He thought he was doing everything right. The General Manager, James and his organization were…

  • Hiring people of color
  • Paying interns which encouraged people from more diverse backgrounds to apply because they would not need to depend on parents for financial support
  • Diversifying their board
  • Sourcing information from diverse voices
  • Providing diversity training in sexual harassment and understanding race
  • Studying pro-diversity hiring practices

But even all that was not enough to keep his employees of color from going to the Board of Directors with a list of racist incidents that had occurred at work. Their allegation was that James chose to maintain the status quo of “white supremacy” in the system. [“White supremacy” refers to a social system in which white people enjoy structural advantages, or privilege over other ethnic groups, on both collective and individual levels, despite formal legal equality.]

James, who is white, was removed from his position. By the time he and I met, he had recovered enough from this personal and professional blow to talk with me about what happened. So how can a leader avoid hitting a wall like this in the first place?

Where the problem lies

To be an effective leader, you have to be systems-aware. Dr. Edward Deming (1900–93), renowned statistician, engineer, author and management consultant, argued that 94 percent of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(1)

That doesn’t mean James is off the hook. It means he had a responsibility to ensure that the systems under his watch create safety and belonging for everyone. The practices and policies James listed above are the most explicit but least powerful elements of systemic change. For change that actually transforms an organization and upends the status quo, leaders need to look at the implicit systems: the mental models that powerfully influence the way we think, talk and act with one another.

To see the implicit systems that influence the way we think, talk and act, we need to recognize a particular mental model in play within our culture: minimization. A full 67 percent of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are right in the middle of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence, the stage called “Minimization.”(2) What that means is, on average, two-thirds of the people in any organization minimize their own experience and that of others. And because minimizing our own and other’s experience is so normalized worldwide, we’re typically unaware that we’re doing this.

With minimization in play, leaders can be woefully ignorant of the needs and assets of minorities communities. That lack of awareness allows them to inadvertently reinforce and perpetuate the status quo in their organization. Minimization shows up in two distinct ways. First, the people in power lack the self- and system-awareness they need to see how they are complicit with the dominant culture in the ways that they think, talk and act. As a result, professional and social circles of dominant culture discourage people from talking explicitly about the impact minimization has on people.

Second, non-dominant culture group members are very aware of the system but go-along-to-get-along because they are not in positions of power and therefore hesitant or fearful to speak up or out. This is how one group of people ends up being elevated over another, as happened in James’ workplace. To counteract this systemic problem, people and organizations need cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and use words and actions to show genuine respect for them. When we adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect for others, we are better able to hear and learn how they are impacted by the system in place – and they’re more likely to share their perspective with us.

What leaders can do

To upend systemic minimization of people, a culturally intelligent leader can develop and demonstrate a growth mindset. Leaders and their organization can take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) to get the base-line empirical data (not personal opinion) needed to determine their organization’s ability level to navigate cross-cultural conversations, create a common vocabulary and communicate across the organization that diverse perspectives and a culture of belonging are priorities and assets to the organization.

The leader can then use that data to develop an Intercultural Development Plan® to set goals for collective growth and develop the awareness of how people think, talk and act with one another.

Because, statistically, most leaders in power often lack the self- and system-awareness of their impact on others, they don’t have the skills, vocabulary and practice talking and learning with people who have been historically silenced. The solution, the kind of learning that benefits every employee as well as the organization and its bottom line, is to set up mechanisms that grow both the leader’s and the employees’ capacity for listening and learning.

Three examples of those mechanisms are…

  1. Recognize that retention is based on positive experiences, not avoiding negative ones. Across the board, employees of color not only encounter more negative incidents than their white counterparts, but they also miss out on the experiences that leave them feeling good about themselves and their employers. This means minority employees not only have more reasons to look into leaving but also fewer reasons to stay than their white colleagues. The gap in positive experiences accounts for as much as 10-15% of the difference in attrition rates between whites and employees of color. To create positive experiences so that employees feel seen and heard, managers can encourage direct reports to take part in decision-making, share effective practices and help each other get the job done.(2)
  2. Utilize career mapping to communicate value. Career mapping is a strategy for engaging employees in decision-making. In 1-to-1 meetings, managers can connect with their direct reports to discuss their professional goals and potential career advancement opportunities, resources and education available to them within the business. Open up the discussion through quarterly or bi-annual surveys asking the employee to identify their pain points with their current role, thoughts on leadership and the ideal role in the organization they want to work toward. This strategy encourages employees to share their passions and speak up about what it will take to retain them. It also communicates the investment in them, with discussion of their long-term future with the organization.(4)
  3. Use listening circles. With roots in indigenous cultures around the world, listening circles provide people an opportunity to speak and listen to one another in an environment of safety where everyone feels valued and heard. This form of dialogue emphasizes storytelling to cultivate empathy and can help communities process the personal and collective impact of emotionally charged events.(5)

A culturally intelligent leader recognizes they need to be aware that, after years of being belittled under the system of Minimization, people of color, women and those who are differently-abled may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, social isolation or job loss even when asked by a manager to speak up. Listening Circles can help with that.

Trust for leadership is built over time within open authentic two-way conversations where each person feels valued, heard and engaged. James recommends that leaders learn to get comfortable with and set a tone for…

  • Not knowing, not having all the answers.
  • Being willing to learn.
  • Dropping defensiveness and saying, ‘I don’t know.’
  • Not avoiding conflict but instead leaning into conversations, even if doing so makes us feel temporarily awkward.
  • Looking inward to reflect on what the organization can do better by its employees.

For an example of how to build that trust and the steps to take within a cross-cultural conversation, read my blog post, “Hear Me Now?

When leaders are alert and do not allow their organization to default to Minimization, they decrease drama and develop capacity in themselves and their organization for ever-greater appreciation of others, increasing engagement, collaboration and innovation for everyone.        -Amy Narishkin, PhD ©2021


  1. Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge. https://deming.org/demings-system-of-profound-knowledge/#:~:text=The%20System%20Of%20Profound%20Knowledge,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology.
  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  3. Norlander, P., Does, S. & Shih, M. (working paper) Deprivation at work: Positive workplace experiences and the racial gap in quit intentions. https://www.anderson.ucla.edu/documents/sites/faculty/review%20publications/research/Norlander-Does-Shih_Positive_Empirical_Anderson_Review.pdf
  4. Johnson, T. (Jun 29, 2018) “The real problem with tech professionals: High turnover. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinessdevelopmentcouncil/2018/06/29/the-real-problem-with-tech-professionals-high-turnover/#3c89c90d4201
  5. The Co-Intelligence Institute. Listening Circles. https://www.co-intelligence.org/P-listeningcircles.html
  6. Photo credit – https://unsplash.com/photos/YOtOiHdwPqo?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink



Do you want to know if your organization is in Minimization? The Intercultural Development Inventory® is a 50-item online questionnaire that measures both individual and organizational ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations. To learn your organization’s level of Cultural Intelligence contact, Dr. Amy Narishkin, a Certified Administrator of the IDI®. She provides the results and does a Debrief, which becomes an ongoing resource to guide individual and corporate development. Learn more at https://www.empoweringpartners.com/