Developing Multicultural Competence

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“Everyone has a cultural lens based on their own socialization. It’s important to realize that we all make assumptions. The important task is to check that assumption for validity.”
–Tonnie Martinez, PhD, Assistant Professor, Kansas State University

It’s impossible to avoid unconscious biases, and being able to recognize and work through them is a critical skill for the leaders of today’s diverse, global companies.

Attorney Jennifer Passannante at the New Jersey firm Hoagland Longo Moran Dunst & Doukas, LLP has had conversations with friends and colleagues about how dangerous “latent as opposed to blatant” discrimination can be. “Subtle but pervasive discrimination often manifests itself in workplace patterns, as opposed to acute incidents,” says Passannante.

“Psychological research has shown that issues regarding racism, sexism, and homophobia (to name just a few) run deep into our unconscious process and influence the way we view the world,” adds Silvia Dutchevici, president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center. “Reflection plays a big part in identifying these biases and in changing them. Examining one’s own biases and prejudicial attitudes, particularly when one is learning about and working with different identity groups, facilitates a process of change.”

To that end, leaders can take the initiative to begin recognizing their own blind spots when it comes to diversity, and start to change behaviors that may be holding others and themselves back. Here are some ideas on how to develop your multicultural competence:

Examine Your Bias

We may feel confident that we treat everyone equally in the workplace. Yet that confidence can be a liability when it comes to truly understanding differences. “Executives who have an unshakable certainty in being bias-free defenders of a meritocracy are usually the biggest unconscious supporters of institutional bias in their company due to lack of awareness,” says Joseph Santana, architect of Siemens USA’s 65,000-employee diversity and inclusion program.

Santana emphasizes that we all have biases, and says that it’s only by first developing a measure of constructive uncertainty that we begin to develop the insights and strategies needed to address these automatic perceptions and responses.

Look Within, Look Outside

Dutchevici suggests that the process of examination on diversity issues must begin by looking at yourself—by exploring the meanings of your identity, examining ways in which identity formation takes place, and understanding ways in which these identities influence how you experience the world. “Asking questions about how this identity has helped or hindered one’s place in the business world, in society, and in life is crucial to the changing process,” says Dutchevici.

Yet self-awareness is only the first step. Dutchevici next recommends talking with others about their experiences and going beyond your comfort zone in exploring ways in which race, class, gender, and religion influence your life and opportunities: “In doing so, one is able to understand multiple world views and thus be able to change.”

Check for Validity

Tonnie Martinez, Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, expands on her opening point about how to check our cultural assumptions for validity with the following example: “Let’s say that I walk into a business and someone treats me poorly; I immediately think, ‘That person doesn’t like women,’” she says. “My husband (who is Hispanic) goes into the same business and gets treated poorly; his response will be, ‘That person doesn’t like Hispanics.’”

This example shows that each person views situations, concepts, and ideas through the lens of their own socialization. “It’s up to us to realize that our world view may be in direct conflict with someone else’s,” says Martinez. “It doesn’t mean they are wrong; it just means that their socialization causes them to view the world differently.” She recommends initiating a dialogue on the issues and checking your assumptions to counteract bias and help people make more informed decisions.

Leader: Heal Thyself

While as a company leader you may value diversity and inclusion initiatives and advocate cultural change in your organization, don’t exclude yourself from the learning opportunities. Santana notes that organizational culture is primarily the product of top leadership rather than HR, diversity leaders, or lower-level managers.

“It’s top leadership behavior and responses that for the most part drive what people perceive as the company’s ‘real values’ and the way ‘things are done around here,’” says Santana. “When an organization’s top leadership wants to change its current results relative to diversity and/or inclusion by changing how the organization behaves, its leaders need to start with their own personal self-development.”

Don’t Just Pay Lip Service

It’s tempting to think that we’ve done enough by taking a few classes on diversity issues. Yet Santana suggests there’s more to it than that. “Getting the importance of diversity and inclusion consciously from a few executive briefings and then giving nice speeches that express support is not nearly enough,” he says. “I cringe when I hear someone say that their organization is doing great and poised to do even better in diversity and inclusion because their leaders ‘get it.’ Time and again, studies have shown that bias at the unconscious level that drives discriminatory behavior is often present even in people who ‘get it.’”

To go beyond the basics, executives need to be aware of their subconscious biases and work to improve their responses. “In the final analysis, making real progress in diversity and inclusion within a company requires leaders who clearly are aware of and manage their own unconscious perceptions and responses,” says Santana. “It is ultimately an organizational development exercise that must start with personal transformation at the top that permeates down and across.”