Epic Remedies for a Cultural Fail

“So, does this mean you don’t report people who are breaking the rules?” a CEO asked. The question was prompted by an NBC News report: ”An author reported a Metro worker for eating on a train. Now she might lose her book deal.

The author in the headline, Natasha Tynes saw a uniformed Metro worker eating on the subway train, even though Metro rules state that eating is not allowed on trains. Tynes confronted the Metro worker who then told her to mind her own business.

Tynes posted a shaming tweet with the Metro worker’s picture on Twitter. Other Twitter users replied saying that Metro workers don’t really get time for meals, creating a backlash against the author. Despite the fact that she apologized and deleted the Tweet, Tynes’ publisher saw the backlash and canceled her book deal.

Both Tynes and the Metro worker are people of color. The irony is that, in this new media environment of ours, a misstep can destroy a person’s livelihood. To understand why and how this situation became so destructive, we need more information about how people can effectively navigate cross-cultural conversations.

Background information

In a previous blog post, “There’s Nothing Common About Vocabulary,” I explored how developing a common vocabulary builds trust and shared-understanding, which leads to greater collaboration, productivity and innovation in an organization. I explained that one of the best ways to develop a common vocabulary is for a leader to start with the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®) developed by Dr. Mitch Hammer.

The IDI, a 50-item on-line inventory, assesses an individual and group’s ability to effectively navigate cross-cultural conversations. This is done by measuring five core mindsets and associated behaviors for engaging diversity and creating an inclusive environment. The five core mindsets include: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance or Adaptation.(2)

Five stages of cultural intelligence

The early stages of Denial and Polarization are mono-cultural mindsets.

  1. People and groups in Denial are committed to their own cultural values and practices and may not notice biases and deeper cultural patterns. When Denial is present in the workplace, people from diverse backgrounds often feel ignored.(2)
  2. People and groups in Polarization tend to be overly critical of cultural differences from an “us versus them” viewpoint. When Polarization is present in the workplace employees hear phrases like, “this is how we do things around here.” As a result, people can feel uncomfortable because cultural differences are seen as an obstacle or inferior.(2)

A mono-cultural mindset produces an assimilationist approach to staffing where minority talent is expected to fit into a workplace largely defined by the dominant cultural group. In that kind of workplace, assimilation can take the form of “sink or swim” for new hires. Leaders with this mindset typically assume new hires can figure out how things are done in an organization, “just like they did.” This can have negative consequences; individuals with diverse backgrounds can be left feeling ignored and uncomfortable, experiencing a sense of bias because their contributions go unrecognized.(2)

Minimization is the transitional stage from a mono-cultural to a multicultural mindset.

  1. People and groups in Minimization value commonalities and de-emphasize difference, resulting in a lack of deeper understanding of cultural differences. With a Minimization mindset, leadership tends to use a universalist approach by focusing on the elimination of bias through common policies that assure equal opportunity for all. While this can improve cross-cultural relationships, this mindset does not value diverse perspectives or how to bridge across cultural differences. As a result, minority perspectives and experiences are typically not fully heard, impacting collaboration and innovation.(2)

The later stages of Acceptance and Adaptation are multicultural or global mindsets that support cross-cultural understanding.

  1. People and groups in Acceptance are curious about and interested in cultural differences. However, they can be unclear about how to appropriately adapt their words and behaviors to cultural differences. When Acceptance is present, people with diverse backgrounds feel “understood.”(2)
  2. People and groups in Adaptation can appreciate different perspectives and adapt their words and behavior to another’s cultural context. When Adaptation is present in an organization people feel valued and engaged. Domestic and international diversity are valued as resources for multicultural team effectiveness and everyone is seen as a source of cultural intelligence.(2)

What can be done differently

The mindset of Adaptation, or a willingness to understand the complexity of the Metro worker’s situation and the ability to adapt one’s words to appreciate another’s cultural context, was missing in the Twitter interchange. Had they applied cultural intelligence, the author, Metro worker and publisher all would have done better.

  • When the author saw the Metro worker, instead of making it public on Twitter, she could have gone quietly to the Metro authorities and shared her observation that the organization doesn’t appear to have a good plan for a meal breaks for their workers.
  • The Metro worker could have said, “I get 20 minutes to eat on my meal breaks in transit and it’s not enough time. I’d appreciate if you’d speak up on my behalf.”
  • Tyne’s publisher did the very thing online trolls accused the author of doing to the Metro worker: threatening and possibly destroying her livelihood. Rather than reacting, the publisher and author could have collaborated on how to respond compassionately to the Metro worker and her situation.
  • The Twitter users who centered the backlash against Tynes assumed that, because the Metro worker is a person of color, the rules don’t apply – or perhaps assumed Tynes wasn’t a person of color and was being racist. For whatever their reason, they amplified their own assumptions. They too could have slowed down and learned more about the situation before contributing to the domino reaction of shame, blame and punish.

We need to recognize the charge of delight we get from “being right” and feeling “superior.” That feeling can lead us to act on snap judgements, victimizing others and jeopardizing our own wellbeing online.

After getting caught up in the rush of being right, we get defensive when we learn we were out of line. Being alert and practicing cultural intelligence, we can notice the impetus to get caught up in such feelings; we can instead slow down and consider the impact of our actions. We can ask ourselves: Is this for the greater good or just meeting a personal need?

What a leader can do

Along with utilizing the IDI® to assess our organization’s ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations, here are a few questions a leader can reflect on to determine if there is a need for more cultural intelligence:

  • How many people with different backgrounds have been hired across senior leadership, management and staff?
  • What areas of the organization are less diverse than others?
  • Are opportunities for continuous learning that builds cultural intelligence offered, particularly for building cultural self-awareness and awareness of the cultures being served in our marketplace?
  • Have learning experiences resulted in conversational and behavioral change so that everyone involved benefits?
  • Does affinity bias show up in hiring decisions?
  • What patterns of attrition do you see in the organization and what’s happening in those areas?

Many people don’t realize that two-thirds of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® world-wide are unknowingly stuck in the middle stage of Minimization. As a result, there is often strong pressure for people with diverse perspectives to conform to the dominant culture, which can result in people feeling unheard and excluded, and productivity and innovation getting blocked. And ultimately, those conditions can affect the bottom line.

But when an organization intentionally embraces the perspective of alternative cultural views and actively attempts to increase the repertoire of cultural vocabulary and behavior, domestic and international cultural differences are seen and used as an asset for the organization as a whole.

References

  1. By Janelle Griffith (May 12, 2019) “An author reported a Metro worker for eating on a train. Now she might lose her book deal, ” NBC News: https://apple.news/ADXd72a8SQOGONMxgNIj41w
  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.