Below is a reprint of my article published in the January 2020 issue of the journal, Practicing OD.
For decades, organizations in the United States have struggled with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Many reasons account for why we’ve made so little traction with DEI, but one crucial factor has received little attention: workplace culture. Many organizations still operate with cultural values that lead to the exclusion of many women, people of color, immigrants, older workers, LGBTQ community members, and others from marginalized or disadvantaged groups.
To make real progress with DEI, organizations would benefit from intercultural practices and principles. Interculturalism is both a way of being that helps people of different backgrounds connect and communicate as well as an academic discipline backed by social science research. With interculturalism, we can take stock of our traditional values and enrich our perspectives to create more effective – and happier – workplaces.
What is interculturalism?
Interculturalism is the ability to shift perspectives and adapt or create new culture. The consummate interculturalist moves among cultures and recognizes the needs of the moment to respond to situations constructively. Knowing when to speak up, when to hold back, when to be firm and direct rather than tacit and circumspect is as much an exercise in interculturalism as it is in emotional intelligence.
Greater self-awareness and expanded notions of “diversity” come with the intercultural approach. In the United States, the word “diversity” usually evokes images of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, trans-gender, and other differences we can readily see or categorize. However, the concept of diversity also includes invisible differences that cover the gamut of human experience: cognition, emotion, expression, temperament, and personality as well as vast cultural differences along national, ethnic, and class lines, among others. This is what I call “deep diversity.”
In the context of work, deep diversity is about recognizing exactly how we organize ourselves, create rules and procedures, approach problems and challenges, and lead and manage people. We become aware of the behaviors, traits, skills, and abilities we admire at work.
Dominant U.S. culture typically values people who work fast and multi-task. Many workplaces harbor a bias toward action, speed, efficiency, and quick wins. They favor those who are extroverted, charismatic, and funny, and seek overachievers who elevate career above all else. This is the kind of “talent” and “leadership potential” organizations tend to recognize and reward.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these values. The problem lies elsewhere: organizations lack awareness about how culture imbued with these values compels people to conform to a narrow range of behaviors and personality types to succeed. In the U.S., those who do not come from the dominant WASP culture feel most ill at ease.
Consider the following values in your own work and life experience:
|Facts/Data||People & relationships|
|Emotional control||Expression of emotions|
|Schedules & Deadlines||Time flexibility|
|Logic & Reason||Intuition & experience|
On the left are common U.S. values, and the values on the right are more common in other parts of the world and more dominant among women, immigrants, and people of color, according to cross-cultural studies, such as Hall (1981), Irvine & York (1995), Nisbett (2003), and Carr-Ruffino (2015). Learning to honor both sets of values creates a more inclusive and equitable culture. This intercultural process surfaces deep diversity, integrates values from our culture and from others, and creates space for a diverse workforce.
Interculturalism at work
We can wake up to culture when we find ourselves in an uncomfortable setting and engage with that discomfort to learn something new. Talking with someone and achieving a breakthrough realization, “Ah…now I understand where you’re coming from,” is an intercultural moment. To be able to do this, we cultivate a repertoire of skills throughout our lives, including, but not limited to:
- Self awareness of ourselves & other cultures
- Knowledge of other people/cultures
- Tolerance of ambiguity
These skills (Paige, 1993; Ting-Toomey, 1999; Bennett, J. M, 2014;) are universal in every setting. The best managers are intercultural without even knowing it – they bring out the best in employees by understanding and respecting each person’s different strengths, unique needs, and particular motivations. The best teams act like intercultural teams – equally contributing and harnessing every member’s input to ultimately synergize their collective knowledge and experience. They balance task and process, planning and spontaneity, speed and quality.
How do we cultivate these abilities? As in other aspects of life, we learn experientially over time, through practice and by interacting with fellow human beings. From our earliest years, we construct our identities in relation to others. Once we immerse ourselves with those who are different from us, we can reconstitute our identities and change our attitudes and beliefs. Behaving interculturally requires a challenging deconstruction of personal identity – being curious, feeling empathy, exercising self-awareness. None of this is fast or easy, but it is durable.
A developmental approach is key. Change agents and leaders must meet people where they are. Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (1993) offers a useful framework, outlining stages of tolerance towards differences among people: Denial, Defense, Minimization, Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration. Using this model as a starting point, we can shape goals customized to the needs of individuals and organizations. Here are a few examples:
“Of course we’d never discriminate.”
“I’ve earned my way to the top.”
“In the end, we’re all the same.”
“Tell me more…”
“We need all voices at this meeting.”
“Everyone’s input is in this plan.”
All this requires hard work, but it is worth it. This anonymous quote from a client survey sums it up: “We’ve come so far in learning to listen and value each other as human beings. My worldview has changed….It’s a journey, but we’re creating a wonderful place to be around here.”
Beginning the Journey
I believe most organizations fail to retain a diverse workforce because they don’t allow for diverse ways of doing the work. We grow accustomed to culture without understanding it. Overcoming unconsciousness and achieving self-awareness of our culture is a critical first step. If “know thyself” is the bedrock of personal wisdom, then “know thy culture” is the foundation for adaptive, successful and truly diverse organizations.
Learning to value other cultures, discovering deep diversity, and embedding intercultural principles alone won’t be enough to reverse centuries of injustice, but they are the keystones for building meaningfully diverse workplaces. In conjunction with unconscious bias training, education on privilege, and equity-driven hiring and retention efforts, interculturalism lays a foundation for lasting change. With it, organizations have the tools, capacity, and wherewithal to forge an inclusive culture.
Bennett, J. M. (2014). Intercultural competence: Vital perspectives for diversity and inclusion. In B. M. Ferdman and B. R. Deane (Eds.), Diversity at work: The practice of inclusion. (1st Edition). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Bennett, M J. (1993). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R. M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press
Carr-Ruffino, N. (2015). Managing diversity: People skills for a multicultural workplace. (10th edition). Needham Heights, MA: Pearson
Hall, E.T. (1981). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books
Irvine, J. J. and York, D. E. (1995). Learning styles and culturally diverse students. In Banks, J.A. & Banks, C.A.(Eds), Handbook of research on multicultural education. New York: Macmillan
Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and westerners think differently…and why. New York: Free Press
Paige, R. M. (1993). Trainer competencies for international and intercultural programs. In R. M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press
Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating across cultures. (First ed.) New York: The Guilford Press