January 6, 2020

The Key to Unlock Success in Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Initiatives

Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging initiatives are more successful if participants are intercultural learners and have developed a personal curiosity and appreciation about those different from themselves.

Along-side leadership, team, quality and ethics, diversity is an often talked about in business. At the same time, it is also a controversial topic, often not understood and a topic that can unleash a wide variety of emotions.

Diversity thinking is rooted in western social justice approaches as well as legislation that came out of the civil rights movement. In recent years a lot of research and writing has focused on the business benefits of implementing diversity, inclusion and belonging (in this article shortened to “D&I”) strategies.

Western designed D&I approaches have been exported to the rest of the world in a variety of ways. In many cases, the approaches were promoted as ‘universally applicable, best practices.’ This, in and of itself, is evidence that quite a few D&I initiatives were not designed with an Inter-Cultural Intelligence mindset. This makes the assumption that D&I initiatives can be designed in one part of the world and universally deployed. This way of thinking seems to forget that every D&I initiative will, in big or small ways, bring change into the cultural fabric of a society and therefore needs to be contextualized. Not just in terms of language and implementation, but also in terms of underlying assumptions and the actual design of the approach.

At the heart of D&I we look at people who have been excluded from certain roles and conversations and ask, “How can we make sure they have a voice and a platform?”

In Europe and North America, as well as places like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa this has led to a focus on pillars of diversity: protecting against unconscious bias and discrimination based on things like ethnicity, minority group status, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and military service.

This has a significant impact on legislation and political agendas around diversity & inclusion, with many related laws being introduced over the past 60 years. These laws have caused many organizations to take D&I serious. But for true progress to be made in D&I initiatives, we need a strategy that puts the (cultural) person at the center.

The Unintended Consequence of Legislation

The growth of D&I related legislation and a variety of political agendas has unfortunately given birth to a number of unintended consequences. One of our seasoned experts working in North America says: “It might be the right or fair thing to do, but it creates other problems if all parties impacted are not part of the journey of change and understand the ‘why’ of investing differently in people who are marginalized.”

Research by a variety of organizations has shown that integrating D&I strategies in recruiting and promoting will improve diversity in the workforce. At the same time, D&I sceptics have often mentioned that there is no direct business benefit. They also assert that many D&I initiatives don’t actually equip participants to meaningfully relate and work together with people from different backgrounds. This can result in participation that remains a sort of tokenism: externally complying with what is required, but internally seeing these things only as affirmative action imposed on them from the outside. This can create dangerous undercurrents and the wrong type of tribalism in organizations.

The difficulty with relying on legislation and policies to drive D&I is that they do not go deep enough. They do not actually help people with developing the competencies and skills needed to improve their ability to perceive the cultural world around them, adapt cultural habits, and create organizational cultures that embrace diversity.

Over the years, KnowledgeWorkx has partnered with local companies and large international organizations in 70 countries; in government, academia, NGOs, and the commercial sector. During that time, we have consistently found our best success in this area comes from starting at the personal cultural level, a cultural ‘in-side-out’ approach.

The biggest impact is made, not at the legal or policy level, but at the heart level! The most fundamental question that lies at the heart of succeeding or failing in any D&I initiative is this: “How do I, deep down inside, feel and think about ‘difference?’ And “How does that influence how I speak and act?”

This requires us to start focusing on approaches that might traditionally not have been part of D&I work. The more diverse an environment, the more challenging it becomes to answer this question: How do I engage with colleagues and with the fabric of our organization in such a way that all contributors feel they feel safe, belong and are thriving relationally as well as professionally?

A Different Approach

It is hard enough to try and answer that question when you are surrounded by people who are similar to you, but it gets infinitely more complex when diversity of all kinds starts to increase.

The other challenge is that we all have our own natural cultural inclination to deal with an organizational or relational challenge in a certain way. But if we are not interculturally agile ourselves, even with the best of intentions, we are likely to cause more challenges, not less.

