Our Cultural Agility work takes us across 22 time-zones, facilitating, coaching and supporting our network of practitioners. Together we equip people with tools to build bridges, create healthy team and organizational cultures, 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 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 allow ourselves to be misguided by biased perceptions which are unhelpful for developing healthy relationships. As a result, we don't connect at a deeper level and rely too much on the "outside wrapper" of skin color, clothing, language, dialect and non-verbals to label people.
A shift is required - 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?"
Here is a brief sampling of answers to this question that we received from people around the world:
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 this question requires me to ask more questions. As I now know that the average Indian, German or Brazilian doesn't exist, this means my exploring is not done…
Diminishing the Impact of Biases and Stereotypes
On the one hand this simple shift in thinking makes life more complicated, whereas on the other hand it opens up a whole new world as we come to realize that standardized stereotypes cannot help us to truly know the uniquely wired cultural human being in front of us!
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 are all Indian, 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.”
Classical stereotypes and biases (all Swiss are punctual, all Brazilians are boisterous, all Lebanese are flamboyant...) can't remain in our thinking once we believe and act on the idea that every person is culturally unique with a unique cultural journey that has shaped them.
Unhealthy assumptions and jumping to conclusions are replaced with a desire to understand. This slows down our thinking, leaving room for dialog, questions and uncovering the ‘why’ behind our thinking, speaking, and acting. With the classical boundaries removed from our minds, now there is room for exploration and discovery.
This mindset of curiosity results in a new freedom to explore how people around you got to where they are today and the ‘why’ behind their approach. In the process, you discover yourself and others 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, when 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 with less bias and in a more positive light!
During 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 multi-ethnic 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. Therefore, we equip people with simple but powerful "Culture Acquisition" skills, using 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 four 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!
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 impact of applying this with a group of people or a team is that people start to feel safe, trust starts to increase, resulting 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 feel free to share their ideas and their feedback on the ideas that others have contributed. As a result, the team is better equipped to activate the ideas that will have a positive impact on the success of the team, creating a 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.
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 started to share something in the group when 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!”
This experience reminded me of 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 been working on "High Performing Intercultural Team" journeys. In one of the teams, members were suspicious about 'wasting' so much time on 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 themselves the question: “Will this new cultural direction help us accomplish our purpose and goals?” there was a new sense of hope and excitement in the room.
Taking It Further
The world of psychology has created several frameworks that help us understand the drivers of the psychological side of human behavior.
Seeing every person as a uniquely wired cultural human being does require some assistance; KnowledgeWorkx has developed a framework and tools to help.
We have two assessment tools that create a powerful assessment methodology and a neutral language to 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 gives you a neutral language to assist in navigating the day-to-day cultural thinking, speaking, and acting of the people around you. Please use the links in this article to explore these tools further.
The individual profile reports are used for personal or self-cultural analysis and the group reports are powerful tools to analyze the culture of a team.
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 to the old way of cultural thinking, 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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