Maximize Group Engagement

Maximize Group Engagement

“People keep turning our meeting into a political debate. No one is listening to anyone,” said Lillian, a middle manager. She asked, “I want to facilitate a discussion where everyone feels included and we all learn from one another. Is that even possible?”

“Absolutely,” I said, “No one needs to railroad people and no one needs to feel left out or pushed out. While you can’t control others’ behavior, you can provide the structure to maximize group engagement and care for each team member. Do you want me to suggest a structure you can try?”

Lillian said, “Yes, please.”

The structure

The structure provides the space for everyone to slow down and shift mindless reaction to thoughtful response. The structure includes:

  1. Background information
  2. Communication guidelines
  3. Steps for implementation

Background information

Even when people are conscious of cultural differences, unconscious assumptions can kick in even before we realize it and block communication. For example, studies show both men and women are more likely to interrupt and talk over girls and women than they are over boys and men. Since this is true even in scripted television shows and movies, we need to be aware of the impact unconscious practices can have in group settings.(1)

It’s not only happening to women, however.

It may be helpful to know that people from any historically marginalized group, women, people of color and those who are differently abled, may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss, even when they’re asked to speak up.

Being alert to this is especially important for those of us who are part of the dominant culture. In the U.S., people of dominant culture can 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 the speakers rather than the listeners, blocking genuine engagement for the whole group in general and people of historically marginalized groups in particular. Being aware of and alert to our own and other people’s context, allows us to adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect for our own and their circumstances. This is cultural intelligence in action.

To counter dominant culture tendencies so that everyone has the opportunity to speak up, we can intentionally set in motion new guidelines for speech and behavior. That way, we won’t miss valuable front-line input because of one-way communication habits. Here are some guidelines we can use:

Communication guidelines

  • Affirm another’s experience, whether or not your experience is the same.
  • Listen actively – hear the person out
  • Check the impact of your words rather than explaining your intent.
  • Honor confidentiality.
  • Share airtime and let the person finish talking.
  • Speak from my own experience – use “I” statements
  • Say “Ouch” if you’ve been hurt.
  • Say “Oops” if you mess up.
  • Express curiosity and wonder with gentle questions.

Steps for implementation

As the leader, say: “Because everyone’s ideas are important to the group dynamics, we’re putting in place Communication Guidelines.” You can also explain that because these guidelines are not necessarily intuitive and may run counter to some people’s culture, it can be initially uncomfortable for some participants to speak and act this way. But with practice the awkwardness will pass. As the guidelines become the new norm, the upside is, everyone will feel more valued, heard and seen. A genuine authenticity among the group members can show up, along with ever greater engagement and collaboration. Here are some steps you can now take:

  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 examples of what each one might sound like.
  4. Begin your discussion by asking an open-ended question, such as: “What are the needs?” or “Who does this work impact?”
  5. Express appreciation out loud regularly (especially at first) when someone uses a guideline.


The leader 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 one another’s experiences – even if they didn’t agree. She said, “Now, rather than dreading the next meeting, I can’t wait to get back to the group and keep the conversation rolling.”

Engagement, productivity and collaboration all get dinged when conversations take a bad turn. To get from workplace drama and factions to collaborating teams, we can set in motion a new norm, a culturally intelligent 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, seen and heard. How people feel is essential to growing productivity, engagement and collaboration in any organization.  -Amy Narishkin, PhD

So often people just don’t have the language or skills to talk and work with people who seem different. Self-study can be a great way to get started. Click to learn more about Empowering Partners’ new online self-study course: Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity, Diversity and Collaboration with Cultural Intelligence.


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

Police Chief Critiques Cultural Intelligence Course

Empowering Partners, LLC is pleased to announce we’ve just launched a complete online self-study course, “Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity, Diversity and Collaboration with Cultural Intelligence,” on how to acknowledge and support cultural differences and see them as an asset for your organization. Chief Carter (not his real name at his request), a police chief in the St. Louis metro area, was kind enough to be an early reviewer of the course. The following conversation followed his critique.

Chief Carter said: “We need to overcome the ‘defensive posturing’ of people in my profession. I find police officers actually do want to explore the topics of policing and race, diversity, bias and minority engagement but are unsure of how to engage. So often though conversations don’t get past judgment, blame and finger-pointing which is what puts people on the defensive. So I’m always looking for ways to learn how we can be and do better.

Amy: “I understand. Blame and shame drive people away. Can you give me an example of what you’re on the lookout for?”

Chief Carter: “Last year I was at a Police Chief conference with over 100 Police Chiefs and over 100 School Resource Officers. The Anti-Defamation League [ADL] offers a course entitled ‘Implicit Bias.’ Only seven of us showed up for the class and perhaps two of us were Police Chiefs. I think so few showed up because of that perception: ‘This’ll just be another one of those classes where we’ll be criticized and judged for being in law enforcement.’

During the class, I noticed a lot of engagement, though, because the instructors from the ADL were accepting and not judging. They asked questions and allowed the participants to share their perspectives and become educated on issues that relate to law enforcement. It was a great interaction, but that perception of blame prevented many from attending.”

Amy: “Sounds like acceptance and #curiosity opened up an opportunity for constructive conversation, at least for those showed up. Too bad more conversations aren’t like that.”

