The Value Proposition

The best leadership in an organization recognizes that conflict and other behaviors that put a temporary drag on production can ultimately be transformative as well as good for the bottom line. Even incidents that seem the most polarizing can lead to the kind of cultural intelligence that effects positive change for a company.

In a conversation we recently had, here’s how that unfolded for one manufacturing CEO, who you’ll see saw how to put cultural intelligence to work for his company:

CEO: What do I do about this guy who is always late for work?

AMY: Are you asking me because the guy is black?

CEO: Yes

AMY: Do white people show up late for work?

CEO: They’ve already been fired. I don’t know what to do about this black guy. Should I call my black pastor friend and see if he’ll have a talk with them?

AMY: Is that idea sustainable? What I mean is, will you be able to call him for help each time someone is late or needs to talk with a black employee?

CEO: No, that’s not possible; I can’t call him every time.

AMY: Would it be more helpful to empower his manager to work through the problem so he’ll be able handle the issue next time too?

CEO: Probably. They report to the plant manager.

AMY: But you’re concerned about tardiness too?

CEO: Yes. What confuses me is that we have a white guy who is a single dad and lives an hour west of town and still makes it to work on time. But this guy who lives 20 minutes from work is single and is regularly late.

AMY: It seems like your company has a double standard for blacks and whites.

CEO: Yes. It’s frustrating.

AMY: I bet! Do you want to keep your plant diverse?

CEO: Yes. Because I didn’t grow up in this country, I see the value of having different perspectives at our company. It’s also expensive to recruit and train new people. This guy is a good worker once he’s on site. Besides, it’s just hard to find good people in this economy.

Value proposition

This CEO is acknowledging that, with the unemployment rate at less than 4%, attrition is costly. And because of his international background, he inherently understands the value of having diverse perspectives in his company. The research supports his experience.

  1. “…when at least one member of a team has traits in common with the end user, the entire team better understands that user. A team with a member who shares a client’s ethnicity is 152% likelier than another team to understand that client.”(1)
  2. “Catalyst found that companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least on return on sales (ROS) by 16 percent and return on invested capital (ROIC) by 26 percent.”(2)
  3. “Companies reporting the highest levels of diversity brought in nearly 10-15 times more sales revenue on average than those with the lowest levels of diversity.” (3)
  4. Companies with the most ethnic diversity on their executive team were 43% more likely to experience higher profitability. (4)

However, further research reveals that merely making an organization look more diverse actually lowers performance. When leaders of multicultural teams ignore and suppress cultural differences, research shows mono-cultural teams are more productive. So it’s not diversity all by itself that has the positive impact.(5)

How an organization benefits from diversity

That same research shows multicultural teams significantly outperform mono-cultural teams when their leaders acknowledge and support cultural differences and see them as an asset to the company.(5)

To acknowledge and support cultural differences, the leader and their team need cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence, a skill that can be measured and developed, is the ability to shift our perspective and change our behavior to bridge across cultural differences. With this mindset in the workplace, people with diverse backgrounds feel valued, heard and engaged.

With cultural intelligence, people are becoming more aware of what they value individually and as an organization. They’re better able to communicate expectations for success. Cultural intelligence and inclusion in a diverse workforce are the tools that organizations need to close the productivity gap.

Cultural intelligence in action

Our conversation continued…

CEO: So what do we need to do?

AMY: You and your plant manager may want to become aware of how your own cultural bias can negatively influence a conversation with the employee, and inadvertently shut him down. Because we all tend to favor people who look and think like us, and he doesn’t share your skin color, our hidden assumptions can get in the way of really hearing the employee and the needs.

CEO: This’ll take some work.

