UAE-based leaders with very diverse teams must have honest conversations and manage their emotions if they want their staff to collaborate and innovate.
Diversity of UAE workplaces is a difficult matrix
It’s no surprise that someone who speaks six languages and has lived in six countries coaches people on cultural diversity.
Dawn Metcalfe, 40, is Irish. She has lived in Dubai for eight years, having taught in Japan for three years and lived in the United Kingdom for nine, China for two and Thailand for one.
Her French and German are degree-level, she speaks a little Irish Gaelic, some Chinese and her Japanese “used to be pretty good”.
Ms Metcalfe created PDSi, a training, coaching and facilitation company, in 2010, two years after she arrived in Dubai from the UK to set up a local branch for a London-based management consultancy. It has now grown to a sizeable 20 staff.
The business was originally called Performance Development Services (PDS) and recently moved from a free zone to mainland Dubai, in line with regulations for training companies set by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority and Dubai Department of Economic Development.
Clients include Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, along with clients in the financial, fast-moving consumer goods and construction industries who cannot be named.
UAE-based executives are certainly looking for help to bring together very diverse teams to collaborate and innovate. A survey of more than 1,000 people into social integration last year, commissioned by The National and carried out by YouGov, found that 76 per cent felt that nationality had an effect on the workplace.
Speaking at the recent Human Capital Forum in Dubai, which she chaired, Ms Metcalfe says: “Diversity should lead to creativity and innovation – that’s what all the studies show. But that’s not what I see when I or my colleagues go into businesses: we see it leading to miscommunication, increased stress, lack of accountability, mistakes being made that could be avoided – all kinds of negative consequences.
“Sometimes people don’t like to talk about the fact that they’re having difficult conversations, but everybody’s having these difficult conversations.”
Ms Metcalfe is already the author of one book, Managing the Matrix, which has been translated into Arabic, and is now working on her second, which will act as a companion to PDSi’s first modular and off-the-shelf training course, HardTalk, designed to help executives fuse diverse teams.
“The market was saying we really need this in health care, or we’re in construction and we need to talk about safety, or we need our teams to work really well together, or we need to collaborate better or make better decisions,” she says.
“We’ve even trained some compliance officers because they have difficult conversations, like lawyers. So it’s really for anybody who has difficult conversations – which, let’s face it, is all of us.”
As an example, Ms Metcalfe says that a “truth” may be the simple fact that someone sits on a table or is late. But through our own individual filters – which comes from culture, gender, education, our parents and upbringing – we arrive at a certain behaviour through the emotions that are triggered, without seeing other potential causes.
In the United States, sitting on the table could be seen as relaxed, whereas in Japan it is disrespectful. In the US, lateness is seen as disrespectful or lazy whereas “Brazilians don’t even notice”.
“We tend not to notice the potential: we think we understand the truth,” Ms Metcalfe says. “Then emotion leads to our behaviour. The only way to manage behaviour, which is the only thing you can do, is to manage your emotions. We have to be aware of the potential leading to our emotion and that there are other potentials – that someone was not trying to be rude in sitting on the table or turning up late.”
So how should a manager with multicultural staff handle a tricky situation?
“Be grown-up in your conversation and start with the truth – ‘I saw you on the table’, ‘I noticed you were 15 minutes late’ – and be humble. In high-pressure situations the brain stops working. We teach cognitive preparation, and to speak softly and listen hard.”
Ms Metcalfe says she never intended to be a “serial expat” but left Ireland at 17 because it was a small country and she “wanted to be anonymous”. So she moved to England to study. “I studied languages so I was always going to live abroad. But I never really thought I’d spend so much time in Asia. Opportunities kept presenting themselves: it was serendipity.” But she says her extensive travels have given her some strengths.
“While I wouldn’t pretend for a moment to be colour-blind – I think that’s just rude – I do think that I have an ability to see people as people. I can imagine lots of different filters they may have, not just their race or culture – although of course those play a role.”
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