Let me give you an example. In the last few years you might have heard the phrase: “Bring your whole self to work.” In and of itself a great concept. The intention behind that initiative was noble, the desire to give people an opportunity to be heard, seen, and accepted for everything they are should be applauded.

Unfortunately, the introduction of ‘bring your whole self to work’ unleashed some major challenges.

Let’s use our Three Colors of Worldview© to explain why it only works for people who have a certain cultural wiring.

‘Bring your whole self to work’ was created by people who are Innocence/Guilt (I/G) oriented on the Three Colors of Worldview grid. They also have a cultural wiring that believes in what we call ‘individual accountability’ (as opposed to ‘community accountability’). They believe it is important to treat everybody fairly and to create room for individual expression.

I/G oriented people will jump in and use the opportunity to ‘do what is right’, to express their individuality and likely they will experience feelings of fairness and even liberation.

If somebody is from a Power/Fear orientation they might respond in two ways. They will evaluate the ‘bring your whole self to work’ initiative using one central question in their head: “Will disclosing/expressing more of myself increase my power and influence or not?” If they feel more disclosure and expression will increase their power and influence, they will go for it. But if the opposite is true, they will shrink back and disclose/express less.

When we analyze the design and roll-out of the ‘bring your whole self to work’ initiative, we see three things:

  1. The program wasn’t designed with an Inter-Cultural Intelligence mindset
  2. The DNA of the organizational culture might not be ready to embrace the initiative
  3. The people in the organization didn’t have a chance to acquire the intercultural agility needed to successfully embrace and internalize the initiative

“What has worked is an additional focus, not a shifting focus: an additional focus on how we can bring the majority into the D&I dialogue. And one of the ways you can easily start that journey is by activating an awareness or understanding about culture and self-culture in individuals.” – D&I executive Financial Service Organization

It may seem simplistic but after working with D&I leaders in a variety of industries across multiple continents, we have come to the following conclusion: “Developing intercultural agility is a natural key that unlocks the D&I conversation at a new level.”

If organizations want to pursue intercultural agility, there are two significant shifts in thinking that need to happen:

  1. They need to unlearn making nationality/ethnicity/race the starting point of cultural conversations
  2. They need to learn making our unique personal cultural wiring the beginning of the conversation

This shift has a profound impact on the potential success of any D&I initiative. We are convinced that developing inter-cultural agility is the key to unlock real results in all areas of diversity and inclusion initiatives. If you can change the way people think about cultural difference, you have a significantly higher chance of changing the way they think about all other diversities.

This is why we are so passionate about inviting people on the journey of becoming a committed intercultural learner. This might be an unexpected starting point of a journey that expands to cover gender or economic situation or any other form of diversity, but stay with us as we explain how it works…

Intercultural Critic vs. Intercultural Learner

Let’s first address this by stating the opposite: If somebody decidedly wants to remain an intercultural critic, they will also be reluctant, critical or even hostile to any other form of diversity. Unless individuals are committed to becoming intercultural learners instead of intercultural critics, there is very low probability they will change.

What do we mean by these terms ‘intercultural critic’ and ‘intercultural learner’? An intercultural critic is someone who approaches ‘difference’ with suspicion. They will see the person who is different as somebody to be avoided or as a potential threat to their thinking and their way of life. A Cultural Critic either consciously or subconsciously believes their own preferences define what is normal and good and tends to distance themselves from those who are different, often perceiving people from different cultures through negative stereotypes.

An intercultural learner, on the other hand, has come to recognize that the main drivers underpinning all human culture are neutral. The Cultural Learner believes they have much to learn from those who are different. In light of this, a Cultural Learner is curious about others and eager to understand and develop cultural agility so that they can meet and interact with others in a more meaningful and effective way.

Whether or not people have become intercultural learners or are still intercultural critics influences nearly everything in the D&I process, because when it comes to inclusion, the main issue is how well people are able to handle changes that disrupt their cultural comfort zone.

