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How do I make real DEI changes in my company? Here’s how.

by Ana Lopez
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As a certified cultural intelligence trainer, I see the unfortunate results when cultural intelligence is not part of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). When DEI work focuses solely on race and gender and not broader dimensions of diversity, the majority group (white, straight, cisgender men) often feel left out. This perpetuates the problem with those who hold the majority of positional power and influence in organizations not engaged in DEI work.

When we broaden diversity to include cultural intelligence, we invite allies with power to influence change in DEI work.

Related: Diversity Matters: Defining (and Developing) Your Cultural Quotient.

What does cultural intelligence mean?

Cultural intelligence is “an outsider’s apparently natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures as that person’s compatriots would.” Alternatively, the Center for Cultural Intelligence describes it as “the ability to work effectively across different cultural contexts (e.g., national, ethnic, organizational, generational, etc.).”

Simply put, cultural intelligence: working effectively with people who are different from you.

There are many dimensions of difference between people – race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background, disability, LGBTQ+, neurodiversity, mental health, age and culture – and many more.

Imagine what would be possible if more people could work more effectively with different types of people.

  • What would it be like to work with a culturally intelligent workforce?
  • What would be different at your organization?
  • What positive changes would be possible for DEI?

The benefits of cultural intelligence

When we value the full range of differences that an individual brings to an organization, performance increases.

  • Studies show that toxic work cultures with a lack of respect and the acceptance of cultural differences are the most important predictors of employee turnover.
  • Psychological safety, the ability to speak up and share difficult things without fear of retaliation, is strongly correlated with higher team performance. This kind of security is more familiar to culturally intelligent teams.
  • Cultural various teams are more likely to be more innovative, solve problems more deeply, and perform better under uncertainty.

The business case for DEI has been around for a long time, but representation and the perception of inclusion have not changed. Without the broader lens of cultural intelligence, organizations lose sight of these benefits.

Related: How to Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Your Workplace

How to bring cultural intelligence to your organization

Very few DEI programs experience the results they hoped to achieve: 80% of organizations estimated to go through the motions of DEI without making any real change. DEI work means doing things differently and disrupting the status quo. Systems in organizations need to shift to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive and cultural intelligence is often the missing link that can accelerate change.

Consider these ideas for bringing cultural intelligence to your organization:

  • Train the entire organization on cultural intelligence. Rarely are frontline workers trained in DEI outside of awareness training. Only 25% of organizations have included DEI training in leadership development training. Because DEI training is optional, employees lack the understanding of cultural intelligence to be valued and properly practiced. Cultural intelligence can be learned over time through education about empathy, vulnerability, candor, and other important human skills.
  • Communicate the importance of cultural intelligence. It is necessary to consistently and intentionally share cultural intelligence information over time in order to stick. As with any culture change, appreciating differences and working with people from different backgrounds takes time. Look for stories from team members, customers or the community to showcase skills on a personal level.
  • Measure cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is rarely assessed in performance appraisals. Organizations are more likely to measure the results of goals without measuring the behaviors that help achieve the goals, leading to employee dissatisfaction with 90% of HR leads believe reviews provide inaccurate information. This should also be measured at an organizational level with perception data from engagement surveys or specific DEI assessments.

Related: Not where you want to be with diversity and inclusion? Consider a bite-size approach.

An organization I consulted with about cultural intelligence might adopt these practices, citing a reduction in turnover from diverse groups, an increase in promotions of people from diverse backgrounds, and a 20% improvement in those’s perceived knowledge of cultural intelligence who have been trained. Cultural intelligence skills were central to their measurement, communication, and training practices.

Cultural intelligence is a means of involving more allies in the conversation. When we expand the conversation about DEI beyond race and gender, we create a psychologically safe space for people with other dimensions of difference to join who might otherwise have felt they had no place in DEI.

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