Managing cultural diversity is an opportunity for success, not a problem

December 25, 2015

Gestionar la diversidad cultural es una oportunidad de éxito, no un problema

Henk Verschuur, manager of the Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam and academic director of the Master in Sport Management, gives us the keys to understanding cultural diversity as a plus for effective management of a company


Well, one could easily say that there has always been cultural diversity and, to a certain extent, an equal interest in managing it. In the beginning it was probably much more about how to manage different people whilst being on the top of the pyramid looking down and trying to get everybody to follow orders. Buffering information, directives and written orders to make sure that everybody followed the rules of personal mimetic isomorphism, or in other words ‘follow the leader’, was the management mantra. Nowadays, things seem to be rather more complex – people don’t simply want to follow orders and need true recognition. This is an invitation to make things simple again.


Webster’s defines ‘culture’ as “a sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” If we consider that for a minute we quickly come to the understanding that there is more than meets the eye.

Let’s take a professional top sports entity for instance. There are at least two internals: the first being the configuration of the different parts of the organization, like bookkeeping, management, talent development department, ‘A’ team department, sales, etc, etc; the second being the personal cultures like ethnic background, religion, moral standards, political orientation, social background, age and maturity, etc, etc. It looks more than juggling 12 balls in the air, and probably it is. Enter the world of Google and one gets confused by the myriad of methods, matrices and mottos, all with the aim of managing cultural diversity.

Managing cultural diversity is an opportunity for success, not a problem

Processes of change follow the groundwork of brilliant minds like Mintzberg, and use those best practices to generate consensus about the things that we have in common and how to use them for the benefit of the enterprise.

So how do you find your way in all these methods, matrices and mottos? The first question you should ask yourself is “do I really need all of this?” Do you want to rely on a system or rather go for consensus? Or for a system that generates consensus? What would be the strategy beyond strategy here? The strategy to design strategy and deliberate patterns of actions. I think that many of us have been told by our parents “treat others the way you want to be treated”, such a simple but quite difficult principle to uphold.

If this is your commitment, the consequences are that you have to listen, to absorb and accept the opinion of those that are different from you. Even when it is about which method you are going to choose to manage cultural diversity. We should think in terms of “we” rather than in “I” said Peter Drucker, and that still stands today.

But it all starts with being willing to make choices aligned with those wise words. Don’t get me wrong here, I appreciate many of those tools, but if you compare a tool with an excellent car I’d rather talk about the driver first.

So let’s first start with you, a manager holding a senior position with a large mandate. Are you willing to appreciate diversity, embrace the opinion of an ‘antagonist’, take in different perspectives, even implement parts of different cultures, etc, etc. If that’s the case then you have the right competences to think about methods, mottos, matrices to help your organization to do the same.

It is what I call the three Cs – commitment, consequence, consistency. If you say that you are committed and willing to embrace the consequences (also those who might be less convenient) then you are consistent.

We all know that a consistent leader in sport, whether it is on a management level or on the pitch, will find loyalty in his/her organization and a willingness to follow rules of engagement.


So now that we know that you can, what should your first step be?

Again, I like to skip the methods for the first step and wholeheartedly advise you to just start with few simple principles.

– Treat others the same way you would like to be treated: Do you really listen to the opinions of others, even when you disagree? Do you not draw conclusions too hastily? Do you really appreciate that you are offered different perspectives? Try to analyze it.

– Avoid just adding to the story without providing solutions: Many years ago I was taught an interesting method, a story that I summarize with the typical phrase: ‘Someone bumped my car’. Imagine a colleague comes to a meeting at work saying that someone bumped his car and it has a dent in the door. The first thing that will happen is that people will share their experiences while, in reality, they don’t contribute at all to providing a solution. Thus, the rule would be “share your opinion only when you can contribute to the process or provide a solution.”

– Always be consistent: These parameters can also be applied when we talk about cultural diversity. As for the treatment of people, many of us tend not to listen to people with different perspectives or contrary opinions, on the grounds that they come from a ‘different’ culture. Nor do we realize that someone else can help solve a problem precisely because of their cultural difference; everything that is said or done in a meeting can be valuable. Finally, consistency generates more consistency. So, they are three principles for managing cultural diversity through the simple fact of complying with them.

Managing cultural diversity is an opportunity for success, not a problem


Johan Cruyff always advocates the principles of team work and the appreciation that everyone has their own qualities, in essence ‘you can’t do it alone’. Cultural diversity is not a problem but an opportunity to score the goal.

If that is the engine that everyone acknowledges in your organization then methods might become less important. Even hardcore science sees the value of living examples in an organization and the effects of consistent behavior that in many cases surpass rigid implementation.

In my humble opinion, there is one step before the implementation process and that is not about managing cultural diversity but  MANAGING CULTURAL UNITY. The culture that we could describe as taking our own responsibility.

Henk Verschuur - Johan Cruyff InstituteHenk Verschuur

Manager of the Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam and academic director of the Master in Sport Management



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