There’s Nothing Common About Vocabulary

“It’s taken me 45 trips around the sun, but for the first time in my life I know what it feels like to have a ‘band-aid’ in my own skin tone. You can barely even spot it in the first photo. For real I’m holding back tears,” Dominique Apollon wrote in his Twitter post. That tweet was all about a new product called “Tru-Colour Bandages” that, as we can tell works in the real world – the world of a myriad of flesh tones.

In our previous blog post “Shift Happens,” we explored how, in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, the makeup of who is in our workforce, our marketplace and our world is changing rapidly. That change will drive us to new processes and products, but not without a foundational tool we take for granted every day: vocabulary – the vocabulary we use in all-important everyday conversations in our workplaces.

Finally offering Tru-Colour Bandages in multiple flesh tones may have started with an idea, but it took many conversations for the idea to become a product, conversations built on trust and shared understanding of the meanings of words and ideas. Vocabulary matters. It’s what gets us to shared-understanding in the conversation that leads to productivity and innovation, especially at this time in history. So much hinges on vocabulary.

To successfully communicate in cross-cultural teams or to create cross-cultural products we first need a shared understanding of three foundational vocabulary words: culture, diversity and inclusion.

What is Culture?

Culture is something that every group of people has – from family, school, place of worship, business and ethnic group, to country. Each culture is different. Culture is a set of behaviors, customs, attitudes, values, mentality and goals that people in a particular group have in common. To clearly understand culture, we can break it down into four parts:

  1. Objective culture is made of the objects and institutions created by a group of people. We often recognize them in people’s language, rituals, art, music, food, laws, and holidays. Like Italian pizza, Chinese New Year, or Mexican mariachi music. Because we can see and participate in these things, we tend to appreciate these cultural differences. We all have seen how a street of “ethnic” restaurants and shops can make a community more vibrant and attractive to visitors.
  2. Subjective culture is also created by institutions and groups of people in the forms of values, beliefs and perceptions that often guide a person, like a kind of cultural compass. Because we can’t often see, experience or quickly learn the rationale of someone else’s subjective culture, we often overlook it, don’t appreciate it or simply override it without even knowing we have. In fact, it is here in subjective culture where most intercultural misunderstanding takes place. If we are white, we may never have given a moment’s thought to the idea that calling bandages matching only white people’s skin tones “flesh-colored” is problematic. How “Tru-Colour” could bandages be if they were created in a white monoculture with no thought to the full spectrum meaning of “flesh-colored?” Yes, we would have customers with beige bandages and we would also be missing an ever-growing market of flesh colors beyond beige.
  3. World-wide, within every country and community, culture comes in two forms. Majority culture is the most powerful, widespread, or influential group within a multicultural community of any type (home, school, work, community, country, etc.). For example, in your organization the sales team may be the majority culture by driving what products or services are developed next based on what needs customers have expressed to them.
  4. Minority culture is a distinct group that coexists with but is subordinate to the majority culture. It is often smaller in number (but not always) and is distinct from majority culture because of objective and/or subjective culture differences. Take the example of the sales team as the majority culture providing direction for research and development. What happens when someone in the minority culture, such as R&D or manufacturing has an innovative idea that customers don’t even know is possible? Or what if it never even occurs to the majority culture sales team that’s nearly all or entirely white, that the minority culture’s idea for a product or service could be of value to people in a culture different the sales team’s?

What is Diversity?

Diversity is the mix of differences in a community. Diversity can be visible (gender, age, race and ethnicity) as well as not immediately or ever visible (ability, religion, work experience, socio-economic status, orientation and educational background).(1) How we view and interact in diverse groups is based on our personal and cultural beliefs as well as our intercultural skills including our ability to adapt vocabulary and collaboration styles to the makeup of our communities.

What is Inclusion?

Inclusion occurs when people are working together effectively, and their distinct cultural differences are valued and engaged. Inclusion or a sense of belonging in a community or organization is important so that people can bring to the table their unique gifts, experiences, preferences and strengths without sacrificing or minimizing who they are, for example, “knowing what it feels like to have a ‘band-aid’ in my own skin tone.”(1) Inclusion leverages diversity for increased engagement, productivity and creativity.

Diversity + Cultural Intelligence = Inclusion (and More Productivity)

How does a leader begin to build a common vocabulary to move toward culturally intelligent organization?

In my experience, the most effective, objective and unbiased way to develop a common vocabulary and begin developing cultural intelligence is for a leader to start with the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®). The IDI is a 50-item on-line assessment tool that measures an individual’s or group’s ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations effectively. The assessment is able to pinpoint whether a person or group is in the developmental stage of Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance, or Adaptation.(1) IDI results are shared and defined with each person and group by a Qualified Administrator (QA). The QA also helps individuals, teams and organizations develop the personal/professional goals for growing their cultural intelligence. It’s group, or collective, cultural self-awareness that can grow inclusion, with all that can mean for the team and the company.

By taking the IDI together, participants develop a common vocabulary to:

  • Set goals tied to performance and promotion
  • Consider cultural needs for customers and customer service training
  • Develop Affinity/Employee Resource Group objectives
  • Increase gender and racial parity among employees and leadership
  • Develop and review internal inclusive policies and practices
  • Resolve cross-cultural conflict
  • Create a track for organizational development and evaluation

All of these options allow organizations to realize a fuller spectrum of potential from each team member as well as more productive work in teams, across departments and in collaboration with vendors and potential target markets. We cannot train diversity because diversity is simply a mix of cultures that can dissect a workforce into factions, but we can learn how to leverage it. With cultural intelligence skills, diverse perspectives are sought out and appreciated, spurring an organization to realize even greater innovation, productivity and profit.  -Amy Narishkin, PhD

References:

1.       Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.

To recruit, retain and promote top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders will want to create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone in their organization. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEO’s, management teams and group leaders to to effectively implement the tools for cultural intelligence, collaboration and innovation for growth. A leader can begin with the Intercultural Development Inventory®, an on-line assessment tool that pinpoints your team’s ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations. For more information, contact: Amy@EmpoweringPartners.com