You will find it hard to sustain a conversation with an intercultural critic about introducing teammates who bring a ‘difference’ into the team. Through the eyes of an intercultural critic, any form of ‘difference’ will challenge their cultural perspective. So, if the intercultural critic believes certain roles are reserved for women and certain roles are reserved for men, then a gender initiative will not succeed unless the cultural critic is looking at the initiative with the attitude of an intercultural learner. Trying to change an intercultural critic who has firm believes about gender roles results in trying to fight two battles at the same time. You are trying to invite the Cultural Critic to become an intercultural learner, and you are trying to change how the Cultural Critic thinks about gender roles. This is why we believe it is crucial to first nurture an intercultural learner culture to increase the success rate of D&I initiatives that focus on equity in other diversities.

Intercultural learners have become aware of the good that can come from others being different and that gives them an edge. They have a desire to understand, learn and grow, and they are able to appreciate the human needs of people currently on the outside, as well as the benefits of including them. They are also more likely to want to learn the skills and competencies required to create the ‘third cultural space’ needed to make room for diversity so that people get a true sense of belonging.

An intercultural learner is naturally focused on being curious and showing empathy. They have a genuine interest in the unique cultural wiring of the other person. They want to know, and they want to understand! Intercultural learners are naturally more inclusive and can more easily be equipped with the skills and competencies needed.

We have discovered two global trends that seem to hold true for millennials around the world:

  1. They want to have a meaningful purpose to pursue
  2. They want to belong, be part of a ‘tribe’

This is probably why the concept of belonging resonates around the globe. To be able to recognize how belonging shows up in a certain cultural setting is a crucial pre-requisite to being able to develop a culture of belonging! This is another reason why developing intercultural learners is so important.

Asking “How do other people experience belonging?” and “What may be different for them?” not only leads our organizations to become more diverse in makeup, but more relationally inclusive as well. It starts the process of us getting to know each other to the point where we can begin making personal commitments like: “Here is what I will do for you to help you feel like you belong.”

Inter-Cultural Agility Is the Key

We are firm believers that if you want to start addressing any form of diversity in an intercultural context, the first thing you need to do to unlock the conversation is to develop your people’s cultural agility. Only as their cultural agility reaches the next level will people be able to see from other points of view and progress in discussing change.

We have seen that leaders who become intercultural learners automatically start making progress in other areas of diversity as well. You still need to have intentional conversations around each one, but the probability that a leader will move forward with his or her team in any of these areas is much higher if the team has decided to become intercultural learners, as opposed to critics.

How Do People Become Cultural Learners?

At KnowledgeWorkx we use a number of tools to help people through this process, focusing on the areas of Perception Management, Self-Management, and Relationship Management.

We start by leading people to explore their own perception of the world and perception of themselves. How do we as humans interpret our experiences? And how can we perceive the world more constructively, in a way that better allows us to move forward?

After setting the stage with these exercises, we move into the areas of Self-Management and Relationship Management. A crucial component in this process is to equip people to ‘let go’ of making nationality or ethnicity the starting point of thinking about culture. We have a great toolkit to ‘make culture personal’. We believe each person has their own unique cultural wiring. In our globalized world the outside wrapper can lead us up the garden path. This is why we are firm believers in self-cultural analysis.

Our Inter-Cultural Intelligence toolkit to equip you includes the Three Colors of Worldview© and the 12 Dimensions of Culture©.

For each, people fill out an assessment instrument and receive a personal cultural report, with the option for a team comparison report as well.

To further understand self and others, we use behavioral assessments like the six specialized reports available in the Everything DiSC® assessment library/a>.

As people begin to move from being intercultural critics to intercultural learners, it opens up entirely new paths for them both as individuals and as teammates. This not only facilitates discussions related to Diversity & Inclusion but can function as a key step in the team’s growth into a high-performing intercultural team.

We regularly see collaboration increase, trust rise, and productivity improve. People find a new desire to share information, even with people who are culturally different, and this sparks innovation and creativity.

Check out more articles on our KnowledgeWorkx Resource  page.

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