In a recent webinar about diversity, I relayed some sobering statistics about the failure of diversity programs in the United States. In spite of thousands of concerted diversity initiatives over the last 30 years, only 3.6% and 4.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and people of color, respectively, according to the Center for American Progress’s study, The State of Diversity in Today’s Workforce. Most models of diversity training haven’t worked, and many of us can understand this because of our own unpleasant or disappointing experiences with diversity, equity and inclusion.
There’s a bright side, however. We have a guiding post towards more positive and constructive change. It’s by integrating diversity programs with the profoundly wise discipline of intercultural studies.
The field of Intercultural Studies goes beyond multiculturalism in the ability to acknowledge similarities and differences between people. Through behavioral models and principles, it also empowers people to adapt their worldviews and even synthesize a new culture based on a respectful mutual exchange. It allows people to forge deep connections because of what they bring to the table and what they learn from each other. This is how culture evolves.
The intercultural framework also recognizes that diversity is more than demographic labels, backgrounds, and appearances. It’s about different ways of being, about what we think makes a good leader, what behaviors and traits, skills and abilities we think are valuable in life and at work. These inner differences are linked to the outer differences, because there is a disconnect between what mainstream U.S. culture values in people, and what some women, people of color, and other groups value. When we diversify what we think is valuable, we can be in a better position to give more equal opportunities for all.
Here’s an example of what I mean. In the U.S., we tend to value competition, individualism, efficiency, facts and data, objectivity and fairness, and emotional control. When was the last time you felt it was safe to have an emotional outburst in front of your colleagues, or say that you made a decision based on your gut feeling, or disclose you spent ten hours crafting the memo instead of the prescribed one hour? We also have a fiercely strong work-based identity. Status in career trumps family life, community involvement, and personal passions.
On the other hand, some of us want whole life balance. We value subjective, case-by-case decision-making. We want to be freely emotional. We value quality over quantity, no matter how much time it takes. But if the work culture and reward system doesn’t validate these preferences, one doesn’t fit in or get ahead. And, increasingly, more and more women and people of color – and white men – say that who they are and what they value is not what they are supposed to be and do at work. No wonder we have problems with retention.
In the U.S., we’ve inherited a value system from the industrial age that is increasingly at odds with our modern workforce. We have emerging values that are different. I argue that we fail to retain a diverse workforce because we don’t allow for diverse ways of doing work. We don’t let people be themselves at work. Yet, we don’t have to toss out the old values. Instead, we can enrich our workplaces by embracing multiple values, multiple approaches, and multiple ways of doing things – side by side. Promote the speedy high achiever and the cautious, conscientious introvert to the executive team. Their combined approach will enhance culture and creativity, and provide far wiser and more insightful decision-making.
Intercultural practices help us get from here to there. Unlike traditional diversity paradigms, the intercultural model casts no judgment and no blame against anyone. There is no good person or bad person or ignorant person. We seek compassion and understanding, empathy and forgiveness. The interculturalist does not lecture or force people into compliance. Instead, we respect where we all come from, and assume we all come with the best intentions. We shift our frame of reference continually – recognizing multiple truths and complex realities.
No one has to be an expert in this field. Cultivate and practice the key behaviors of the intercultural person: self-awareness, curiosity about others, empathy, listening, self-management of one’s emotions, tolerance of ambiguity, flexibility, and humility.
Whatever your role may be, you have the power to do this. You can lead, regardless of your title. Lead by being self-aware. Lead by being humble. Listen to others – deeply. Be empathetic. Lead by being that flexible, open-minded, respectful person – even to the jerks at work. Work in the gray zone, the world is not black and white. Be curious. Get to know people as people.
And help people become self-aware of their organizational culture, of all the ways we value certain skills and abilities and perspectives and approaches – but not others. It takes time. Diversity work is a deep culture change, not just a training or two. It may take a year or two or three. But if you can do this, you will attract and retain a diverse workforce, and your organization will reap the benefits culturally and financially.
Want to learn more? Watch the video about diversity through the intercultural lens.