Reality Isn’t Harsh

Reality Isn’t Harsh

“I’m just being realistic,” said the VP of marketing and sales.

“Not really,” I said. He looked confused. “What I mean is, there may be more to the situation than you currently realize.” I went on to explain that when we’re stressed out, worried or angry, like he was, many of us fall back to the stage of Polarization.

The VP and I were doing his IDI® Debrief, “Polarization” is one of five stages of development on the continuum of Cultural Intelligence (IDI stands for Intercultural Development Inventory®), and we were talking about where he was on the continuum in that difficult moment.

The IDI reveals that participants are in one of five stages of development on the continuum of Cultural Intelligence. The stages are: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation.(1) He (let’s call him “George”) and his colleagues had taken the IDI because they wanted to know their individual and organization’s ability to engage people with different backgrounds in conversation.

Polarization defined

People and groups in Polarization tend to be overly critical of themselves and others; they think and work from an “us versus them” viewpoint. This binary mindset sees things as good/bad, right/wrong and black/white. I explained that “if we’re thinking things are black and white, that’s not reality. There’s typically more to the story that has not yet been realized or considered.”

The No. 1 growth opportunity for the mindset of Polarization is learning to see the gray areas in people and situations. I said, “If you think about it, none of us is actually good or bad. We’re all a mix, a bit Jekyll and a bit Hyde.” George agreed. When things are seen from a binary mindset, the takeaway tends to be a harsh judgment rather than reality. However, when we slow down and get more information, we are getting more of the truth and able to develop a shared understanding with another. It’s then that we get a fuller and bigger picture. With greater understanding, our gaze softens, compassion grows and we see opportunities for innovation we hadn’t seen before.

An example

I asked George if he could give me an example of where he was feeling things were pretty bleak, with no opportunity. He gave me an example that I paraphrased for him, “It sounds like you don’t want to hire someone away from a good job because you don’t want to put them in a precarious position in your start up. Did I get that right?” He said, “Yes.” “So,” I went on, “if I look for that gray area, let’s call it a dove gray, let me wonder aloud with you: Does your scenario assume everyone is happy in their job or wouldn’t be interested in possibly joining an intriguing effort to launch a new brand?”

He said, “Yes, I hadn’t thought about those possibilities. I see what you mean, I had already made decisions for people I haven’t even met yet.”

I said, “The truth is, reality isn’t harsh.” So I asked George, “As you think about your professional goals, what do you need to do professionally to move out of the polarization mindset so that you can get a broader perspective — so you can practice seeing that softer gray area?” He wasn’t sure. So I asked him, “Where’s you happy place at work?”

“In my 30-year career in sales,” he said, “because of the pandemic, I’ve never spent this much time at home. What I really enjoy is being at a customer [‘s workplace], observing and perceiving needs and translating that into actionable steps.”

I asked, “What’s keeping you from traveling (observing public health restrictions, of course)? Is your boss against it?” He said, “No, I just hadn’t thought about it.” I asked, “What’s your ideal? How many customers would you like to visit this month?” He said, “ideally two.” “Can that be your goal?” I asked, “that you’d like to develop a broader perspective and do more of what you love at work?” He agreed.

“So to make that goal measurable and doable, you’ll know you’ve made progress when you reach out to two clients and make appointments to see them and clear your calendar for those trips this month,” I suggested.

I recommended that he keep record on a spreadsheet of the progress with the client, including the part about how he’s getting broader perspective in communicating with them. He thought that was a good idea.

To wrap up the meeting, I asked him, “What word would you use to describe how you’re feeling right now – now that we’ve done this work?” He said, “Better. No, actually the word is, ‘lighter.’ I feel like I’ve put down a weight.”

To experience greater productivity and engagement at work, we need to discover that softer gray area, get that greater perspective and grow compassion for ourselves. Compassion begins within us. Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate ourselves as well as others and adapt our behavior to show genuine respect. It is difficult to feel and show respect for others when we haven’t discovered our own humanity first.

Our first step is to become aware of how we may inadvertently be judging ourselves. This three-day challenge can empower you to notice, observe and recognize the impact of Polarization on yourself and others. Using our head, heart and hands, we can develop the self-awareness that allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, as well as increasing engagement, collaboration and innovation for the organization.

Three-day Challenge

Over the next three days we are noticing, observing and experiencing the impact of Polarization.

  1. HEAD: Observe what words and actions correlate with the stage of Polarization.
    • Under what circumstances do you judge yourself?
    • Who in your family, community or office gets alienated?
    • What is said or done that alienates?
    • How did this observation make you look at people differently?
  2. HEART: Today as you observe yourself and others, notice your own feelings and the reactions of others when you or they use polarizing language.
    • What feelings did you observe in others and how did it make you feel?
    • What was particularly heartbreaking or moving about polarization?
  3. HANDS: Now that you have reflected on the polarization and its impact on you and others, what actions can you take to make sure people you encounter feel valued and heard?
    • What thoughts, words and actions can you use to show genuine respect for yourself (the Acceptance and Adaptation stages of the IDI)?
    • What thoughts, words and actions can you use to show genuine respect for others (Acceptance and Adaptation)?
    • What polarizing processes or systems can be challenged at home, in your community or at your office?
    • How could you learn more about the impact of systems that inadvertently sideline or silence groups of people?  –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Image credit: @Angel Balashev,

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How to Deal with an Ignorant Remark in Five Steps

How to Deal with an Ignorant Remark in Five Steps

“I struggle with people who make ignorant remarks,” Larry explained. Larry has his own internationally renowned HR consulting firm. “You know, my work activities bring me around to lots of different places, meeting lots of different people in North America. With all the talk in the media, I’ll get into a discussion about things like race, ethnicity and heritage. What blows me away is that I actually bump into folks who think racism doesn’t exist, that it’s just a construct of the media. That makes my blood boil.”

Larry went on to say, “So occasionally I’d challenge their views, ‘Well, can you imagine growing up in the 60’s? There was still lynching going on when I was a child. That wasn’t the media. That was reality.’ They’ll say, ‘But that was a long time ago.’ So I’ll say, ‘If your grandparents were subjected to this, it’s still very much a part of your reality – your family story.’ I’m really challenged with not losing my temper.” he told me. “But if I don’t challenge it, I’m complicit with their line of thinking. So I’ve backed off on a lot of discussions, now, because there just doesn’t seem to be solution.”

Amy: “That’s a tough spot to be in. Are you wondering how to respond?”

Larry: “Yes. How do I respond to an ignorant remark like ‘there’s no such thing as racism’?”

Amy: “It sounds like you want to speak up but you feel like there’s almost no point in arguing because it’s not going to change their mind. They’ll just want to defend their position, and no one wins. Whereas, if you remain silent, that suggests you agree with what the person just said, right? Ugh!”

Larry: “Exactly! So what do I do?”.

Amy: “Can I share an example of what you might do?”

Larry: “Absolutely.”

