Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Working Multicultural Model: Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

Happy new-ish year. After five iterations, hopefully Analytics and OR folks are moving along a steep and positive gradient toward achieving their 2012 resolutions! If not, apply corrections to get back on track (taking into account the leap year factor).

A 2012 goal for this tab is to explore the human element in OR/Analytics practice. The OR and (applied) applied math workplace is an increasingly multicultural one. There is an increasing exchange of skilled people between countries due to globalization. Even today, many new immigrants and foreign workers continue to be flummoxed by the myriad of seemingly strange local customs, unwritten laws, etc. that confront them upon arriving at the host workplace. These differences result in a special kind of anxiety for the entrant, and to a certain extent, to his/her host, as the two parties seek a working equilibrium to get the job done on time.The challenge for people in such a workplace is to be conscious of and recognize the prevailing cultural differences (including those that we personally judge as 'unpleasant') in an impartial manner, while also embracing the mutually beneficial and useful commonality across cultures. Blindly resolving these differences in favor of either the host's belief system or the entrant's only increases this 'anxiety' and leads to increased stress in the workplace, which can then result in a drop in productivity and morale. Clearly, there has to be a better way to make this work for everybody (and not just a vocal majority).

What are some of the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be satisfied by a healthy, working multicultural model (MCM)? A key-phrase in the corporate and university workplace-playbook is 'zero-tolerance' for discrimination based on a variety of factors such as gender, race, etc. However, this only represents a bare minimum requirement. In the pan-math community, we find pure-math types who can barely tolerate applied math types, or the other way around. In the ORMS world, we will find a few academicians who tolerate what practitioners do, and vice-versa. In the tech work-place, we can spot some science PhDs tolerating engineers who in turn tolerate off-shore developers, and managers who are trying hard to tolerate these PhD scientists, and so on. Putting these people to work together on an high-profile project can be disastrous. 'Tolerance' is merely a necessary condition for a working MCM, but is nowhere close to being sufficient.

The ideas in this post are motivated by the writings of Rajiv Malhotra, a successful (now retired) Indian-American tech entrepreneur based in New Jersey, USA. A fundamental point raised by Rajiv (in the context of inter-faith dialog) is that mere tolerance is insufficient. A key component of the ‘sufficiency conditions’ is mutual respect. Let’s see how this works.

Mutual respect in the workplace already implies the necessary condition of zero-tolerance for discrimination. It then says something stronger: equality does not mean “being the same” or being “western” in thought, dress sense, and food habits. It is not a vector comparison. Two people can be equal and yet very different, like woman and man. If people behaved and responded in a homogenous fashion, there would be little need for revenue management or indeed, analytics. Anyone who believes that it is sufficient to tolerate a colleague who is 'different' should try saying it to that person and stick around for the reaction.

Mutual respect says: I don’t patronize you by tolerating you, I genuinely respect your right to your cultural and religious beliefs, some of which I clearly recognize as being very different from mine, and at the same time, I expect the same level of respect from you for my beliefs; you may well feel your way is “better for you”, and that’s cool with me as long as you don’t bug me to join your 'better' cause since I’m quite happy where I am. In OR lingo, a workplace characterized by mutual respect functions like a ‘KKT point’; expecting something more than mutual respect also creates conflict. Stress due to the invisible and unspoken 'peer pressure to conform' is sometimes an effect of working in an atmosphere (be it a high school classroom or office space) where mere tolerance prevails at the expense of mutual respect.

All this may seem obvious, but 'implementing mutual respect' is not always easy. In the original instance, Rajiv Malhotra tried to replace the much-venerated but ultimately trite phrase “religious tolerance” with "mutual respect for others religious beliefs" within the text of grand inter-faith declarations. The results were quite interesting. To merely tolerate our co-worker's religious beliefs, gender, race, and sexual orientation is to feed a hypocritical feeling of superiority that is likely to manifest itself in our professional relationship with that person at some point in time. A tolerance-based approach works well for finding practical solutions to numerical math problems, but for human relationships, mutual respect is vital. Nothing more, nothing less.

This first post of 2012 is humbly dedicated to Sri Rajiv Malhotra. Thanks, Rajiv ji.

1 comment:

  1. Suresh, thanks for your comment. My post was directed at an internal-personal level in generic/universal small group settings. They are not directed at any particular country or creed.

    Painting with a broad brush or thought-policing is one sure recipe for disaster. Dharmic thought systems are pretty emphatic in this regard and responses are suggested with *respect* to a person's actions in a given context, and not some pre-fabricated and context-less response based on a person's membership and outcomes of birth (e.g. race, religion), or guessing 'what they thought'. The post argues against this very things and is pretty clear in the writings of Rajiv.

    However, I do agree with your general point that "Tolerating or respecting intolerance is encouraging intolerance."


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