Do Canadians Have an Advantage in International Business?

The key to doing well in multicultural management positions

By Chelsi Robichaud, Staff Writer

Cultural diversity is important in international business, and efforts are being made to put pro-diversity programs into place. Canadians have a multicultural advantage that other people may not, and some of those with roots in other countries are profiting from their genealogy.

An article written by Stephanie Levitz for Canadian Press states that “about $14 million was spent under the program to fund 140 projects and events” in 2010 to 2011. However, Levitz tells us that “that money represented only 63 per cent of what was set aside […] and the department’s marquee funding program has seen nearly 40 per cent of available funds go unused.”

The amount of immigrants acquiring citizenship in Canada has been rising over the years. Though only 60 per cent of immigrants acquired their citizenship in the 1970’s, this number went up to 73 per cent nearly 40 years later.

“The Reality” of Canada Today

Though multiculturalist presence is not a new notion in Canada, it is forever evolving. Doug Saunders writes in his article “Immigrants’ children find multiculturalism obsolete”: “For the first generation, multiculturalism was a way to feel part of the national whole; for the second, it often feels akin to a barrier to such inclusion”.

“We heard many stories […] of Canadians being hired locally and moving on to positions of great responsibility in other parts of the world,” the Chief Executive website states. “Because Canadians grow up in a multicultural society, we seem to travel well and flourish in managing others around the world.”

The article outlines how multiculturalism is present in most people’s veins. “Take me, for instance,” he writes. “Just another white guy in a suit? True, but I am an Anglophone married to a Francophone who teaches Italian.  We each have an immigrant parent and our daughter is Chinese. This is the reality of Canada today.”

Do As the Romans Do?

In an article titled “Managing Cross-Cultural Encounters: Putting Things in Context”, written by Luciara Nardon, professor at Carleton University, and Richard Steers, professor at Oregon University, it is suggested that the catch-phrase “do as the Romans do” isn’t extremely applicable in these cross-culture management situations.

“It is based on four incorrect assumptions,” the article states. “First, that all Romans (or whoever) are alike; second, that people from different cultures will behave as we expect them to in cross-cultural situations; third, that it is necessary to act like everyone else in order to get along; and fourth, that it is possible for people to mimic local behaviors without losing their authenticity and hence their effectiveness.”

The second point – that not every culture acts as we expect them to – is spot on.

Lionel Laroche’s education was focused on chemical engineering, but now he works in cross-cultural training.

“What age does the average Canadian kid make his or her first public presentation?” Laroche asks. Most Canadians know the answer to this: at a very young age. “By comparison, at what age does the average Chinese kid make his or her first public presentation?”

Cultural differences extend further than primary school, of course. Laroche goes on to explain how this effects the business world.

“Even if I know that making good presentations is important by Canadian standards, it doesn’t mean I know how to make a good presentation by Canadian standards.”

The article by Nardon and Steers’ goes on to outline the culture differences of how an individual’s clothes will be interpreted by others.

“Regardless of her cultural background, a woman’s decision of wearing a headscarf for a meeting will be interpreted differently if she is located in Saudi Arabia where headscarves are mandatory, France where headscarves are banned in some places, or Canada where wearing headscarves is an individual choice.”

Little things matter. When a person comes from a different country, things such as the age you presented in front of a group and how you present yourself can have an important impact on the people you work with.

Nardon emphasizes that success in multicultural or international settings is not entirely about being Canadian, but being a culturally informed individual.

“When we think in terms of business, we don’t think: ‘What is the nationality of this individual?’” Nardon says. “We look at: ‘Who is this individual and what is this individual’s expertise, knowledge and skills?’ I don’t know of any study that has treated a particular group as better than another particular group.”

To achieve success in management positions where employees are from diverse, multicultural backgrounds, Nardon explains that leadership is key.

“With cultural diversity, you have different understandings; different knowledge bases. Taking advantage of that means you are looking for those different perspectives to get to more innovative ideas and better solutions for problems.”

Sameness is not desired here. Celebrating our differences, and gathering them for new ideas, is what Nardon suggests will help in the cross-cultural management setting.

“You no longer have to take an international assignment to lead a group of people from a different cultural background as you,” Tim Jackson and Erik Girard write for HRvoice. “Organizations are increasingly multinational in scope, operating subsidiaries and establishing reporting structures across several cultures, making global work teams the new norm.”

The article by Jackson and Girard cites certain universal qualities that people everywhere define as positive. These include: integrity, charismatic-visionary, charismatic-inspirational and team-building.

They believe that these barriers will soon fall down in the world of business.

“If leaders can appreciate how culture influences perceptions of leadership effectiveness,” Jackson and Girard write. “They can adjust their style to produce the maximum impact and the best business outcomes.”

The Effectiveness of Pro-diversity

Discrimination in the workplace often focuses on minority groups that have been marginalized by the wider spectrum of society. This type of intolerance is present both in Canadian business and for those Canadians who travel abroad to work internationally.