Amy: “I remember sitting across the table from a CEO at a coffee shop a few years ago. He knew about my work, so he said to me, ‘I just don’t understand why those people take a knee on the football field. They’re not being respectful.’ I said, ‘I get that. Our flag means a lot to me too. My husband, four kids and I rode our bikes, along with 20 of our French cousins, 335 miles from Paris to the beaches of Normandy over a six-day period in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-day. And do you know what struck me the most about our journey? It was all the Allied flags along the way!

“You know how, in the U.S., the American flag always flies higher than all the other flags it’s posted with? Well in France, throughout Normandy, the Allied flags – British, Canadian, French and American – all fly at the same height. That’s how much the French still appreciate the sacrifice we made to help secure their freedom. Our flag means that kind of freedom.” The CEO nodded and said, “You get it.”

So I asked him, ‘May I offer another perspective?’ He said, “Sure.” I wondered aloud with him, ‘What might it be like for a man – who is not on the field in his football uniform but on his bike in jeans – to be perceived as a threat most every day of his life? Just driving his car, he’s in danger. Could it be that he doesn’t have the same experience under the American flag that you and I have?… I actually wonder if taking a knee is maybe a quiet respectful way to protest the fear he feels for his life?’

“The CEO was quiet,” I told Larry. “Then the CEO said, ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s a good point.”

Connecting, not curing

I could tell Larry was really listening. I continued, suggesting that both these stories – honoring the Allies of World War II and Colin Kaepernick’s quite protest – can have the power to change thinking, but the approaches were different. I told him, “In the scenario you shared, there’s a possibility that the person will feel attacked, maybe even feel blame or shame. When we approach a conversation with an attitude of curing rather than connecting, the person will likely shut down the discussion. That was the core point I hoped Larry would take away from this conversation.

Curing communicates…

  • Something’s wrong with you but I’m okay
  • You’re ignorant; I’m enlightened
  • You’re wrong; I’m right.

Connecting communicates that we (both parties) can…

  • Work toward mutuality with shared understanding
  • Feel solidarity and compassion for one another
  • Ensure we both feel valued, heard and engaged.

Connecting is cultural intelligence. A key construct of cultural intelligence is appreciating another person’s perspective and adapting our behavior to show genuine respect. In U.S. society, and in many of the organizations in it, competitiveness is a cultural characteristic. And if we’re not culturally intelligent, that competitiveness can get in the way of productive and genuine relationships. Because of this, we can get caught up in trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong in a conversation. We can get attached to the idea that someone is a loser and someone is a winner, and we want to be the winner.

But in that either/or set-up, one person wins and the other loses. That’s a problem because the outcome can never be 100% positive. If anyone loses, both parties lose. They both lose the opportunity to build a relationship. People and families lose connection; organizations lose productivity.

So how do we all win? We know we’ve really “won” when compassion and understanding is felt by all; oneself and our colleague, client, friend or family member.

Five steps for responding

To make sure you both win, there are five steps I’d recommend you take when you find you’re in a situation like Larry’s:

  1. Notice their feelings of frustration or fear
  2. Hear the person out
  3. Recognize it’s not a personal attack on you but that they’re talking about their own experience
  4. Paraphrase what they said, affirming their experience, even if it’s  different from yours
  5. Ask permission to offer a different perspective.

I said to Larry, “I noticed when you were asking the question that you were pretty frustrated so I heard you out. Did you notice after you shared your story, I paraphrased your feelings about the predicament you were in? I only offered a different perspective after you gave me permission.

Larry said, “I see it now.”

“That was intentional,” I told him. “It could be perceived as manipulative, but it wasn’t. I actually felt compassion for your situation because I’m often in it. Because of my work, people will say things to me that hurt my heart but I want to stay in relationship with them. It seems to work well. Does that help you?”

Larry said, “It does. I see now that there’s another way.”

Words like “compassion,” “feelings” and “belonging” may resonate with you as words that should be used at home with family or in places of worship, not at the office. However, it’s the exclusion of these words in our work organizations and greater society that marginalizes entire groups of people. It can minimize or even rule out important experiences we can all learn from and stifle the communication and innovation that move us forward in life and business. Just imagine the opportunities for genuine connection and vital action when we slow down, show compassion and work in solidarity with one another.  –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

  1. Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash

*In a Series of interactive workshops with Dr. Narishkin, “Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity & Diversity with Cultural Intelligence,” you can acquire the skills and attitude needed to help you and your organization ensure that no one is side-lined or silenced and everyone can contribute and feel valued. Why wouldn’t you want your whole team working at their top level of productivity in a low to no drama environment? This is the outcome for culturally intelligent organizations.

Unions or Unity: A CEO’s Dilemma

Unions or Unity: A CEO’s Dilemma

CEO: “The workers withdrew the petition!”

AMY: “What does that mean for the company?”

CEO: “There’s not going to be an election to decide whether or not to unionize.”

AMY: “So that’s good news?”

CEO: “Yeah, it is. What a relief!”

What happened

Three weeks earlier, a small group of factory workers had met with the union representatives at a local bar. Team members were encouraged to sign the union’s card. When the union had enough signed cards, they told the National Labor Relations Board they had enough people to form a union. A week later, when the company that owned the factory received notification, they were required to post notification that there was a petition to form a union. The petition didn’t arrive until Monday, but the CEO got word on the Friday afternoon before. He was surprised and hurt.

CEO: “I’m so mad,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard to create a culture of open communication. I walk the factory floor and make myself available throughout the day every day. Why would they do this to me, especially after they just got a bonus?”

AMY: “Do you just want me to listen or to problem-solve with you?”

CEO: “Problem-solve.”

AMY: “Do you recall in our corporate IDI Debrief Session* we reviewed the five stages of cultural intelligence?” I said, referring to the workshop I’d done with company executives a few weeks before. “The data showed your leadership team is in the middle stage: Minimization. Remember that in that stage, people and groups value commonalities and de-emphasize differences, a strong indicator that there’s a lack of deeper understanding of differing perspectives. As a result, minority perspectives are typically not fully heard, making them feel sidelined or silenced. This can really impact overall engagement, collaboration and productivity.”(1)

I reminded him of what I said in the workshop: “When people and groups don’t feel fully heard, frustration and anger tend to grow. Under that stress, people inadvertently fall back to the earlier cultural intelligence stage – Polarization – where those same people become overly critical of their situation and work from an ‘us versus them’ mindset.”

CEO: “Right, so I’m starting to see how this relates to unionization.”

AMY: “Yes. The group attempting to unionize wasn’t feeling valued and heard. Because they felt alienated, they started working from an ‘us versus them’ mindset, because they felt management wasn’t listening. They sought out someone who would: the union.”

“But right now, that’s how they feel. How do you feel? Are you feeling alienated, like it’s ‘you versus them’?”

CEO: “Definitely.”

AMY: “What if, instead of falling back into that ‘me versus them’ mindset yourself, you worked from a place of cultural intelligence? If you were to approach the situation with genuine curiosity, what would you do? Don’t try to answer now – just think on it.”

The subject was dropped for the time being as the CEO contemplated those questions.