AMY: Initially it’s more work. With some training and practice, and making those hard-to-replace-workers the priority, it becomes second nature. In fact, once people learn the skills, communication becomes streamlined. Once a manager learns how to slow down, notice their own assumptions, forgo the assumptions and hear the employee out, the relationship and process work more effectively because of the trust they build. The manager can then hold a quick weekly meeting to give and get feedback around questions such as:

  1. What are you working on?
  2. What are your next steps?
  3. What can I do to help?”

So here’s what happened

With the employee that was late, the CEO and plant manager had a conversation with the employee. They slowed down and recognized that their bias was getting in the way of them really hearing the guy out. They learned that the employee was often late because the public transportation wasn’t reliable. The factory is in a remote part of town and hard to get to without a car. And on top of that he had recently lost his license. The plant manager ended up helping him find an apartment within walking distance of the factory and fronted him the money for the first month’s deposit. The employee has since paid back the loan for the deposit and is consistently on time for work.

In this case, diversity was about racial differences. But visible differences, such as race, age, gender and nationality aren’t the only assets worth considering. Then there are differences that may not be visible, such as a person’s disability, religion, educational level, or social class if supported and seen as an asset, can bring about unique perspectives and innovative ideas that increase productivity, collaboration and profit to any organization.

To realize the promise of diversity, organizations need to make sure their people feel valued and heard. The best corporate leadership recognizes that while diversity is the state of being in our society, it is cultural intelligence that is the state of doing well by each other.

-Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Hewlett, S., Marshall, M. & Sherbin, L. (Dee 2013). “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation,” Harvard Business Review:
  2. Troiano, E (July 23, 2013) “Why Diversity Matters,” Catalyst:
  3. Herring, C (April 2009) “Does Diversity Pay?: Race, Gender, and the Business Case for Diversity,” American Sociological Review:
  4. Hunt, V., Prince, S., Dixon-Fyle, S. & Yee, L (2017) Delivering Through Diversity. New York: McKinsey & Co.
  5. Distefano, J. & Mazevski, M. (2012). “Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics


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


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:

Shift Happens

“I love my company, but I’m afraid to go back to work. I’ll see her in the hall and won’t know how to act. If I’m this nervous about being at work, I can only imagine how she feels,” said the high-performing employee as she left for a business trip immediately after being called culturally insensitive. She had no time to address the conflict before she left and didn’t have the training or know-how to respond to her colleague’s accusations. With no skills and no place to turn in the company, she was worried how this conflict was going to impact her work and work relationships.

This employee’s concerns are a real distraction and a drain on productivity and profit; it’s an igniting point for drama. It’s also a sign an organization is stuck in a mono-culture mindset, lacking cultural intelligence. A mono-cultural approach incites conflict by upholding dominant group practices as superior to minority group practices, requiring assimilation and adoption of the dominant group’s culture in both overt and subtle ways. The end result leaves people unheard, excluded, less productive, blocked from innovative contributions and polluting overall morale. As an employer, it hits the bottom line hard.

Seven Signs a Company Lacks Intelligence

  1. Low employee engagement
  2. Inability to talk and work effectively with people that are different
  3. Lack of innovation or stagnant productivity
  4. Infighting between groups
  5. Inability to reach new markets
  6. Failure to attract, retain or promote diverse talent
  7. Tardiness and high turnover

Change is Hard

Sometimes it seems easier to stick with the status quo. We don’t like change. However, as U.S. demographics shift, we must adjust to get the full productivity of our workforce. We may experience confusion, anxiety and anger. We may even feel denial or blame others in the transition period. The tendency will be to resist the changes, especially since it’s not yet apparent what we are adjusting to.

What Has Changed?

