Working Globally: Linda Toyota

‘As the World Turns:’ We can be more productive together if we are aware of cultural nuances

When I look at Houston, the title of the long-running television show, “As the World Turns,” comes to mind. Houston is undergoing an ethnic and cultural transformation and at the same time its reputation continues to grow as a place where people can dream and succeed.

The city’s transformation into an international megalopolis has happened within the past few decades. The metropolitan region is now home to nearly 6 million people. This growth has been significant, but the nature of the growth is also of interest.

Between 2000 and 2010, Houston added more than 1 million people, which is more than any other metropolitan area in the U.S., according to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. Additionally, the Kinder Institute found that Houston has become the most racially/ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the country during this period. Thus, it is not only Houston’s size that has grown but its diversity as well.

The Asian-American segment is booming

One demographic that continues to grow in Houston is the Asian population. According to the Greater Houston Partnership, the Asian population in Houston has grown 70 percent between 2000 and 2010. This trend is not exclusive to Houston. Asian-Americans are the fastest growing multicultural segment in the country, increasing nearly 58 percent between 2000 and 2013, which is nearly five times faster than that of the general population, according to The Nielsen Co. report “Significant, Sophisticated and Savvy: the Asian American Consumer.”

As the president of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, I have the opportunity to interact with Houston’s Asian business community and Greater Houston’s business community. Both of these groups continue to have increased interaction with one another as Houston’s internationalism continues to rise. As such, this vantage point has allowed me to pinpoint the issue of cultural misunderstanding as a barrier to better collaboration and productivity for all.

Understanding the relationships

The pattern I perhaps see most is related to how misconceptions of cultural behaviors lead to misunderstanding and sometimes missed opportunities. The truth is that when working within a global context, we encounter individuals whose behaviors in business environments are markedly different than to what we are accustomed. Sometimes misinterpretations of these different behaviors act as a barrier to productivity, collaboration and innovation.

In his book, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies,” Scott E. Page, a professor of political science and economics at the University of Michigan, asks the essential question for a rapidly globalizing world: “How can we all be more productive together?”

Page says the answer is actually in environments with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Our differences are what make us stronger. Other studies have shown that groups that include a range of perspectives and skill levels outperform like-minded experts.

In the global world today, we must all play an active role in breaking down barriers that prevent us from reaping the rewards of embracing diversity. One of the most common barriers we face are cultural ones. We may perceive the cultural social practices of one group to signify something completely different than intended because we understand it through our cultural lens. However, it is to our benefit to educate ourselves and look below the surface.

This can often be done by studying the practices of other countries or by joining diverse organizations. Often, we share the same values with those we interact and hope to collaborate with. We must not let misperceptions stand in the way of realizing the true potential of what can come of embracing diversity.

Linda Toyota is president of the Asian Chamber of Commerce of Houston. With more than 20 years experience in the nonprofit community, she has worked with a wide array of nonprofit organizations including the Holocaust Museum Houston, the Houston Technology Center, the Texas Heart Institute and the Houston Area Women’s Center. Contact her at [email protected].