Guerrero et al.,write in their article titled “Pro-diversity practices and perceived insider status” that “minority groups tend to perceive themselves and be perceived as out-group organizational members because access to key positions and resources in the organization has been historically controlled by majority groups.”

So how do business workers challenge this issue?

The article suggests that pro-diversity programs be put into place to promote equity between co-workers. “Pro-diversity practices may be implemented without damaging the attitudes and behaviors of majority group members as long as these practices offer equal chances of success rather than a more favorable treatment to lower-status groups.”

The most key aspect to these pro-diversity methods is fairness. According to Guerrero et al., it “reflects the individual perception that the organization provides the same value to all employees when human resource decisions are taken.”

Humans are social creatures, and part of our social psychological rests on judgment. People judge others to determine things about them – whether or not they are trustworthy, for example. Stereotyping and assumptions are often used in these cases, and can sometimes be useful. But in the international workplace?

Guerrero et al., write that “the creation of social groups leads to a distinction of individuals who are included in the group (the insiders or in-group members) from those who are not (the outsiders or out-group members).”

If the pro-diversity methods are to be put into place, in Canada and in foreign countries where Canadians work, it may promote a better workplace environment and relationship between co-workers of diverse nationalities. Those Canadians with multicultural roots could find the ball to be in their court, as they belong to more than one social and cultural group.

Cross-cultural management

 In the article “Cross-Cultural Management and Organizational Performance: A Content Analysis Perspective”,  Sultana et al., explain that “diversity can be understood as a scale at three levels: the internal dimensions, external dimensions and organizational dimensions”. The internal dimensions refer to our inner experiences, such as emotions, feelings and thoughts. The external dimensions include family, spouses, religion and other affairs.

 What does it take to lead a group of culturally diverse individuals, perhaps differing from yourself? According to the authors of the article, it is excellent leadership qualities.

 “Leadership is one of the leading determinants of the management of cultural diversity,” writes Sultana et al. “It is also necessary to have a transformative leadership position to bring the seeds of cultural diversity.”

 If leaders put these methods into practice, they’ll need to fulfill certain requirements. Besides a willingness to let go of stereotypes, Sultana et al., state that it requires “a long-term policy focusing communication, organizational culture, leadership influence and so on”.

Nardon explains that blatantly ignoring cultural differences will not lead to success. Acting under the presumptions that we are all “the same” will lead to complications. Our differences cross-culturally must be recognized and understood to fully integrate cultures into harmonious groups.

“Leadership is important because we need to be able to take advantage of cultural diversity,” Nardon says. “But also not be paralyzed by the challenges.”

Mark Walsh, a trainer in Cultural Integration, questions the same topic.

“What are the fundamental variables in which cultures differ?” asks Walsh. “If we can understand these, than whatever culture you go to, you can realize pretty quickly what are the important things.”

Walsh was one minute late for a business appointment in Switzerland and was told off. If he was in Britain, however, his lateness may not have posed as much of a problem. Once again, it comes down to more than a person’s nationality – but the individual’s cultural awareness.

 Put into Practice

 We’ve read about the theories. How about when it is actually put into practice? Does pro-diversity work? Are Canadian companies are trying it out?

In 2007, Scotiabank worked on a project to promote multiculturalism. An article written by Ora Morison for The Globe and Mail, Sotiabank “determined there is a growing need and opportunity to better serve the needs of Canada’s multicultural communities, particularly the newcomer segment.”

The bank isn’t alone in its efforts. The Canadian military, specifically in Vancouver, is taking this approach as well. Chuck Chiang wrote an article for the Vancouver Sun, addressing this phenomenon.

“The navy is looking to step up its recruitment efforts in Canada’s ethnic minority communities,” Chiang writes. “And with Vancouver’s Chinatown as the backdrop of the announcement, it appears Ottawa is launching its efforts with the Chinese-Canadian community.”

These two organizations, though different in purpose, appears to be embracing pro-diversity. They are including minorities and immigrants in their projects. This type of involvement in corporate events may facilitate communication between cultures. Think about it: assume you went to China, and saw that Canadians were being treated fairly. It is possible that this could affect how included you felt.

To truly call yourself a culturally aware person in Canada, is it not necessary to be aware of the cultures surrounding you? In 2004, Mina Shum said yes to this question.

Shum, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker, speaks to this reality in an interview. “The reason it is important for me to have Chinese faces [in my films] is because we need a truer representation of the world,” Shum explains. “That there are communities that intermingle with the dominant community and have their own culture that is a jumble of all the cultures that they live and breathe with.”

“There has been a push in B.C. to encourage more co-productions with the lucrative Chinese market,” writes Marsha Lederman for the Globe and Mail. “Last year the Whistler Film Festival held its inaugural China Canada Gateway for Film Script Competition, an effort to kickstart more co-productions with China.”

This desire to co-operate with the Chinese film industry offers a lot of potential for Chinese-Canadians, and other culturally aware individuals who wish to work in this field of business.



Chelsi Robichaud is a Bachelor of Humanities student at Carleton University in Ottawa. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing and playing the harp and piano. 

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