While race and ethnicity are fluid concepts created by social consensus, personal self-identification and other means, those concepts effect attitudes and behaviors of workforces and marketplaces.(1) These statistics show how demographics have shifted in the U.S.:

  • Foreign born: 1965 – 5% | Now – 14% | 2040 – 17%(2)
  • Asia: Largest source of new immigrants to the U.S.(3)
  • Millennials as a generation:
    • Born from 1981 to 1996, adults from 23 – 38 in 2019
    • Largest generation currently in the workforce
    • 71 million people compared to 74 million Baby Boomers
    • Most diverse group with 43% people of color(4)
  • Women:
    • Breadwinner in 40% of all households with children in 2011
    • Slow to rise, without parity to men, in their share of top leadership positions (3)

Overall, American attitudes about immigration and diversity are supportive of these changes. More Americans say immigrants strengthen the country than those that say burden it, and most say the U.S.’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live.(3)

How Cultural Intelligence Can Help an Organization

With this demographic shift, also with the current unemployment rate at 4%, cultural intelligence and inclusion have emerged as crucial practices to an organization’s success. A well-designed and well-executed strategy can help stabilize an organization:

  • Achieve its organizational vision, mission, strategy, and annual goals
  • Attract, retain and promote diverse talent
  • Build strong and high-performing teams
  • Leverage a range of backgrounds and skills to enhance creativity, innovation, and problem solving
  • Increase engagement, motivation, and productivity
  • Enhance the organization’s reputation/brand as an employer or provider of choice
  • Minimize risk/exposure and ensure compliance with legal requirements
  • Create an environment where people experience safety and belonging(5)

What’s a Leader to Do?

To increase engagement, collaboration and productivity, leaders must shift an organization from a mono-cultural, compliance mindset to a proactive culturally intelligent mindset. HR guru Dale Kreienkamp suggests starting with these questions:

  1. With sensitive and confidential concerns, is the perception of our Human Resources function independent, accessible, safe, comfortable and retaliation-free for all employees?
  2. Are we training and equipping our managers to support their direct-reports when anticipating or working through cross-cultural conflict?
  3. With hurt or offended employees, is there a strategic people-plan in place that leaves employees feeling empowered with new tools?
  4. Is there a diverse team of employees to help individuals successfully navigate and anticipate intercultural situations with both colleagues and clients?

To become an employer-of-choice, we must adjust to the changing times and context. While we may resist the change, it’s important to note that companies with the most ethnic diversity on their executive team are 43% more likely to experience higher profitability.(6) However, to achieve those profit margins, organizations must leverage and engage each person’s full value and develop a strategic people-plan for cultural intelligence and inclusion. -Amy Narishkin, PhD


  1. Liebler et al., 2014; Pew Research Center, 2015b; Wang, 2015
  2. (Sept. 28, 2015) Chapter 2: Immigration’s Impact on Past and Future U.S. Population Change Pew Center Research:
  3. Cohn, D & Caumont, A (March 31, 2016) 10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world. Pew Center Research:
  4. Cilluffo, A & Cohn, D (April 25, 2018) 7 demographic trends shaping the U.S. and the world in 2018. Pew Center Research:
  5. O’Mara, J. & Richter, A (2017) Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks. The Centre for Global Inclusion:
  6. Hunt, V., Prince, S., Dixon-Fyle, S. & Yee, L (2017) Delivering Through Diversity. New York: McKinsey & Co.

Because it takes a village, I’d also like to thank Kellee Sikes, Abby Narishkin, and Bettie Rooks for helping craft this blog.

To recruit and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders can 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 successfully onboard new recruits by shifting from a mono-cultural to multicultural mindset by developing the skills for cultural intelligence. Learn the skills in six 1.5-hour long Workshops. For more information, contact:

How to Maximize Group Participation

“I want to facilitate a discussion where everyone feels included and we all learn from one another. But instead of sharing their experiences and perspectives, people keep turning it to a political discussion and no one is listening to anyone,” an exasperated professional facilitator told me.

As a leader of any kind – including a discussion leader – we can intentionally set and compassionately enforce guidelines for effective cross-cultural conversations. Communication, innovation, productivity and profit all get dinged when conversations take a bad turn, leaving some feeling sidelined or silenced and others pridefully superior. I’ve developed a series of practical guidelines based on my experience and several lists I’ve seen over the years. Feel free to try them out.