All-hands meeting

The next morning was an all-hands meeting with everyone in the factory. The lawyer had told the CEO what he wasn’t allowed to say, which didn’t leave him with much could say. That was frustrating. But he worked to stay open and curious and thought about what actually could be said – and even more importantly how it could be said.

While he could say very little in the meeting, he realized he could state the subject, ask key the employees to consider key questions, repeat important words for emphasis and allow for pregnant silences.

The other employees got the message and started encouraging the organizers to think about the potential impacts of their actions and to look for other options for getting their voices heard with management. In the meantime, the CEO also hedged his bets and met with outside consultants and lawyers. Together, they came up with contingency plans for outsourcing the work if need be, which further empowered the CEO’s position by giving him some leverage.

The CEO continued his normal approach to leadership – regularly walking the factory floor and praising his people, shaking hands and listening a lot.

Two days later, the CEO shared his progress with me. He felt open and genuine again but still didn’t know how to end this attempt to unionize.

AMY: “I know you can’t directly ask, but how else: Who on that team doesn’t feel valued and heard and why not?”

CEO: “That’s a good question. I need to find out. How do I do that?”

What a leader can do

I told the CEO that there are two organizational factors in play. First, a culturally intelligent leader needs to be aware that, after years of being belittled under a system of Minimization, minorities may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, social isolation or job loss even when a manager asks them to speak up.

Second, that in hierarchical contexts like his workplace, people of majority culture who are in Minimization often unconsciously assume an attitude of being the people “in the know.” Because they tend to be the knower, rather than the learner, they don’t listen well. However, if they adopt an attitude of learner, they can actively listen and can get to the bottom of things. I suggested to the CEO that, when he feels like he’s not making any progress, he STOP. That’s an acronym for…

  1. Slow down
  2. Take 3 deep breaths
  3. Observe your own reaction and their hurt
  4. Proceed with genuine curiosity and wonder

When he slowed down and thought more about it, the CEO realized he had assumed people trusted him. He didn’t really know his employees’ perspectives, nor did he know why they were frustrated and angry.

It also became clear to him that while – according to the union rules – he wasn’t allowed to talk, he could deeply listen and learn.

What happened

The following week, the CEO spent the better part of his days on the factory floor listening to this team of people and watching them work. They’d ask him questions and he’d have to remind them, “I can’t say anything to you while we’re under this petition, but I can listen to you. I can’t agree, disagree or affirm anything, but I’m here. I’m listening.”

As the workers chatted while they worked, the CEO took mental note. He worked alongside them, helping where he could. Eventually they started talking more naturally. He heard them complain about their immediate boss and the aggressive behavior they’d experienced. That turned out to be the root cause of their distress. The CEO realized that he needed to remove that manager and temporarily take over managing this team; that’s what he did.

Two weeks later, the team met again at the local bar. They no longer had enough team members to sign union cards.

The following Monday, the petition to unionize was withdrawn; there have been no further attempts to unionize. The CEO continues to listen deeply at all levels of his organization.

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.

Our organizational wellbeing develops one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of why others, including employees, may be feeling side-lined or silenced. Those conversations are the foundation on which leaders can build connection, overcome individual and collective feelings of isolation and create systems that benefit everybody.

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 S. Narishkin, PhD

*The IDI or Intercultural Development Inventory® is a 50-item online questionnaire that measures both individual and organization’s stage of development and ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations. As a Certified Administrator, Dr. Amy Narishkin provides the IDI® results and does a Debrief, which becomes an ongoing resource to guide individual and corporate development.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Photo credit: Justin Wilkens,
A Hire Power: How to Really Get to Know a Candidate

A Hire Power: How to Really Get to Know a Candidate

“Almost everything about interviews, as they are now, reinforces a hiring manager’s bias and conceals the real person,” said Katie Magoon, HR guru and CEO of People Solutions Center. When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “That’s because…

  • One hour is hardly enough time to get to know someone
  • Managers haven’t been trained to recognize their bias
  • We don’t give managers questions to help them
  • Managers don’t know what answers to look for.

So how does a hiring manager really get to know a candidate? This was the question that prompted Katie and me to talk about the importance of using cultural intelligence in the hiring process to find the right candidate for a job, to truly see and hear the person being interviewed. By putting our heads together, we discovered there are three elements an interviewer needs to really see the person their talking with:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. A structured interview
  3. Cultural intelligence.

Step 1 – Self-awareness

Katie explained that we humans make 11 judgments about people within the first seven seconds, creating instant bias. “That means by the time you’ve said hello and commented on the weather, you’ve already created a story about the person you’re interviewing.” Then if you’re not aware that your bias is in play, everything in that interview will confirm what you already think you know about that person.

The first step in creating smarter hiring practices is to recognize that every viewpoint is a view from just one point. Unless we recognize our personal and cultural viewpoint, we will not be able to get past our own way of thinking and seeing. We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we want to see them, and then may miss something that’s right in front of us.

When we lack self-awareness, we only see the things that confirm our assumptions about a person or situation; that’s called confirmation bias.

Author, Brian McLaren explains, “In a matter of seconds we ask ourselves, what do I already believe? Does this new idea or piece of information confirm what I already think? Does it fit in the frame I’ve already constructed? If so, I can accept it. If not, I simply reject it as unreasonable or unbelievable. I do this not to be ignorant but to be efficient. My brain (without my conscious awareness and permission) makes incredibly quick decisions. Ideas that fit in are easy and convenient to accept, and they give me pleasure because they confirm what I already think.(1)

“When ideas don’t fit easily, requiring me to think and rethink, that’s incredibly hard work,” McLaren continues. “My brain has a lot going on, so it interprets that hard work as pain and wants to save me from that extra reframing work. So it hits the Reject button.”(1)

That means an interviewer may reject a more than qualified candidate because they’re unaware of all the snap judgements their brain is making about straight teeth, gender, race, voice, school, extra-curricular activities, ability to relate to people, accents and names. For example, Allison and Matthew get 50% more call backs than Laquisha and Jamal, even if their résumés are identical. Candidates with foreign accents get less call backs too; they’re often judged as less savvy.(2) As a result, interviewers inadvertently weed out the diversity of background and diversity of thought that their company may need in order to appeal to a broader market or to realize more innovation.

After becoming aware of your bias, it’s important to set up the interview to expand your understanding of the person.

Step 2 – A structured interview

“A structured interview is key,” Katie said. It’s important to take the time to identify the values that are essential to the department or organization. Then more specifically for the job, best practice is to define the competency, skills and motivations needed for the job, Katie explained. For example, for a customer service representative, a core value may be to ensure that every customer feels valued and heard. And the competency, skills and motivations may be…

  • Be people-oriented and gregarious
  • Have the skills to listen actively and problem solve under stress
  • Enjoy talking with people.

I wondered how an interviewer would know if a candidate is being real or faking it for the interview. Faking is stretching the truth to protect your image or ingratiate yourself with the interviewer. In fact, 90% of college seniors engage in some kind of faking.(2)

Katie told me that candidates often do tell interviewers what they think they want to hear, which is why it’s important that the interviewer ask behavior-based questions. That way, even if the candidate is faking the story, they’ll still be explaining the actions they’d take and results they’d get from within their own context. Because they’ll only be able to talk from their own frame of reference, the actions and results they describe will reflect what they know. Also, you can ask follow-up questions that go deeper into details which helps you understand their actual depth of experience.

