Third Culture Broker

As workplaces further embrace diversity, Cultural Brokerage has become crucial for streamlining operational efficiency while bolstering creativity and innovation. 

The topic of diversity in workplaces is being treated with greater importance than ever. Not only do diverse businesses present as more inclusive and culturally sensitive, but heterogeneous models also come with considerable operational and developmental benefits. 

Research suggests that diverse teams are more creative. Surprisingly, there is less evidence on the topic than one might suspect. However, in a 2015 study, researchers from University of Birmingham and University of Waikato, uncovered that “the mechanism for improved creativity is the mental flexibility that comes with consistent interactions with someone from a culture that differs from your own”. In essence, consistent exposure to broader perspectives and worldviews, will have a positive impact on an individual’s creativity.

Diversity is proven to correlate to better financial performance. According to a recent report by McKinsey (Reference 2), companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. At the same time, companies in the bottom quartile for ethnicity and race are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns. 

However, for all of the benefits that diversity brings to teams, it can come as a risk to interpersonal cohesion.

According to a 2013 publication from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Reference 3), the benefits of team diversity are often hindered when final decisions need to be made and leadership needs to be assigned. In fact, more homogenous leadership models statistically lead to greater efficiency in decision-making through mitigated social conflict. 

This presents an immediate conflict for businesses.

On one hand, innovation is now recognized as the main competitive edge. It requires businesses to think divergently, to conceptualize with broad perspective and distinguished creativity. Companies must seek diverse teams to lead with innovation. However, without convergent thinking, streamlined management and an effective order to operations, innovations struggle to surface within the market. Therefore, there must also be a well aligned leadership culture to advance the mission. Evidence suggests that homogenous leadership is also crucial. 

Is there a middle ground for business owners? 

Cultural Brokers are the missing ingredient.

A Cultural Broker is someone who is able to recognize and articulate points of tension between two or more cultures. In a more practical context, they are people who have the skills and world experience to navigate matters of language barriers, traditional practices, and cultural differences when they become present in group environments. When a Cultural Broker is embedded into a diverse team environment, they act as a bridge for communication, knowledge sharing, psychological safety and ultimately, group unity. 

I believe that Third Culture Kids are the ideal candidates to play this valuable role. 

Raised in a culture other than that of their parents, or the culture of their country of birth, Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are individuals often characterized as being rooted in people as opposed to places. In matters of cultural brokerage, Third Culture Kids bring a number of invaluable traits to the table:

1. Integrative Complexity. TCKs often possess the ability to consider and combine multiple perspectives and points of view to create something novel. They may be more capable at identifying relevant information and communicating it between different groups.

2. Code Switching. A term that refers to one’s ability to alternate between spoken languages however in this context, I believe it translates into any variety of intellectual practices. TCKs may be able to move between different social mechanisms with ease. 

3. Observational Analysis. As a Third Culture Kid myself, I know the challenges of adjusting to new cultures and surroundings. The truth is that not all TCKs are in fact able to do so with ease – often there are immense psychological barriers. However, TCKs have a heightened ability to observe and identify these differences. 

4. Knowledge Sharing. In the most practical sense, TCKs often speak two or more languages and may understand a diversity of necessary cultural references. In a group setting, the presence of individuals able to facilitate like-minded interactions, across cultural boundaries may lend to greater psychological safety for all people involved. 

Growing up as a TCK, I faced a natural sense of insecurity that comes with a multi-faceted identity. There are quintessentially Sri Lankan Tamil aspects of my identity, yet I was also raised in the UK and Canada and worked for many years in Bangladesh, which has helped me garner a great deal from the people in my life that come from these cultures respectfully. However, in my maturation, I began to see those bi-cultural nuances of my identity as valuable, rare and special. By embracing those qualities, I have many times over been an asset to the teams I have been a part of. 

A number of examples come to mind. 

From 2010 to 2012, I owned a telecommunications company in the UK called Prio Communications. We specialized in SIM cards, predominantly focused on long-distance usage, at a time that pre-dated the role of video conferencing and calling software. Where our competitors maintained high domestic rates and low-long distance rates, we offered at par domestic rates and low long-distance rates, making our money primarily on data usage. In many ways, this strategy was built on recognizing the usage patterns of people that were maintaining on-going, global relationships with family and colleagues. They were using multiple phones or taking greater stock in systems like Viber or Skype that were on the rise at the time. In recognizing this cultural relevance, we grew the company that was bankrupt at purchase from 200 users to 65,000 users in this time. 

Around the same time, I was consulting for First Global Data. Mobile remittance was a major focus of their product and service; access to these early licenses was a major pillar to their competitive advantage. Having spent as much time as I had in South East Asia, we were able to identify the user behavior of individuals in the UK as well as places like Bangladesh, uncovering that mobile remittance was taking place illegally but happening on mass. First Global Data captured this market and in 2012 went public. Our South East Asian strategy remained a core priority for growth and led the company into international markets. 

Computek College is of course the perfect example of how my position as a Third Culture Kid has made me a valuable cultural broker. I’ve talked about the importance of connectivity in the educational context – beyond instruction and lessons. As a Third Culture Kid and in many ways a global citizen, my ability to maneuver through the cultural diversity of our student body, their families and colleagues has been crucial in uniting and connecting our work. The same can be said for many of our team members and faculty. It is truly a defining attribute of our school. 

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