Communication guidelines

  1. Affirm another’s experience, whether or not it’s our own
  2. Listen actively – hear the person out
  3. Check on our impact we’re having rather than only focusing on our intent
  4. Honor confidentiality
  5. Share airtime and let someone finish talking
  6. Speak from your own experience – use “I” statements
  7. Say “Ouch” if we’ve been hurt
  8. Say “Oops” if we mess up
  9. Express curiosity and wonder

Why they work

These Communication Guidelines suggest behaviors and words that build community and encourage relationships. They are the first step in building cultural intelligence. They work because we have a nearly universal tendency to react instinctively to differences as bad. Even when people are conscious about cultural or other differences, our unconscious assumptions kick in even before we realize it.(1) For example, studies show men and women are more likely to interrupt and talk over girls and women than they are boys and men. Since this is true in even scripted television shows and movies, we all need to be more alert in group settings.(2)

Being alert is especially important for those of us that are part of the dominant culture. We inadvertently make ourselves the center of the conversation, interrupt others and offer unsolicited solutions. We can come across as the knowers rather than the learners, and speakers rather than the listeners to the detriment of the whole group. To counter these dominant culture tendencies, so everyone has the opportunity to speak up, we need to intentionally set in motion new guidelines for speech and behavior. As a result, we won’t miss valuable front-line input because of one-sided communication habits.

How to get started

As the leader, you’ll want to explain that because everyone’s ideas are important to an innovative team, we’re putting in place new Communication Guidelines. Because the new rules are counter-cultural, it may be initially uncomfortable for some participants to speak and act this way. However, with practice the awkwardness will pass. As the guidelines become the new norm, everyone will feel heard and valued. An authenticity among the group members will show up, along with greater collaboration and innovation.

The steps for implementation include:

  1. Post the Communication Guidelines and ensure everyone has their own copy.
  2. Ask someone to read them aloud.
  3. Review each guideline and ask for example of what each one might sound like.
  4. Begin your discussion by asking an open-ended question.
  5. Express appreciation aloud regularly (especially at first) when someone uses a guideline.
  6. Close by asking: What did we do well? Where can we do better?

How to maximize participation

Because individuals and teams that communicate and collaborate with cultural intelligence increase profit lines for organizations by as much as 43%, a leader will want to ensure equal participation.(3) Considering cultural differences can show up between ethnic, national, gender, generational or even departmental groups, here are two ways to maximize participation.

  1. To allow a leader to focus on content in a meeting, another group member can be assigned the role of Process Leader. Using the Communication Guidelines as a foundation, the Process Leader is given explicit license to compassionately curb the dominance of any individual, interrupt those talking freely on behalf of more reserved members and invite participation from members who are more silent.(1)
  2. Also, if diverse types and talents, including introverts or people from other countries are not accustomed to U.S.-style meetings, the leader can solicit detailed e-mails about the topic before the meeting. The leader can ask, “What are your ideas?” One leader discovered that, “to his surprise, he received very thoughtful responses from those who had been most quiet during the past meetings. He tried to deliberately bump into team members in the hall or cafeteria, and chat with them about the issues. He also encouraged them to do the same with each other, and to share the outcomes of their discussions with him. He kept in frequent contact with the team members over the phone, and again encouraged them to do the same with each other.”(1)

After we talked about everything I’ve shared here, a week later, the facilitator whose discussion kept dissolving into politics called back to tell me how well her next meeting went. She was thrilled that as she introduced and gently enforced the guidelines, no one railroaded the conversation. Everyone stayed on topic. Participants allowed each other to finish their ideas and affirmed other’s experiences – even if they didn’t agree. Now, rather than dreading the next meeting, she couldn’t wait to get back to the group and keep the conversation rolling.