Behavior-based questions give the interviewer a good idea of what candidates have excelled and struggled with in the past. The principle is that past behavior can predict future behavior. The way a candidate worked in the past signifies how they’ll work in the future.

“The goal is to encourage a candidate to share a series of stories,” Katie said. Stories will also help the interviewer slow down and decouple from the assumptions in their head because they’ll be taking the time to get to know the other person. We can use behavior-based questions like…

  • “Tell me about a time when you were working under pressure and how you handled it.”
  • “Describe a time when you disagreed with a colleague and what you did.”
  • “Give me an example of when you worked successfully with a team and what happened.”

The interviewer is looking for key information in the candidate’s story that helps the interviewer understand their behavior. To help her remember what to look for, Katie uses the acronym S.T.A.R…

  • Situation
  • Task
  • Action
  • Result

Katie warned that it can be tempting to get caught up in the Situation and Task of the candidate’s story, but what the interviewer really wants to focus on are the Action and Results. These are what express what the candidate really knows and understands. They allow the interviewer to know and see what the person is really is about. To get a deeper understanding of the person, the interviewer can ask for more detail about their actions and results.

To understand the kinds of actions and results you’re looking for, based on the team’s values, create an answer key by giving the questions to your current employees and see how the star performers at the company answer the same questions.(2)

Consistency is key with this style of interview. Standardizing the process also helps interviewers and recruiters make fairer comparisons between candidates. Prepare to ask each candidate the same key questions to reduce confirmation bias and really see the candidate’s potential.

Step 3 – De-center with cultural intelligence

To really see the candidate, their context and their potential, an interviewer needs not just solid questions but cultural intelligence. Each tip and how-to in this blog is offered from the perspective of cultural intelligence, the ability to appreciate another and change behavior to show genuine respect for their perspective and background.

To appreciate another’s perspective, we must first recognize our own biases so that we can hold them more lightly. Katie pointed out that, if you feel judgment coming up in the interview and you’re thinking, “This person is awful” or “This person is wonderful,” that’s all bias. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s all judgment and blocks us from getting more information about the person.

Next, to de-center our thinking and get to a place of higher understanding, we need to slow down the conversation. Take a breath. Wonder what you might be missing. Active listening can help. After you ask a behavior-based or other open-ended question…

  1. Hear the candidate out. Don’t interrupt. Use listening strategies like eye contact, a quiet body and some nodding. You might also say: “Uh huh” and “Okay.” Then when there is a quiet moment, you can encourage them to continue and…
  2. Label their emotions. This is a key step for creating a safe space for candidates to reveal more of who they really are. This is the step that communicates you’re interested and you care. You can use these phrases with emotion words:
    • It seems like…
    • It sounds like…
    • It looks like…
      • For example, we can use prompts such as:
    • It seems like you’re inspired.
    • It sounds like you’re confused.
    • It looks like you’re angry.
      • Interviewers (listener-facilitators) may need to label the candidate’s (speaker’s) emotions in that way two to three times to get the whole story. Allow for quiet think times, particularly for more introverted candidates. In the U.S., we tend to tolerate only four seconds of silence before we feel the need to talk. Sometimes I count to 10 in my head to help me allow for a few more seconds of quiet. When you feel they are finished sharing their story, you can…
  3. Seek understanding. You can use words such as:
    • What happened that made you feel so _________.
    • You’re feeling so _________ because?
    • What caused this?
      • You can specifically use these questions to encourage the candidate to elaborate on actions and results.

Your goal as an interviewer is to feel a measure of respect and appreciation for the candidate, even if they’re not the person for the job. That feeling of respect (or connection) for who they are and what they can contribute, even if not for the role you have in mind, is your indication that you’ve gotten a fairly accurate read on the candidate. And they might be the right person for a position that opens up in the future.

Self-awareness, a structured interview and cultural intelligence are the keys that allow you to de-center your perspective and stay open to seeing differently. It ensures you don’t miss opportunities that may be sitting right in front of you. The right hire allows the hiring manager the peace of mind that they can count on the person they’ve hired to exceed expectations and be an asset to your organization.     -Amy Narishkin, PhD ©2021


  1. McLaren, B (2019) Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) Self-published e-book.
  2. Grant, A. (April 20, 2020) Worklife with Adam Grant: “Reinventing the Job Interview.” Podcast:
  3. Photo credit: –
Leadership Enlightened: How to Upend the Status Quo

Leadership Enlightened: How to Upend the Status Quo

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.,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.
  4. Johnson, T. (Jun 29, 2018) “The real problem with tech professionals: High turnover. Forbes.
  5. The Co-Intelligence Institute. Listening Circles.
  6. Photo credit –



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

Lesson Learned the Hard Way

Lesson Learned the Hard Way

“I thought we were doing everything right,” James told me. “Now I’m afraid I won’t be able to get another job because of the current cancel culture.”

“Cancel culture” is a pop-culture term that basically means canceling people out – ostracizing or withdrawing support of people or companies that have done something deemed offensive.  James, who is white, had been removed as general manager of a non-profit after “allegedly perpetuating a legacy of structural racism.”

Employees of color had gone to the Board of Directors with a list of racist incidents saying that James had done nothing to create the kind of inclusive environment where such incidents couldn’t happen. The employees said he 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 (privilege) over other ethnic groups, on both a collective and individual level, despite formal legal equality.]

Obviously, James did not see that coming, and he was devastated. By the time he and I met, after six months of soul-searching, he had recovered enough from this personal and professional blow to see that he could bring a much-needed asset to his next organization: cultural intelligence. Within his sphere of influence, he will be able to help his fellow whites see and dismantle systems that marginalize entire groups of people and that stifle retention and promotion of people of color, women and those who are differently-abled.

Here’s what we talked about

Amy: “What was the hardest part of being let go?”

James: “Initially, it was hard not to see myself as all bad. In time, I began to remember that I’d done some good and to see where I could do better. I’m still learning.”

Amy: “Earlier, you said you had thought you were doing everything right before all that happened, why was that?”

James: “We were…

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

Amy: “Those are good first steps. What do you think was missing?”

James said he realized that, though the board was becoming diversified and the organization was hiring people of color, they were not promoting those employees into leadership roles. As a result, there was not anyone in the management circle to challenge the dominant cultural perspective about the way they were doing things. For example, they had never considered the use of language that would appeal to diverse candidates in job postings or that would have broader fundraising appeal. That hindered them from hearing employees’ requests for training resources that would enable them to move to the next level.

“Because there was not anyone to challenge the way we were thinking at the top, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” he told me.

James: “It’s interesting that when you work for a liberal organization, you assume you’re doing the right thing.”

Amy: “How so?”

