December 22, 2021

Diminish the Impact of Unconscious Biases and Stereotypes

Our Cultural Agility work takes us across twenty-two time-zones, facilitating, coaching and supporting our network of practitioners. Together we equip people with tools to build bridges, create healthy team and organizational culture, connect better with customers and develop culturally agile managers and leaders.

At the core of our work lies a simple but significant shift in how we think about culture. We believe that: “Every person is on a unique cultural journey and as a result has their own unique cultural wiring and preferences.” So, in other words: we make culture a personal thing first!

Don’t get me wrong, we believe that nationality, ethnicity, and race are important parts of who we are, but deep conversations around those topics are best to be had in the context of healthy relationship.

Unfortunately, we tend to use nationality, ethnicity and race as quick fixes to put a label on people’s foreheads or to put people in simplified cultural, ethnic, or racial boxes.

We rely too much on the “outside wrapper” of color of skin, clothing, language, dialect and nonverbals to label people. As a result, we don’t connect at a deeper level with one another, and we allow ourselves to be guided by misguided perceptions that are often bias and unhelpful for developing healthy relationships.

This shift requires us to train our minds and hearts to move away from the classifications society has taught us and rely less on the ‘clues’ of the outside wrapper.

When we introduce this simple but profound shift, we always ask the following question: “What changes when you engage another person as a uniquely wired cultural human being…?”

In this article we have summarized what hundreds of people from around the world have answered to this question.

Diminishing the impact of Biases and Stereotypes

If I move away from using standardized and sweeping categories to put you in a cultural, ethnic, or racial box, I am forced to dig deeper.

It results in a question mark in my head rather than an exclamation mark!

Answering the lingering questions will require me to dig deeper and ask more questions. My mind is telling me that: “The average India, German or Brazilian doesn’t exist”, and this means my exploring is not done…

On the one hand this makes life more complicated on the other hand it opens up a whole new world.

One of our facilitators was introducing this approach to a group of her colleagues in India. They had come together in one of the large cities to work for a global company and the team represented thirteen states from across India. When the team was encouraged to apply this personal approach to culture, they told the facilitator: “Since we all have Indian passports, we never really dug deeper. We didn’t think it was relevant for our work relationships. Now that we started, we don’t want to stop. This is possibly one of the most meaningful and exciting conversations we have had as a team.”

As a result, our mind starts telling us that standardized stereotypes are unhelpful to truly know the uniquely wired cultural human being in front of me!

Classical stereotypes and biases (All Swiss are punctual, all Brazilians are boisterous, all Lebanese are flamboyant…) can’t live inside our head while at the same time believing and acting on the idea that every person is culturally unique with a unique cultural journey that has shaped them.

Unhealthy assumptions and quick fix conclusions are replaced with a desire to understand. It also slows down our minds and creates room for dialog, questions and uncovering the ‘why’ behind our thinking, speaking, and acting.

Since this approach blurs or removes the classical boundaries, it creates room for exploration and discovery.

Increased Curiosity

If every person is on a unique cultural journey, then I must become more curious to understanding your journey so that we can connect more effectively. I will want to learn how you got to where you are today, I want to understand the ‘why’ behind your approach. This takes us outside or even beyond the proverbial cultural box into a new open space of discovery.

This mindset of curiosity and intrigued results in a new freedom to explore and in the process, you discover yourself and people around you at a new level. It is also more likely that you discover what you have in common instead of only seeing your differences.

When you get to know somebody as a uniquely wired cultural human being, you have listened to their stories and have compared notes on a variety of cultural subjects, it starts to humanize the other person. As the relationship grows it is so much easier to talk about affiliations or groups that people belong to (ethnic, race, causes, leisure, work advocacy etc.) You start to see those affiliations in a less bias and more positive light!

In the process we typically discover that the boundaries created by society are often unhelpful walls that keep us from building bridges and hinder us from truly connecting.

In one situation equipping managers to use coaching techniques in their management was not going well. Managers and program leaders discovered that coaching conversations were held back by tribal and ethnic perceptions. In multi tribal or multiethnic coaching conversations, coachees often played it safe, didn’t disclose and were less willing to embrace and try new ideas. When they started to implement the principles and techniques behind cultural agility the coaching conversations started to go deeper and longer and the impact of the ‘manager as a coach’ program started to grow.

Better questions & better listening


To sustain the curiosity triggered by seeing every person as a uniquely wired cultural human being, it is essential to have the mindset of a Cultural Learner. The two will fuel one another. Therefore, we equip people with simple but powerful “Culture Acquisition” skills. It is based on combining the curiosity and inquisitiveness of the Cultural Learner with a powerful set of questions.

