Increase Your Cultural Agility with Paula Caligiuri

Paula Caligiuri is a Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy at North-eastern University. Paula has authored award-winning articles and books – including her most recent book Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals. She has been a frequent expert guest on CNN and is an instructor for a LinkedIn Learning course entitled Managing Globally. Paula co-founded a public benefit corporation, Skiilify, to help foster cultural understanding, and she holds a Ph.D. from Penn State University in Organizational Psychology.

Cultural agility is the antidote to ineffective EDI programs. Unconscious bias training may be the most popular form of EDI program, but it is often not successful and may exacerbate failings in intercultural understanding. What’s new? Fortune 1000 companies now average about $1.5 million annually on EDI programs. Globally, companies’ budgets for EDI training have increased six fold in the past few years, with 20% of companies increasing these budgets while cutting budgets in other areas. Unfortunately, mounting evidence now shows many well-meaning EDI training programs produce no change in employees’ openness and acceptance of diversity. A waste of corporate resources is the good news, in some companies these programs produce the opposite of their stated goal, increasing stereotyping and the like. To make a positive change in EDI companies need to focus on proven methods, not fads. Based on my research, HR needs to focus less on diversity and unconscious bias training and more on cultural agility training. The competencies for improving EDI can be developed within organizational initiatives.

Key findings almost every c-suite executive I have spoken to names improving EDI as one of their top priorities. This is a popular stance as about 80% of their employees want to see their senior executives condemn racial inequity and prioritize D&I in the workplace. It is a laudable goal with far-reaching benefits. The problem is how the goal is being executed. To appear action-oriented, many companies are offering unconscious bias training. This training however, might be considered an ill-advised fad having the opposite effect on fostering EDI. When offered in isolation from broader cultural agility initiatives, unconscious bias training might be lowering not increasing cultural agility in the workforce.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. Reducing prejudice and discrimination requires demographically different people to communicate with and feel connected to one another. To achieve this, employees need, for example, to sense each other as similar, interconnected and working collaboratively toward a shared purpose. A focus on bias, conscious or unconscious, places the focus on differences.
  2. Everyone with a functioning brain forms split-second subjective judgements based on their lifetime of stored data. While it is helpful to be aware of unconscious processing, we need to remember that most people interact consciously, not unconsciously. Scoring poorly on an implicit bias test does not mean a person is xenophobic, racist, sexist, ageist, etc. Unfortunately, many who have gone through the unconscious bias training are now nervous that their so-called ‘bias’ will be visible to others, priming them to withhold having authentic conversations with people who are demographically different.
  3. Training resources, both time and money, are limited. Unconscious bias training uses the resources that could be used to build cultural agility. Benchmarking has made matters worse. The fact that other companies are engaging in unconscious bias training has become the rationale for investing in it, devoid of the ultimate effect on fostering long term EDI.

Only about 30% of professionals have cultural agility, which is the ability to interact comfortably and effectively with people from different cultures, whether those differences are based on gender, race, profession, generation or nationality. Cultural agility remains one of the most underdeveloped competencies in the workforce and yet it is also one of the most critical in organizations becoming increasingly more diverse. While it is natural for people to cling to familiarity when under stress (for example, when the need for cultural agility has never been higher. Companies are trying to improve equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). At the same time, the stress of the pandemic and the need to work from home has made their employees’ circle of trust tighten, making a spirit of openness feel more elusive to many. To add to the challenge, ill-advised unconscious bias training, now ubiquitous, is likely making matters worse. Those who have learned to sense their own ‘biases’ avoid natural conversations with people who are demographically different, the very activity that promotes cultural agility.

Building your Cultural Agility will help you train on how to find similarities, cultivate an appreciation for context, create a cultural agile workforce. You can expect to see higher levels of engagement and productivity. Learning to interact comfortably and effectively with people from different cultures.

When you work with our diversity and Inclusion speakers, you will increase the success of your business by introducing cultural agility as the antidote to ineffective EDI programs. Our core job is to help our clients run their businesses with confidence.

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