James: “In our organization, the mission was to educate the public as citizens in a democratic society. Our mission was good, so we assumed we must be doing the right thing. I mean, we were holding people in positions of power accountable so we must be doing the right thing, right? Wrong. What I realize now is we were telling everyone else about the need for diversity and the value of social justice but not having that conversation ourselves. We weren’t looking for or listening to our own employees’ concerns or wishes.”

Where the problem lies

Was James the problem or was it something bigger? 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)

James’ individual actions had not come out of a void, there is also a systemic problem. Sixty-six 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) If you think about it, that means two-thirds of people worldwide do not think about other people’s different-ness. That means, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes intentionally, they minimize it, which makes people around them feel like they are unimportant and invisible. That’s what happened in James’ workplace.

What he also didn’t know

When I asked him what he would do differently next time, he said he would diversify the management team. What he also did not know is that when you introduce diverse perspectives, it’s essential to help people learn how to communicate across those differences. He didn’t know that research shows, if a homogeneous organization diversifies before the employees and leaders know how to navigate cross-cultural conversations, there is often an increase in defensiveness, stereotyping and stonewalling in organizations.(3) Like the one James’ organization experienced.

When we’re unaware of the structures in play, the organization’s practices and policies default to that dominant cultural value of Minimization. Ignoring different-ness creates an environment in which people tend to focus on what everybody has in common and assume others are “like us.” This may be well-intended but the impact is a dismissiveness of peoples’ unique differences and experiences and a failure to recognize structures that leave both our colleagues and clients feeling invisible.

Amy: Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently so that people feel valued?

James: “I see that I need to encourage others as well as myself to…

  • Get comfortable not knowing, not having all the answers.
  • Be willing to learn.
  • Not be so defensive so that we can say, ‘I don’t know.’
  • Not avoid conflict but instead lean into conversations, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
  • Look inward to reflect on what the organization can do better by its employees.”

What he’ll also come to see is the importance of training people to communicate across culture and communities.

Addressing the system

James is spot on to encourage and model learning and listening. That is the first step a culturally intelligent leader takes. Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and temporarily adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect. When we adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect in our conversations, we can hear and learn how people are impacted by the systems in place.

Systems that elevate one group of people over another, as happened in James’ workplace, reinforce and perpetuate in Minimization. The people in power inadvertently, and sometimes intentionally, lack self-awareness of their structural advantages and of how they are complicit. They do not hear minorities and the anxiety they experience. However, minority people, who are very aware of the system but not typically in a position of power to point out the problem, go-along-to-get-along in order to stay employed or even survive.

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.  When you are systematically silenced and side-lined, you are devalued and discouraged from collaborating, innovating and producing to your top capacity. Minimization limits individual and organizational growth.

As leaders, if we allow our organizations to default to Minimization and fail to train our employees in cross-cultural communication, then why spend the organization’s time and resources to employ them? How incalculable is the loss of contribution and productivity from an undervalued person – to both the person and the organization?

Check back next month to learn three mechanisms that encourage employee communication across cultural differences and also provide feed-back for leaders so that everyone in the organization feels valued, heard and engaged.  -Amy Narishkin, PhD ©2021


  1. Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge.,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology.
  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  3. Distefano, J. & Maznevski, M. (Oct 2012) “Creating value with diverse teams in global management.” Organizational Dynamics 29(1):45-63:

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 stage of development and 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®, who provides the results and does a Debrief, which becomes an ongoing resource to guide individual and corporate development. You can find out more at

Talking Turkey

Talking Turkey

The phrase “talking turkey” usually refers to speaking frankly, discussing hard facts, or getting down to business. “Turkey” by itself has a number of meanings. Of course, it’s known primarily as the big-feathered awkward bird almost 90% of Americans enjoy during their Thanksgiving feast. While taking home a turkey is considered a brag-worthy feat, being called one is not. It’s considered an insult.

Today there’s a lot of “talking turkey,” especially in boardrooms, congressional hearings and in political debates – one more reason why, on Thanksgiving, it is nice to just sit back and eat the turkey.

This year many of us can be thankful for being alive and for the support we have found in one another. But how do you sit back, relax and enjoy talking in especially trying times like these? Our country is pretty divided but does our family dinner or Zoom call have to be?

I’m glad you asked.

One of the ways to get at the answer is to consider our surrounding culture: Is it task-based or relationship-based. In dominant American culture it is so much the former. We can get so caught up in our to-do lists, sometimes it doesn’t even occur to slow down and listen to one another. Yet, as human beings we have a deep need for human connection. When we don’t take the time to connect with ourselves and one another, we can feel isolated and alone, even in a crowded room.

How to connect

To connect with another, people need to “see” the other by accepting their feelings and experience as legitimate, even if that experience is different from their own.

If family or friends bring up a topic that feels hurtful to you, you can slow down, notice your feelings and name them to yourself. Even if they get your ire up, notice how they’ve struck a chord, acknowledge your internal reaction and temporarily hold off from expressing it out loud. Let them finish talking. How you feel is information. So is what they’re saying. While they’re talking, imagine how they feel. When they’re finished, you can name that emotion you sense they feel. You don’t have to agree with their opinion or even completely understand, but you can affirm their feelings about their experience. You could say:

  • “It sounds like you’re mad.”
  • “That must have been tough.”
  • “It’s disappointing when someone doesn’t get it.”

It can also help to learn more about where they are coming from. Many times we do not feel compassion for another person until they have told us more about their experience. With a posture of curiosity, we can gently request more information. We can ask:

  1. “Could you tell me what happened?”
  2. “Would you mind telling me your story?”
  3. “I would like to hear more about your experience if you’re willing to share.”

What I learned

Here is what I recently learned from a client’s employee. I was doing an IDI®* Debrief with a young military veteran who recently retired after completing two tours of duty in Afghanistan. When I heard his background, I thanked him for his service. He didn’t respond; we moved to another topic. Later on in the conversation, I asked if he’d mind telling me more about his experience in the military. As I listened, I could not imagine what it was like to be so far from home, in such a vastly different place, fighting for your life day in and day out for almost a year. The experience had not left him in a good place. After he related his story, he told me he had not spoken much about it until now. He was feeling relief and thanked me for the work I was doing.

He went on to explain that it hurts when people thank him for his service because he struggles with the fact that there are people in the military whose lives are not compromised (like the cook back at camp who makes lousy scrambled eggs) but people thank them using the exact same words.

I said, “It must be tough; it must feel like your experience is being dismissed.” He nodded.

I told him I was sorry I’d used words that felt dismissive. He said it was ok, but I knew I could do better. I thanked him for teaching me and said, “It sounds like, if I thank someone for their military service, I have an opportunity to learn how those words impact the person. I’ll be able to say, ‘I want to thank you for your service to our country’ while also asking, ‘How do my words impact you?’ Then maybe they’ll feel safe to tell me more about their experience.” He said that would be good.

At our family or work gatherings, we can “talk turkey,” or speak plainly, with one another. We just need to do it in a way that honors the other person’s experience and as well as our own. No one’s experience should be diminished, no one needs to feel invisible. We need to acknowledge this for ourselves, too.