To change workplace diversity drama and factions forming into collaboration and productivity, we can set in motion a new norm, a new system for communication. This allows leaders to gain the full strengths of their diverse workforce and build organic collaboration and retention because people feel valued. How people feel is important as a means to greater productivity, innovation and profit.  -Amy Narishkin, PhD


  1. Distefano, J. & Mazevski, M. (2012). “Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics.
  2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her. New York: Atria Books
  3. Hunt, V., Prince, S., Dixon-Fyle, S. & Yee, L (2017) Delivering Through Diversity. New York: McKinsey & Co.


To recruit and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders can 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 successfully onboard new recruits by shifting from a mono-cultural to multicultural mindset by developing the skills for cultural intelligence. Learn the skills in six 1.5-hour long Workshops. For more information, contact:

Five Steps for Solving “Wicked” Problems

The lady initially repulsed me. Her clothes and hair unkempt, eyes bugged out and head was misshapen. For just a moment I hesitated to even hug her. But it was fellowship time in our church, and we’re asked to greet and hug one another. So, I looked at her, asked permission to greet with a hug and held her tight. She leaned in.

Moments later, I found her sitting on a bench in the hall sobbing. Sister Dawn asked me to sit with her as she fetched water. I didn’t want to sit with her, not at all. I didn’t know what I could possibly do to help. But I sat down. I put my arm around her and held her to me.

To my relief, Deaconess Darline came to sit with us. Darline has been a hospital service provider for 30+ years so there isn’t much she hasn’t seen. She put her arm around the lady too. Watching Darline, I decided I must be doing something right. I fought my inclination to leave; I realized had something to learn about compassion.

Dawn brought the water and left. As the lady took a few sips, her tears subsided, she began to tell her story. Huddled together arm-in-arm, Darline and I listened, nodded and said we understood how hard it is. I remember thinking how similar it was to the active listening I do in my work. It was good to know Darline uses the same practice in a crisis.

The lady told us about the physical abuse she had experienced, the resulting babies she’d lost to miscarriage, the husband that had died and the children that wouldn’t see her anymore. She told us she didn’t understand why she was even alive after the beating she had received to her head. I was scared; I’d never experienced such deprivation. We continued to lean in, listen and affirm. Darline asked me to find a protein bar for her to eat. Once I’d found one and brought it back, Darline told me I was free to go back to church if I wanted to but I sat back down with them. The lady said she hadn’t eaten in two days.

As she nibbled on the bar, Darline shared a similar experience, saying she understood the pain. She asked the lady, “Do you know what you need to do?” The lady shook her head. “You need to forgive yourself and those people,” Darline said.

I said, “Darline isn’t saying those people are off the hook for what they did. They’ll get their due. She’s saying to forgive, for your sake.”

Darline responded, “That’s right. You need to forgive because it’s not until you forgive yourself that you’ll be able to take care of yourself.” The lady nodded. She was quiet for the first time.

Dawn came back and asked the lady if she had a coat. She shook her head. Dawn asked me to help look for some clothes. Thinking Dawn had gone that way, I opened the door to the back of the sanctuary; music poured into the hall. The lady was on her feet wondering about the singing she was missing. I went to find Dawn who’d gone to her trunk for used clothes. When I returned, the lady was sitting in the church sanctuary, singing and clapping along with the other congregants.

Darline’s Approach

Later that day, I asked Darline about her approach. She too didn’t have a solution to the problem, at least not at first. Because of her experience, she knew to listen and learn, and a solution would become apparent. In majority culture we tend to want to offer a solution, even when we don’t know the whole problem. Because I didn’t have a “fix,” I wanted to flee and leave it for someone else. However, because I want to practice Acceptance, I acknowledged my feelings of overwhelm and leaned into learning how to express care in a completely new context. I recognized the cultural context as different from my own and because of my fear, found it initially difficult to take appropriate action. So I had to follow another’s lead.

Often corporate leaders who value cultural diversity aren’t trained in cultural intelligence and don’t know how to accept differences and adapt their behavior.(1) This can be a “wicked” problem because cultural intelligence is the link that makes a diverse environment an innovative, profitable culture.

