Cultural Intelligence: Evolving Workplaces Beyond Personal Biases
H.V. MacArthur Contributor
I write about navigating the unspoken rules in today’s workplace.
Since the advent of last year’s #metoo movement, bias has been a hot topic in HR circles. It comes up in harassment prevention training, diversity discussions, interview planning and hiring strategies. Many leaders and staff members are being made aware that everyone comes to work with personal biases. But beyond the awareness, have we gotten better at keeping those biases out of our decision making?
The challenge may be that efforts have focused on calling out that we all have bias but not on what exactly to do about it, leaving most to throw up their hands and shrug. After all, if we all have them then what can we really do? We can develop our collective Cultural Intelligence. Cultural Intelligence is the skills that helps us evolve beyond our personal biases.
Cultural Intelligence, sometimes referred to as CQ or Cultural Quotient, refers to the skill of relating with and working in culturally diverse situations. It goes beyond the awareness of biases and the need for cultural sensitivity and focuses on developing key skillsets that help individuals meet objectives through effectively working with a variety of culturally diverse contexts.
Some of the key skills that we all can develop include:
1. Mindfulness / Self-Awareness – the ability to observe your own thoughts and actively choose those thoughts in order to support your goals vs. simply reacting to your surroundings and unexamined beliefs.
2. Objective Communication – the skill of communicating using tangible and observable facts. This may also include owning our opinions about the work being delivered. However, this skill is largely about avoiding the assumed personality traits or judgments of others based on a person’s demographic, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
3. Big Picture Capacity – this is a person’s ability to look beyond their own experience and grasp the vastness of a broad-based world with numerous cultural experiences and value systems. This requires curiosity and comfort with the unknown or uncertainty.
4. Empathetic Listening – the ability to tune into another person and listen for more than just information that you deem valuable. This is about being able to listen so the other person experiences being understood. Though you may not agree with them, you are able to set that aside in order to prioritize the other person’s sense of worth and value in the relationship, choosing to debate or hash out semantics once the other feels safe and you’ve developed trust with one another.
5. Perceptual Acuity – this is the skill of noticing and interpreting the nonverbal cues expressed by others. This focuses on picking up the emotional comfort or discomfort of others and adjusting your approach accordingly. When navigating culturally diverse situations, it may simply be the ability to see the conversation is upsetting to a persona and pausing to assess where the disconnect may have occurred.
Cultural Intelligence has mostly been referenced as a skill for those traveling abroad or working with global business units. However, recent events have shown that our need for this skill is closer to home than we may have realized. Some key considerations when working to develop Cultural Intelligence in yourself or your organization include the following:
Know the critical decisions and situations where Cultural Intelligence is imperative. Dr. Valerie Batts, Founding Director and VP Training at VISIONS Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping clients develop equitable workplaces, shared that they have developed a model that identifies five ways this bias can play out in a variety of work contexts. This includes hiring, promotion, giving feedback and even who you choose to have lunch with or sit next to in meetings. Areas that need special attention since they impact the opportunities to individuals to advance in their careers include talent planning, career discussions, performance feedback and delegation decisions.
Understand that it isn’t always easy to spot the lack of Cultural Intelligence. Deb Muller, CEO of HR Acuity, a technology platform built for employee relations and investigations management, shared that bias can, and often does, show in feedback and performance reviews, even without the reviewer realizing it. Obvious tip offs of overt bias are easy to spot and not the norm. Something along the lines of: “You do such great work for a woman/someone of your race/age/sexual preference. Those remarks should be reported immediately to HR. More pervasive is unconscious bias, which is subtle and can be very hard to identify. Unconscious bias may exist towards one’s race, age, gender, gender identity, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation and many other characteristics. For example, praising an older person for eagerly adopting new technology could show age bias. Whether overt or subtle, the reviewer may not even realize they are displaying bias.
Understand that most people are not fully aware of their biases and lack of Cultural Intelligence. Dr. Batts emphasized that most employees and managers have not been taught about how bias works in our brains. All humans have them and in the United States, biases are racialized. From an early age, for instance, it is difficult not to "catch" the idea that "white is good and black is bad." Anti-racism training invites participants to take in this information and to uncover how this bias plays out in their interactions at work and at home. Many also have not been taught the history of how this racialized bias started; most when learning this history are able to change their attitudes, behaviors and over time practices. As we unpack this as a society we will need to pay close attention to how we tackle this issue in our organizations.
Training is essential to creating a safe space for ALL employees to do their best work. Muller highlights that training on this topic is essential for everyone in the organization, not just for managers but for all staff. It can be one of the best ways to ensure a more consistent, bias-free workplace. By understanding what to look for, you’re able to not only more easily identify bias when you experience it, but also be more cautious and aware of your own internal biases when providing feedback to others. “All employees deserve a safe, fair workplace. Stopping bias starts with all of us, and it takes action, not just words. We must root out unfair treatment across our organizations, now, in all we do, and use data to show our progress. Act, and act now,” Muller urges.
Realize that quality training is critical. In recent years, many companies have rushed to provide the training that Muller urges to do above. But there are just as many references to unconscious bias training making matters worse. Dr. Batts cautions that, “When training makes matters worse, it is likely a consequence of either the context in which the training occurs or in how the training is being done. Training in the absence of organizational leaders buy-in, for instance, often backfires. Training in the absence of commitment to actionable changes in the organization in terms of how power is shared and who is at decision making tables, can also backfire. Organizations who are seeking to genuinely change culture come to see that on-going training interventions as part of a larger strategy can be very effective.”
Plan for what to do beyond training for Cultural Intelligence. “Training alone is not a panacea,” warns Muller. She states that leaders and employees must be provided with actionable tools, like systems that help them document issues and standardized criteria for providing feedback to reduce subjectivity and bias.
Dr. Batts concurs, stating that, “Training is a necessary but not sufficient part of an overall inclusion strategy. Training that seeks a ‘quick fix’ or that does not invite an in-depth exploration of the factors involved in changing organizations at four levels can backfire or be ineffective.” She shares that the four levels to examine include personal, interpersonal, systemic and cultural.
The good news is, more and more organizations and individuals are embracing the importance of developing Cultural Intelligence. The training is evolving and becoming more practical. The idea that all people can come to work and purse their career goals in an equitable environment may not be a reality today, but hopefully, we are well on our way to it being one soon.