To be heard though, I’ve discovered that I have to be willing to hear the other person out first. When I learn their story and hear about their experience, though I may not agree with their politics or be able to relate to their experience, I can affirm their feelings as legitimate. It may take a few minutes or 15 minutes, but after I hear a person out, they often want to then hear my story. Together, we can then develop a shared understanding, both differentiating and integrating our ideas.

Working together to develop a shared understanding is Cultural Intelligence in action. Cultural Intelligence is the ability to temporarily adjust your behavior to show genuine respect for another within their context. Whether or not you agree or can even imagine what they have gone through, you can affirm their feelings about their experience. CI allows us to stand in solidarity with another, communicating you are not alone. Listening and affirming another’s experience is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other, not just during the holiday season but throughout the year.

So if you find yourself needing to talk turkey at work to boost morale and productivity or at home to resolve a conflict before it ever gets started, follow the recipe above and send me an email on the results. -Dr. Amy Narishkin

*The IDI or Intercultural Development Inventory® is a 50-item online questionnaire that measures both individual and organizational ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations. As a Certified Administrator, Dr. Amy Narishkin provides the IDI® results and does a Debrief, which becomes an ongoing resource to guide individual and corporate development.

Dr. Amy Narishkin, CEO and Cultural Intelligence strategist at Empowering Partners. Drawing on her years of experience teaching Cultural Intelligence and working with leaders and executives to build more diverse and engaging work environments, Dr. Amy provides the context and offers specific tools while engaging participants in thoughtful dialogues to build the skills for Culturally Intelligent conversation with colleagues and clients. You can find out more at

How to Hire People on the Spectrum

How to Hire People on the Spectrum

A CEO asked me, “What do my employees and I need to know to hire and retain people who are on the spectrum?” He has a manufacturing company with highly technical jobs that require precision, repetition and care.

The CEO’s question gave me the opportunity to investigate and learn more about how to accommodate people who are gifted differently. So I reached out to a friend of mine, Beth Redmond-Jones, who is a mom with an adult daughter with autism. She is also a museum professional who, among many talents, advocates for those with invisible challenges.

Beth told me that, according to estimates from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, about 1 in 54 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, though it is 4 times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.(1) Beth said, “Society has focused on children with autism but what is often forgotten is that these children grow up to be adults with autism who continue to need support, especially in a work environment. Even though those with autism think differently, they can be a huge asset to an organization due to their unique skills, capabilities, interests and focused-attention.”

What ASD is

Scientists do not yet know what exactly causes these differences for most people with ASD. According to the CDC, “Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people. However, people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need little help and only some guidance.”(1)

What an organization needs to know

According to EEOC, “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities, unless it would cause undue hardship.”(2) “Reasonable accommodations,” as they relate to three areas of  employment, include:

  1. Ensuring equal opportunity in the application and hiring process. It’s helpful to remember that hiring is a social process which can be stressful for people with ASD. Hiring managers can offer options for a phone, video or in-person interview. They can ask in the interview, “If you were hired for this position, what would I, as your supervisor need to know about you to help you be successful in this position?” The manager can also be aware that eye contact, small talk and quick responses may be challenging so it may be necessary to allow for longer pauses, different body language and extra time. Organizations should be prepared to answer questions about how they accommodate those with autism, sensory processing disorder and/or other disabilities.
  2. Enabling a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job. This may require modifications to the work environment, or to the way a job is usually done. For example, managers can allow people to wear noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses or non-restrictive clothing. They can provide written and/or graphic job instructions, as well as short- and long-term goals.
  3. Making it possible for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment. This may require modification to training and support. Managers can help the employee “learn the ropes” by having a mentor help the employee navigate work and social issues, someone with whom the employee feels affinity and who can provide constructive feedback without shame or blame. Managers can schedule consistent meetings with the employee and their mentor to set goals and review progress. They can allow for support during or exemption from group gatherings and team-building events.

This is a lot to consider. It can seem overwhelming to have to provide accommodations for everyone who is gifted differently, especially because each person is unique in their needs.

How to make accommodation work

I am a career-long educator; I started out as a classroom teacher. I entered the workforce at a time when children with disabilities were being mainstreamed into regular education classrooms for the first time. If I wanted to keep my job, I had to learn quickly to make accommodations for differently gifted kids and still cover the curriculum.

What I came to understand is that it is not just special education children who are different; every child is unique and has different needs. It was interesting to learn and witness over time that whatever accommodations I made for the needs of special education kids, the regular education kids benefitted too. For example, when I posted the daily agenda and added intended outcomes for children who experience anxiety, every student had more clarity about what was expected.

The same principle applies in our work environments (and children grow up to be managers and fellow employees!). When we accommodate minorities, majorities benefit as well. When we design a work or play environment for those who are most marginalized, we are increasing access and removing structural barriers for everyone. And if you re-look at the bulleted list above, most of those accommodations will benefit everyone in your organization. This is called Universal Design. “UD is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it.”(3)

Driven in part by factors such as the large number of Second World War soldiers returning home with disabling injuries, the rights and needs of older people and people with disabilities were brought to the forefront. Governments responded with the introduction of equal rights and anti-discrimination legislation. As new laws served to promote social inclusion and prevent discrimination and social movements of the 20th century gathered momentum, pressure was placed on the design industry. The industry responded with efforts to create accessible and usable products, services and environments.(4)

The most prevalent example of UD that benefits many of us is “curb cuts,” where sidewalks corners come down to meet streets. “Not only for disabled veterans in wheel chairs, but most of us benefit from curb cuts,” Beth said, “from parents with strollers to kids on scooters and people with walkers who struggle to step up.”

How UD relates to CI

Cultural Intelligence is the ability to be in conversation with someone who is different from us; it is the ability to appreciate their perspective and adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect. With CI we are curious and interested in others. “This is where you can apply Cultural Intelligence,” Beth told me, “be open to learning from people with autism.” Accommodations are sometimes referred to as ‘productivity enhancers.’ You can ask an employee, ‘What can we offer that will enhance your productivity?’ or How can we help you feel more comfortable?’”

Because accommodating minorities in an organization benefits majority people as well, there are three Culturally Intelligent Planning Questions we can ask when we are looking to hire and retain people who are gifted differently or have a different cultural background:

  1. Who is currently most marginalized in this context?
  2. How do we hold these people at the center of our policies and practices?
  3. What can we learn from them?

I asked Beth what she has learned because of having a daughter with ASD. She told me that had she not had her daughter, she would not be so in tune with those who have invisible challenges, especially in a learning environment like a museum. Beth said, “This understanding has not only made me a better designer of exhibition experiences for children and adults, she said, “but also a better leader personally and professionally. I have more appreciation, empathy and patience than I ever had before with both myself and those around me.”

There are two resources she wanted interested employers to know about:

  1. 27 Companies Who Hire Adults With Autism”
  2. St Louis Arc provides employment services that empowers individuals with disabilities to achieve their employment goals:

In 2019, Beth was asked to share her experience and wisdom about inclusion and Universal Design at the Annual Conference for the Museum Computer Network. Here’s her Ignite talk, “Imagine the Future of Museum Accessibility.”