When someone looks or speaks differently, it can be initially repulsive to any of us. However, when a person who’s a part of the “ingroup” takes the time to lean in and listen, bridges of understanding can be built and solutions can be found.

CEOs have seen this problem before. Someone on the team who usually shows great potential and is typically high performing, suddenly starts tanking. What do we do? Maybe their spouse or parent is ill and the strain is wearing on them. So instead of looking only at numbers and productivity, we can relate to the person first, learn what’s happening and how we can help, which in turn helps the company and our heart. Often stress and struggle comes from a tough circumstance and the person wants to manage while managing to be a good employee, but they need assistance figuring out how to handle both. This is a “wicked” problem but with a mindset of Acceptance and a posture of curiosity, resolution can be discovered.

“Wicked” Problem Defined

A “wicked” problem is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that no one has seen or experienced before. (The term “wicked” here denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil.)

How to solve “wicked” problems is an area of research and teaching for Dr. Jackson Nickerson at Washington University’s Olin School of Business. When I told him about Darline’s approach, he said, “I’d like to meet her. She’s a pro.” He explained, “If we want to succeed in solving “wicked” organizational problems, we need to build trust and understanding in order to get the full picture. However, in corporate America, there is often a race going on between building trust and understanding and comprehending the situation sufficiently to come up with a solution. The problem is if we come up with a solution before we build trust and understanding, we’ll fail to solve the ‘wicked’ problem.”

Five Steps for Building Trust & Understanding

According to Nickerson, there are five elements for building trust and understanding and, as a result, being able to formulate a problem and discover a solution.

  1. Spark good feelings. We feel good when the chemical dopamine is released in our brain. Dopamine is released when people experience appreciation. Consider the context. In church, a heartfelt embrace can spark those good feelings; whereas, at work, we can express appreciation for a person’s idea or action aloud or in a note.(2)
  2. Build a common identity. We’re attracted to people who look or think like us. Even when a person seems different, we’re searching for opportunities to communicate we can relate to their experience. A story shared can suggest, “We’re from the same tribe.”(2) Darline shared her own experience which resonated with the lady.
  3. Demonstrate reliability. Do our actions match our words? We need to be counted on to behave in a way that is consistent with what we’ve said.(4) Darline stayed with the lady until she round resolution according to what the lady needed and not what Darline wanted.
  4. Prove you care. We can make a sacrifice at our own personal expense. The most common sacrifices are time, money, and other priorities.(3) Like Darline, we can take the time to be present with someone, particularly when they have a concern by hearing them out and affirming their experience (even if their experience is completely different from our own).
  5. Exhibit competence. Can we effectively accomplish the task before us? “Interpersonal competence is the ability to demonstrate, ‘I’ve got your back,’ or the sense that you’ll be there for your colleague.” Not only can we take the time to hear someone out, we can look for what else might be needed. We can notice what isn’t being said and find a resource.(4)

Trust is emerging as we build understanding and vice-versa. We can’t move into understanding a person or problem without trust; otherwise, people won’t tell us what we need to know. Nickerson explained rather than probing for a solution, we’re probing for multiple perspectives about the situation, challenge and symptoms. The solution almost always becomes apparent when we get to the real root cause. Fostering employee safety and belonging using cultural intelligence is the means to an end for greater job satisfaction, innovation and profit in every business. -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

To recruit and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders can create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone in their organization. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEOs, management teams and group leaders to successfully onboard new recruits by shifting from a mono-cultural to multicultural mindset by developing the skills for cultural intelligence. Learn the skills in six 1.5-hour-long Workshops.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Van Edwards, V. (2017) Captivate. New York: Penguin Books.
  3. Maxfield, David. (Jan 23, 2019) “What to do when someone undermines your role.” Crucial Conversations Blog:
  4. Grodnitzky, G. (2014) Culture Trumps Everything. Mountain Fog Publishing.