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The Secret to Culture Change in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

This article was adapted from a panel webinar. Sign up to receive the webinar here.

With great representation comes great responsibility. After adjusting your hiring process and bringing diversity onto your teams, you have a new challenge: creating a space where all belong. However, even with team building exercises and staff retreats, the inclusivity and cohesion you aimed for has not come. And slowly, you watch the lack of trust in your workforce impact performance.

To achieve results when addressing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB), you have to be prepared to do something you have never done before. Something impactful and, perhaps, a bit counterintuitive.

A crucial step in building trust, which is the foundation of effective teams, is to ask yourself, “Am I willing to stop assuming to know about different cultures, but instead begin to nurture a humble curiosity? Am I willing to set aside my biases and misperceptions and begin to believe that culture stems from inside, and is not just learned through external, visible factors?”

Without this change in attitude and pursuit of intercultural agility, we risk seeing no deep change from our DEIB projects and missing out on the real transformation that our companies so desperately need.

There is much to reap from those who have implemented Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging processes with a great measure of success. A helpful resource in this regard is the KnowledgeWorkx Webinar on DEIB. View the whole webinar here. The panelists and moderator represent a wealth of expertise and experience in Intercultural Agility and bring with them stories from around the world.


Hasan has worked as a senior Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) leader at some of the world's largest companies, including Ernst & Young and Facebook. Hasan was the VP of the Organizational Development Center of Excellence at Newsela, where he drove strategies for the integration of diverse perspectives into the building of an inclusive culture and the development of equitable policies.

Mary Lynn is a leadership developer and trainer for 3Practices, a tool focused on bridging divides in today's polarized world. Her cross-cultural lifestyle has deepened her passion for developing leaders who can effectively lead, develop, and care for others while embracing diversity. She empowers individuals, leaders, and teams to appreciate the richness of diversity and use it as a catalyst for positive change.

Ming-Jinn is the founder of Cultivate. He’s a trained interculturalist that speaks three languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish) and is raising three kids with his wife, Catherine, in Minneapolis. The aim of his life is to help every person around him to flourish in all they do.

Marco is the founder and director of KnowledgeWorkx, and a true global citizen having lived in 6 and worked in over 70 countries. Marco has a deep and practical understanding of what it takes to develop Interculturally Agile people and organizations.

In this webinar, the moderator and panelists answer some powerful questions that challenge the way DEIB has been run up until now, and how Intercultural Agility can be used to increase the success rate of these transformational programs in the future.

What defines who we are as cultural human beings?

The world has evolved into a global village. ‘Our’ cultures and traditions are constantly rubbing off on ‘other’ cultures and traditions, leaving few untouched and creating new cultures entirely. At the core of the KnowledgeWorkx framework is the recognition that we need to shift away from using nationality, ethnicity, and race as starting points for defining culture.

As more and more people become exposed to cultures different from their own, it becomes increasingly important to learn people and not place them in boxes for our own ease. We've realized that every person is a unique cultural individual, and our passion is to understand, respect, and celebrate the differences in others.

Two ways someone can begin the process of becoming a cultural learner are:

Being aware of your biases and your perception of yourself, others and the context that you’re operating in is crucial to positioning yourself as a cultural learner. Using KnowledgeWorkx tools helps to slow conversations and reaction times to allow for curiosity rather than assumptions.

Analyzing the various aspects that make up our unique cultural identity will give neutral language to describe our differences. Understanding the Three Colors of Worldview and 12 Dimensions of Culture allows us to give neutral language to culture, making conversations less divisive and emotional.

This framework empowers you, the cultural learner, to use neutral language to break down the walls that divide and build relational bridges, firmly rooted in trust.

When you consider the DEIB space, where do the challenges lie? Why could it be that programs are not working?

Often, in our search for diversity and the recognition of its beauty, we can become too focused on differences. Neuroscience suggests that we experience differences as threats in certain settings. A much-needed change in the approach is to use commonality as a starting point of our journey. Beginning with what we have in common will set us on a path to better diversity management and inclusion.

Another reason problems arise is because the issues of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging are emotional ones. They are close to people’s hearts and personal experiences. A rise in negative emotions, coupled with the inability to listen, causes resistance to others’ ideas. When people are in pain, they tend to react rather than respond.

Similarly, when companies address DEIB matters, adequate time and space need to be allotted for the responses that come from those conversations. Facilitators must be astute to guide the discussion with care, considering the divisiveness of pain. Words spoken out of anger or fear cause division, so it is important to give space for reaction, but not allow words motivated by pain to set the tone for the organization’s transformational journey thereafter. An understanding of the intercultural nuances at play will go a long way to diffuse the tensions in moments like these.

Other challenges relate to Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These groups were created with the intention of building community, but sometimes have little impact on the lived experience of underrepresented employees. At times, the groups themselves devolve into empty vessels that only exist to meet required performance indicators.

What is really needed is a focus on cultural agility. That, and time. There’s no getting around the fact that real relationships and trust take time to build. You can only transform the lived experience of your workforce by listening to one story at a time and getting to know one culturally unique individual at a time.

When you focus on one individual at a time, your aim will be to get the best outcome for that individual. Those real moments and deep conversations could reveal areas where change is needed in inequitable organizational systems. This could positively impact hiring systems, reward systems, methods of communication, and other areas. Increased investment in these areas could lead to increased equity in your organization.

We’re on this journey to reach clarity and understanding, not to have our opinion be the one that rules. We want to arrive at a place of ‘agreement’ or ‘submission’ but what we fail to see is that there is no destination, there is only a journey and we were not made to go it alone. We think we must always agree, failing to see that our power is not in winning others to agree with us, but having others walk with us regardless of our differences. We need to slow down and create space for each other’s stories.

How have you seen the application of intercultural agility succeed in creating an environment of inclusivity in the workplace?

As a leader, you need to be willing to admit that there could be more behind the “high” level of employee engagement that you see in a report. An important aspect of employee engagement is gaining a true understanding of employees’ lived experience at work, which becomes particularly important when employees are part of underrepresented groups. It is always necessary to speak to employees to gain qualitative data about their true experiences within the organization.

The onus is then on you as the leader to lower your guard, engage as a curious cultural learner, and take time to listen to your employees and hear their stories firsthand.

Training and education around Intercultural Agility are needed if the change we desire is to be infused throughout our organizations. Growing a culture of slowing conversations down and listening to each other is pivotal. Using tools like the DIR perception management technique will allow those in your organization to manage emotions with regard to intercultural relations before the conversation becomes heated. Pausing to discover within yourself what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way could allow you to ask the crucial questions that will help you to gain a better understanding of those around you. It will also enhance your ability to not just hear the stories of your coworkers, but to empathize with them. When people feel heard, true change happens and trust is built.

We have to start smaller and allow the process of transformation to take as long as is needed. We need to reframe our DEIB initiatives and move them away from being a means of fixing diversity problems to having them be slow, deep conversations that allow us to add each individual employee’s story to our corporate journey.

If you enjoyed this article consider watching the full panel webinar. Sign up to receive the webinar here.

Let’s talk today about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in your organization, and how we can help you to create intercultural workplaces where people thrive! Contact us today.


licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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