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  3. Centre for Excellence in Universal Design.
  4. Leeper, V. June 5, 2018. “History of curb cuts – 99% invisible.” Idaho Centers for Independent Living Newsletter.

Dr. Amy Narishkin, CEO and Cultural Intelligence strategist at Empowering Partners. Drawing on her years of experience teaching Cultural Intelligence and working with leaders and executives to build more diverse and engaging work environments, Dr. Amy provides the context and offers specific tools while engaging participants in thoughtful dialogues to build the skills for Culturally Intelligent conversation with colleagues and clients. You can find out more at

A Case of Sexual Harassment

A Case of Sexual Harassment

The Women in Safety & Health (WISH) organization held a panel discussion on “Avoiding, Combatting & Overcoming Gender Disparity at Work.” There were four of us on the panel, each with our own area of expertise: Dr. Tiffany Slater, human resources; Samantha Wyant, trauma; Kathi Dobson, physical safety; and me, cultural intelligence. In advance of the discussion, WISH facilitator Patte Ackerman sent us a case study to discuss on our panel. She provided us with an anonymous voice recording of a woman explaining her struggle at work (I’ll call her Jennifer). It’s an instructive story, so (with permission) I’m sharing it with you here.

Jennifer’s predicament

When Jennifer joined the company, she was promised that within two years she’d be able to help increase sales and have her own office and an assistant. She was thrilled with the potential but quickly discovered everyone else on the sales team were men. So she had to actively seek ways to fit in, like attending happy hour events after work. Though awkward, she’d just smile and maybe nod when comments were made about, for example, a female server’s looks.

During one of the company gatherings, her boss confided in her about his marital problems. Jennifer didn’t want to seem indifferent, so she listened. “After that he must have felt more comfortable talking with me because his actions and words became more intimate,” she said. His conversation turned into compliments about her wardrobe, hair and then eventually her body. “I didn’t know how to say anything because it was nice to finally have a rapport with my boss. But I felt badly because he was liking me for the wrong reasons and not for my performance.”

Jennifer was so uncomfortable that she sought the help of a counselor. The counselor told her she had an obligation to file a sexual-harassment claim against her boss “because she wouldn’t want something like this to happen to her daughter.” So Jennifer felt obliged and filed the claim.

Jennifer explained, “It’s been three-and-a-half years since I took the job. The men have all moved on; I’ve not gotten a promotion, an office or an assistant. It doesn’t appear that there are any opportunities going forward.“ She feels like she’s in a holding pattern and is unsure if her lack of progress is because she’s a woman or because of the claim she made.

The bigger picture

In a male-dominated society, men typically don’t have to think outside the box to get ahead; they can come as they are. A woman, on the other hand, must be creative. She has to think outside the box to get ahead because the traditional pathway often doesn’t work for her.

Jennifer was willing to listen to her boss because she needed a pathway for advancement. Kudos to her for thinking creatively. If there had been another way for her to advance she would not have had to deeply listen, which makes anyone more attractive to the person being heard. It’s a sad commentary on societies where a woman’s words and actions translate into sexual availability.

He couldn’t see her motivation for deeply listening was actually to be noticed and advance her career. He hasn’t necessarily had to listen to someone deeply, to think outside the box to get ahead, to advance his career or increase his salary. She is thinking creatively and he’s misunderstanding the creativity.

Sixty-six percent of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® worldwide are right in the middle of the stages of Cultural Intelligence, the stage called “Minimization.” The problem is that people in minimization tend to assume all people have the same motivations and experiences that they have. Her boss minimized Jennifer. Instead of seeing her as a human being with her own unique experience (and kind intentions), he saw her as a sexually available woman.

To overcome minimization, it’s important for managers of all genders to recognize that those who have less power do not have the same experience and may be communicating something other than what we assume. If we can lean into what could appear as conflict and to listen to minorities in our society, who are typically not in positions of power, we’ll learn to see the systems that are hurting, sidelining and silencing people – and create a better system.

When team members on any level of the corporate ladder are sidelined and silenced, their team – and the company – are unlikely to reach their maximum potential. Those who don’t enjoy the privileges of a society’s dominant culture are frequently marginalized by Minimization and tend not to be allowed their true voice, productivity and growth potential. If we think about it, why would any manager silence even one person who could turn out to be a top contributor, innovator and/or producer. Where is the return on investment (RoI) in that?

What she can do

Jennifer and her boss needed more pathways for expression, for communicating needs. In Western culture we tend to avoid conflict, so much so that we demonize it and put off necessary conversations. A conflict is a mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives or wishes. If we respectfully lean into the struggle, we can discover that conflict helps us understand each other better and set up boundaries for where the other person ends and we begin. Conflict and, in smaller doses, contrasting opinions, help us recognize what we don’t want so we can get very clear about what we do want.

In this particular case, there are one of two scenarios happening here. This man is either a…

  1. Creep and knowingly taking full advantage of his power; she wants something and he has the power to give it and get something in return, or
  2. “Regular guy” who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and is unaware of her need to be creative to advance in her career.

If she assumed the latter and led with the assumption of good intent, it would’ve been best to have the conversation early. She doesn’t need to give him a total pass with the hope that it’ll ‘get better. If she feels safe, this is the time to raise the question about what’s going on and where she stands. Later on it will only get harder to fix.

If it were an earlier stage in this predicament, Jennifer could’ve set up a meeting in a conference room and used the words, “I feel…, when you…, because…” “I” messages, as opposed to “you” messages enable speakers to be assertive without making accusations, which can make listeners feel defensive. For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you compliment my wardrobe rather than my work because those words don’t help me understand how to do my job better.”

What’s sad in this case, is that the counselor made her feel compelled to report her boss without finding out what Jennifer herself felt she should do. Preferably, a counselor would encourage a woman to explore her options and determine what she feels is best within the context of her own experience. Once you bring the level of conflict up to a formal complaint or legal action, the stakes are higher for everyone involved, and a situation is often more difficult to address with a simple conversation – if the manager is in fact a “regular guy” or someone who just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and can get away with that.

But let’s be clear here, having a conversation in the early stages of what feels like sexual harassment can be a scary undertaking. For women of a certain age, this behavior from men has been so normalized, which really means minimized, that women have little training or cultural knowledge to recognize sexual harassment, much less name it or make a claim against it. This is especially hard when the behavior actually is sexual harassment, because sexual harassment tends to be a slow creep.

In Jennifer’s case, it may be too late for that initial 1-to-1 conversation, but that doesn’t mean she’s stuck. Dr. Slater suggested that Jennifer may want to explore leaving the organization and finding one that is more in line with her goals and principles. Samantha Wyant made it clear that in no way is this situation Jennifer’s fault and reinforced the importance of Jennifer’s voice.

If Jennifer does not want to leave or can’t, she can still lean into the conflict and have the conversation; however, at this point, she’ll want to have an ally to be with her as a witness.

