3 key concepts to understand cultural diversity (Part 1 of 3)

 “All people are the same; only their habits differ.”


This is the first part of a three-part blog series that explores cultural diversity: key concepts, barriers and enablers. I’m focusing on what you need to know and to do in order to avoid cultural misunderstandings and navigate nimbly cultural differences.

With globalisation, increased migrant flows, and technology progress, multicultural teams are increasingly commonplace.

Cross-cultural research and training have existed for many years. But up until recently, they were mostly focused on expats. With globalisation, increased migrant flows, and technology progress, more and more leaders lead multicultural teams. Even if they’ve never left their home countries.

I recently spoke with the director of a growing start-up who felt the need to become more cultural savvy as he manages a virtual global team with employees based in Europe, Asia, and the US. A survey found that 64 percent of multinational employees are involved in virtual teamwork, with many team members based in different countries.[i] In big cities, it is not uncommon to work in a multi-cultural environment, with colleagues born all over the world.

One of my biggest drivers in life has always been to live and work internationally. I’m fascinated by different cultures and languages. I married a foreigner. And international assignments are by far more exciting to me than “domestic” ones. I belong to this increasing species of “global cosmopolitans,” people with extensive international experience and a positive attitude towards cultural differences. Even global cosmopolitans can struggle at times to feel comfortable with and not to be judgmental of other cultures. I had an American boss whose emails were so short, with no niceties at all, that they felt like a stab in my heart.

3 Key concepts to understand cultural diversity

  • Culture is defined as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.”[ii] Culture describes group behaviours, not individual behaviours. Individuals are unique and are influenced by different group cultures (national, corporate, professional, family cultures, etc.). So, don’t be surprised when you meet a Russian who doesn’t behave in the typical “Russian way.”
  • Often when we refer to cross-cultural differences in the workplace, we are referring to different national cultures. However, the paradigm “country equals culture” is changing with immigrant flows. In fact, research shows that there can be more cultural gaps within countries than between countries.[iii] For instance, a group of mathematicians from different countries might share more in common than a random group of people from the same country.
  • Ethnic diversity versus cross-cultural diversity. There are overlaps between the two concepts. But ethnic diversity refers mostly to the cultural diversity you can find within a country (nationals and immigrants), whereas cross-cultural diversity refers mostly to different national cultures. This is today’s article focus. I also wrote a specific blog series about ethnic diversity that you can find HERE.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Let me know what you think about it in the comments below!

This is an excerpt from one of the chapters of my bookSucceed as an inclusive leader – Winning leadership habits in a diverse world”. To get my articles and updates directly in your inbox, sign up for my newsletter.

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[i] Engaging and Integrating a Global Workforce, The Economist Intelligence Unit, SHRM Foundation, February 2015.


[iii] Bradley Kirkman, Vas Taras, and Piers Steel, Research: The Biggest Culture Gaps Are Within Countries, Not Between Them, Harvard Business Review, May 2016.

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