Refugees and Immigrants in U.S. Organizations: What Type of Leadership Is Needed?

Photo courtesy of US Global Health Fellows Program.

At no time in U.S. history have the fields of leadership and management been so profoundly challenged by the diversification of workers in organizations. As two thirds of the global migration heads into the U.S., American companies and organizations continue to witness the spectacular influx of many foreign workers whose participation in domestic organizations intensifies the already existing U.S. diverse workplace.

With the entry into U.S. organizations of foreign workers comes the issue of demographic differences that each ethnic group brings with it into the organization on one hand, and the cultural clash and rivalry commonly observed within organizations between in-groups and out-groups, on the other hand. From these elements comes up the critical issue of leader-follower relationship in which Western-based leadership and management are compelled to negotiate an organizational culture with a culturally diverse workforce.

Confronted with such host of challenges, the question becomes: what kind of leadership do U.S. organizations really need to cope with their diverse workforce and stimulate organizational effectiveness?

It is important to realize that diversity issues such as language, gender, sexual identity differences; cultural, race, ethnic differences; education, social status, nationality differences; religion, preferences and inclinations differences are not just mere natural or acquired dissonances to which organizations can remain dismissive or attempt to conciliate through a simple set of organizational policies. When they are not understood, valued, taken into their real context, and effectively employed, they can pretty much affect the effectiveness and stability of an organization.

For example, in a dysfunctional diverse organization, workers can be operating under a group vibe without caring for each other’s’ feelings or challenges, instead of working under a team spirit where differences are transcended by a prevailing collective commitment to achieving goals as one, for the interest and appreciation of everybody.

In most cases, companies overlook these differences issues and focus on their profits and apparent organizational stability to assume that everything is on the right track. But no one bothers to ask how much stable and financially sound an organization would have been if apparent and underlying issues related to differences were treated as part of the main drive of an organization’s success or failure.

Many scholars have supported the idea that a well-managed diverse workforce increases an organization’s performance. However, all we can say or expect regarding an effective diversity management within organizations rests primarily on the shoulders of leadership. To build a diversity-sensitive organization, upper leadership, starting with the CEO, should honestly adhere not only to an inclusive-based policy, but also to the commitment to promoting behaviors and procedures that reflect such policy. The purpose is not only to develop a more inclusive policy, but also and above all, to instill among and within workers values that promote mutual consideration and respect among diverse organizational groups, as well as strategies that would unite all ethnic groups in achieving the organization’s goals, while remaining attentive, proactive, and responsive to sensitive issues that each ethnic group presents.

It should be always important to note that some organizational behaviors are not only driven by demographic differences in the workforce, they are also caused by social factors that organizational leaders should be aware of in dealing with their workers individually but also collectively as members of a social network, which is the organization.

While the need for translators and interpreters becomes highly imperative on sensitive issues that involve workers’ interests, today’s organizational leaders ought to be culturally literate, globally oriented, and cognizant of all the complex interplays between organizational group members and their respective differences in the workplace.

At last, no one should be naïve to ignore the difficulty today’s organizations face in terms of managing diversity. Like it is always the case between in-groups and out-groups in their struggle for primacy on one hand, and integration, on the other, native workers or groups within organizations would like to uphold their traditional values and norms, and so would foreign workers. This leads to the proverbial “you can get someone out of the village, but you cannot get the village out of him”. Some natural and acquired values are deeply rooted inside us that it is simply difficult to trade or eradicate them for the benefit of a common, inclusive organizational culture that accommodates all demographic differences without alienating any ethnic group.


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