When boundaries are violated but the environment is still safe to discuss them with an ally, people in Jennifer’s situation can set up a meeting, saying she’d like to have a conversation and clear up any misunderstanding and explain what happened. Jennifer can still use the words, “I feel…, when you…, because…”

For that meeting, Jennifer could…

  1. Write down the story and her feelings about the events
  2. Proceed with caution and sought out the wisdom and allyship of professionals
  3. Keep an on-going dated record of happenings
  4. Work with good intentions because, ultimately, the goal isn’t revenge but to keep ourselves, the people around us (including her boss) and society safe for everybody.

Cultural Intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our words and actions to show genuine respect for another’s circumstances. In organizations with Cultural Intelligence, majorities don’t assume that another person’s experience is just like their own. Rather they assume they don’t know, apply curiosity and work to learn the other’s story and experience. They also check their impact on colleagues and clients and how corporate practices help and hurt others in their ability to contribute as collaborative, innovative and productive team members. Once these skills are adopted, they help us reach new customers and marketplaces which also requires learning, understanding and respecting perspectives that are different from our own or the current culture of our organization.     –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

Dr. Amy Narishkin, CEO and Cultural Intelligence strategist at Empowering Partners. Drawing on her years of experience teaching Cultural Intelligence and working with leaders and executives to build more diverse and engaging work environments, Dr. Amy provides the context and offers specific tools while engaging participants in thoughtful dialogues to build the skills for Culturally Intelligent conversation with colleagues and clients. You can find out more at

How Middle Managers Can Make a Difference

How Middle Managers Can Make a Difference

“When I was first hired as Production Manager, I got a pretty negative impression of one of my Leads,” said José, even though his employee was older and had been at the plant longer. José explained, “His expertise was important to the production process, but all I ever heard from him were complaints about how things were run, like nobody would ever be able to fix anything and things were so messed up. I just decided he was grumpy and gave him a wide berth.”

José was put off by his employee’s remarks and actions, and also felt sorry for the guy because he knew the company had a history of neglecting its employees. But José was convinced that it would take a long time before this veteran employee “improved” his attitude and, as a new manager in the middle of turn-around, he didn’t have the luxury of time.

When we’ve got a business to run or work to do in the day-to-day grind it can be hard to slow down. The fast thinking we all do enables us to work efficiently and assess quickly whether a person, group, or situation is helpful or hurtful.(1)

José needed to keep moving, so he made an assumption about his Lead and inadvertently started climbing the “Ladder of Inference.”

How fast thinking works

The Ladder of Inference has five steps. First proposed by business theorist Chris Argyris in 1970, it describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, which moves from observation to action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder. Thinking fast, we…

  1. Select data because we can’t take in all that is presented to us at one time, we subconsciously choose what we should pay attention to
  2. Paraphrase data by putting the part we chose into our own words and applying our existing assumptions
  3. Name what’s happening and subconsciously generalize about that data point we chose
  4. Evaluate what’s happening as good or bad based on our value system and our existing theories
  5. Decide what actions to take that seem “right” because they are based on what we believe (2)

We can see that embedded in each step of this ladder of data selection and refinement is our unconscious bias. That bias is shaped by the culture around us. Being repeatedly exposed to images in movies, news media, stories, jokes, etc. within our culture reinforces reflexive data selection. In other words, we make assumptions about people and situations without even knowing it.

The ability to categorize people quickly and automatically according to social and other characteristics is a basic skill of the human brain that helps give order to life’s complexity and keeps us safe.(3) And because we all have a fundamental for order and safety, we can’t help but categorize.

However, because fast thinking is stereotyping and automatic, it’s also fallible, leading to inaccurate, often irrational conclusions and alienating actions.

Don’t climb the ladder

So we can choose to avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference altogether – by accepting the idea that we’re always going to make assumptions about what others say and do. It’s how people are. And if we didn’t draw on our past experience and own cultural context to help us interpret the world, we’d be lost; we wouldn’t be able to learn from our experience.

The trick, then, is to draw on our experience and context in a way that holds our assumptions in check.

We can…

  1. Reflect. Notice our assumptions, reasoning and reactions.
  2. Verify. Check back and see if we were clear about how we communicated with others about our thinking, reasoning and feelings
  3. Inquire. Ask questions about what others are thinking and feeling and test our assumptions for accuracy

What happened

Though definitely put off by his Lead’s complaints, José began to wonder if any of them were legitimate. His Lead had been with the company for decades and likely had insight that José could learn from. On his daily rounds, José decided to make a point to spend a few extra minutes with his Lead. José made sure he wrote down the Lead’s ideas (even if they sounded negative) and told him he’d either get an answer or get the idea to a person who could address the issue. In each case, José made it a point to circle back with him the same day and give him some type of report to demonstrate his concern.

When I asked him what happened, José said, “It actually didn’t take long before his attitude began to change; he began to smile when I came around. He stopped just pointing out negative stuff; he pointed out problems but also offered solutions. After just a few weeks, he was more productive and a nicer guy to have around. And I felt better about my leadership.” The Lead’s behavior and demeanor had changed when his younger boss took the time to ensure that his employee felt valued and heard.

Working to ensure an employee feels valued and heard is Cultural Intelligence in action. Cultural Intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our behavior to show genuine respect across differences of generation, gender, race, nationality or education-levels.

Within the context of our crises of pandemic and protesting, its particularly important that employees feel valued, heard and engaged. When I speak with clients, I’ve heard time and again how social distancing is causing both workers on factory floors and mangers in home offices to feel isolated and alone. Now more than ever we need our Cultural Intelligence to recognize and affirm a person’s experience so that our employees can know and feel that they are a valuable part of our community.

What a leader can do

Leaders and their teams can inadvertently hinder their growth by climbing the Ladder of Inference and restricting themselves to data that support their existing assumptions. This may lead to inadvertently ignoring contradictory data that might be vital to relationships, collaboration and innovation.(4)

If we think we know what someone is going to say or do, we’re already near the top of the ladder. Leaders can be aware that embedded assumptions can hinder our ability to connect with people, practices and information and can stifle inquiry.

So to summarize, leaders, the better option is to slow down and…

  1. Reflect. Notice our own and the group’s assumptions, reasoning and reactions
  2. Accept. Realize that meaning and assumptions are not reality but perception
  3. Model. Make our thought processes visible to others
  4. Inquire. Ask what others are thinking and feeling and what they see differently
  5. Wonder. Consider the source and other possible interpretations of the data
  6. Verify. Cross-check that assumptions are based on the data they’ve gathered

It’s counter-intuitive, in the urgency we can feel in Western cultures, that slowing down is a more efficient approach to problem solving. But to increase collaboration and productivity in our organizations, it’s important to take a few extra minutes within our formal and informal meetings to recognize and affirm the unique experiences and wisdom of our colleagues and direct reports. That’s the beauty of Cultural Intelligence brings to any organization; when we take the time to get down off the Ladder of Inference, leaders and employees feel valued, heard and engaged and the organization realizes more collaboration, productivity and innovation. -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Macmillan.
  2. Senge, P. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday
  3. Frith, U. (2015) Unconscious bias. The Royal Society:
  4. Labrie, P. Mental Models – Ladder of Inference