Felicity chose to use this approach with a friend who comes from a different cultural background than her own. She thought she knew her friend well, but by using powerful questions she discovered a whole new layer of understanding and respect for her friend. After the time they had spent together Felicity’s friend commented that being asked such meaningful questions communicated to her that her story was important and made her feel valued and respected at a deeper level! Felicity said that she thought she knew her friend, but that she learned more about her friend in one hour than in the last 4 years.

More than ever, we want our story to be heard, we want our story to matter. Our world is moving so fast, and, in some cases, we have been blocked from hearing or seeing a multiplicity of stories. If we start to see every person as a uniquely wired cultural human being, we start to create the space needed for those important stories to be heard! I believe we start to restore some of the beauty of the diversity of our world!

Relational Strength

Creating room for each person’s unique cultural journey and story is a powerful way to validate that we matter! This assists in developing the relational fabric of our work teams, our neighborhoods, our network of friends and our families!

The other impact of applying this with a group of people or a team is that people start to feel safe, and trust starts to increase!

These two elements result in multipliers that not only develop strong relationships, but also lead to higher levels of performance!

Because of high trust and a sense of safety, innovation and creativity start to increase. Team members don’t feel they need to hold back ideas or withhold their feedback on the ideas that others have contributed. As a result, the team doesn’t just have more ideas, they also are better equipped to activate the ideas that will have a positive impact on the success of the team.

I was collaborating with a diverse team last month and we incrementally and gently had been developing the safety and trust in the room. At one point a participant shared something in the group and in the midst of starting his comment he stopped and quietly looked around the room. Then somebody said: “Keep going, we want to hear your perspective!” But he said: “I actually shocked myself that I would start talking about this in the group. I have never felt so at ease and safe!”

The group affirmed him, and his team leader said: “I have seen you come alive during our sessions and I love it! I hope I can continue to create an environment where you will always feel safe enough to share in the way you did today!”

We have also seen that teams who develop a culture of high trust and high safety are able to create a team culture that is representative of the thinking, speaking, and acting of all team members not just a selected few or only the leader of the team.

This is directly linked to the KnowledgeWorkx definition of team culture = “The sum-total of the expression of the thinking, speaking and acting of its contributors.”

Impacting Team, Innovation and Creativity

We have worked on “High Performing Intercultural Team” journeys this year. In one of the teams, members were suspicious about ‘wasting’ so much time on doing activities that helped them understand each person’s cultural journey. Only when they started a structured conversation about the team culture they wanted to create did they notice how listening and empathy had increased in their team conversations! They had learned to spend more time on the ‘why’ and as a result they were able to use their deeper levels of understanding to craft a cultural fabric where everybody felt they belonged. When they asked the question: “Will this new cultural direction help us accomplish our purpose and goals?” a new sense of hope and excited started to fill the room.

Taking it further

Seeing every person as a uniquely wired cultural human being does require a bit of assistance, you need a language and a framework to ‘make sense’.

The world of psychology has created several frameworks that help us understand the drivers of the psychological side of human behavior.

KnowledgeWorkx has developed two tools that create a powerful assessment methodology and a neutral language that guide and assist you while discovering the unique cultural preferences of the people around you.

The Three Colors of Worldview helps you to navigate the deeper cultural motivators and demotivators while the 12 Dimensions of Culture from the Cultural Mapping Inventory assist you with a neutral language to make sense and navigate people’s day-to-day cultural thinking, speaking, and acting. We highly recommend that you use the links in this article to explore these tools further.

These tools are initially used for personal or self-cultural analysis through the individual reports but they are also powerful tools to analyze the culture of a team through the group reports.

I recently asked one of our Cultural Agility practitioners what he thought of our approach. He said: “Initially it may seem to create a bit of confusion because ‘old labels’ are not helpful anymore. At the same time, it makes the world a much more interesting place. Suddenly people are more interesting and there is more to explore. I also find that there is a higher likelihood of truly understanding people and that creates a level of richness in relationships that is sorely needed in our world!”

When I asked him if he would ever want to go back, he said: “No way. That would be the same as asking me to go back to a world of grey after I have just discovered that there is a world of rich colors out there!”

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Quickly becoming the global preferred choice for Inter-Cultural Intelligence development, KnowledgeWorkx promotes mutual understanding of other cultures and perspectives in the workplace, and helps teams to develop the intercultural capacity necessary to thrive in a globalized world.

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