiet and to allow the space for other voices to fill the uncomfortable silence. Often what this means is that I won’t speak before three other people have spoken first. It’s not always easy to do, especially when coming from the cultural milieu that rewards the loudest, sharpest and most opinionated in the room. But if you can learn to withhold your voice, if you can push through the awkward silence and wait a while – those voices will start to speak, and the conversation will become robust and richer.

  • Live in the disequilibrium


As leaders, we tend to treat disequilibrium as the enemy to progress. Instinctively we want to restore the equilibrium to some form of manageable order as soon as possible, so we apply technical solutions to address the chaos – we fire the CEO, change the branding, buy bean bags and a better coffee machine. Anything to make the problem, or more correctly the experience of disequilibrium, go away. Alternatively we ignore the situation, hoping that if we leave it for long enough it will dissipate and we’ll be able to move forward.

Over time it becomes clear that neither of these approaches work, according to adaptive leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz. He says that by trying to avoid or eliminate the discomfort of disequilibrium, we are only making it worse – we are literally throwing ourselves into deeper states of dysfunction down the line. The art of leadership is rather learning to leverage healthy dissonance – to live with just enough distress in the system to keep moving, but not so much that it will destroy you.

We need to ask ourselves, within our organisations and our nation as a whole, “Where am I doing damage control rather than patiently seeking God’s wisdom and guidance? What are some of the uncomfortable conversations that I am avoiding?” Jesus went straight into Samaria, Israel’s enemy territory, to drink from a well with one of society’s throwaways. He went to the unwanted – and through an uncomfortable encounter with an adulteress saw the gospel spread throughout Samaria.

Where are our proverbial wells? In what areas is God asking us to go off the map and enter new lands that feel like enemy ground? Needless to say, I don’t have all the answers. I am just trying to learn, faster than the pace of my mistakes. But I do believe, if we keep moving into these spaces with God’s leading, we will see the Kingdom come in unimaginable ways.

Craig Stewart

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