Chief Carter: “Yes, that’s why I like how you started your online course teaching openness and curiosity. I like the five C’s for constructive conversation. ”He was talking about…

  1. Curiosity
  2. Contemplation
  3. Courage
  4. Context
  5. Compassion

“I think this is an accurate description of what it takes to stay open and talk through tough topics with people who have different opinions. In your course, I like how you immediately provide an example of how to use the 5 C’s to overcome the defensiveness people feel—and not just people in law enforcement. Your story “Connection, not Correction” is a good example of the kind of interaction that’s possible with cultural intelligence.”

Amy: “How do you use curiosity?”

Chief Carter: “This definition from your course is good, ‘Curiosity is the interest, intrigue and wonder about people, places and systems that are new and different.’ When I read that definition, I was reminded of the two Black coordinators I worked with from a group called Stand United. They came to our area for a protest march. After the protest, they asked to talk with me and other police chiefs about law enforcement perspectives, culture and reform.

I recall many police officers and their chiefs and the people representing Stand United wanted to engage in these discussions. We were all genuinely curious and recognized the opportunity to learn more about the other side. We were all in the same boat—we wanted to be educated on the other culture without being criticized or judged. This led to amazing discussions and understanding for both groups.”

Amy: “It’s awesome how you all were able to overcome any defensiveness and learn together. To come to that place of shared understanding, it sounds like everyone was more than just curious. It took #courage to slow down and open up the space for listening and learning together. In that space, you found #compassion for each other’s different contexts and vantage points. All five C’s were in play there.

“Was there a part of the course that helped you slow down to learn more about each other?”

Chief Carter: “Two things. I liked the one-minute meditation videos. They’re of high value in my opinion, because they allow reflection and focus. We have training where they teach us combat breathing for high-stress situations. Also, I liked the questions you have in the section, ‘How to Express Curiosity and Wonder.’ You said: ‘To get more information so you can appreciate about another person’s experience, you can ask:

  • Do you mind if I ask you a question?
  • What has been your experience?
  • How did you feel about that?
  • What was the impact of my words’

That was helpful, especially the last question. Law enforcement, and people in general, don’t realize how their words are coming across to other people.”

Amy: “It sounds like you’ve become aware of the impact of words. Do you have an example?”

Chief Carter: “In our talks between minority communities and law enforcement, we’ve discussed ‘trigger words,’ words that can instantly put people on the defensive and yet we have no idea of their impact. I noticed one of the first things you did in the course was build a common vocabulary.

“When I was talking to a member of the Black community, he relayed to us that he felt defensive when he heard a White person say ‘All Lives Matter.’ To him, the White person was minimizing the traumatic history of Blacks in America. Similarly, I’ve had White people who have said that they felt the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ minimized their belief that their life was equally important because it didn’t include everyone else. Both valued lives and wanted to feel seen and heard but didn’t seem to know how their words impacted others. There are words and concepts which have been relayed to me through various conversations that destroy communication by instantly putting participants on the defensive. It’s valuable to have discussions to identify these inflammatory words and phrases so we can understand one another’s perception.”

Amy: “It is important to understand how our words impact people. What tool in the course stood out to help with softening and learning how others perceive things?”

Chief Carter: “One tool I particularly liked was the S.T.O.P. technique. It’s a good de-escalation strategy that can be applied in law enforcement and the private sector:

  • S = Slow down…
  • T = Take three deep breaths…
  • O = Observe your emotion, your assumption and how the other person reacts and, if you’re safe…
  • P = Proceed with curiosity and wonder

This example in the course of how to use S.T.O.P. could prevent many different issues that law enforcement may have to eventually intervene on. Good job on that.” He was referring to this conversation:

  • Jason made a racist remark.
  • Mandy practiced S.T.O.P. and asked: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
  • Jason: “Sure.”
  • Mandy: “What happened that made you so pissed off?”
  • Jason: “The company needed to increase their affirmative action numbers; I have the least seniority here, so they let me go at the end of this month.”
  • Mandy: “Ouch! That’s gotta be tough!”
  • Jason: “You’re not kidding. I have no idea how I am going to pay the bills while I look for another job.”
  • Mandy: “That sounds scary. Let me know if you want to put our heads together and brainstorm.”
  • Jason: “I appreciate you understanding. I’ll let you know.”

Amy: “Mandy slowed down with S.T.O.P. and showed she really felt for the guy, didn’t she? How does that kind of compassion come into play in your work?”

Chief Carter: “Compassion is definitely one of the foundations for dropping that defensiveness and opening up dialogue. Dignity and respect in all situations work great. I suggest to my command leaders to take a breath, get centered and quiet and then take a look at the different sides to an issue before acting.”

Amy: “Like S.T.O.P.”

Chief Carter: “Exactly.”

Amy: “Is there anything else you’d like to highlight about the course?”

Chief Carter: “One thing I appreciate is how you help people think about hiring, retaining and promoting culturally diverse people without creating an environment where those of us who are of the dominant culture don’t feel left out. I appreciated the section about the need for diverse perspectives.” He was talking about this section:

“When we hire, we look for experience for some roles, but, in all roles, we look for unique perspectives, personalities and passions that truly believe the next best innovation or process could come from anyone, even themselves. From there, we keep shaping an environment of active listening, experimenting, collaborating and applauding mistakes as a step on the road to success. We also build a system to document our successes so we know how to replicate them and our mistakes so we only make them once.”

“Also,” the Chief Carter kindly added, “I want to offer my sincere appreciation for your endeavor to unite diverse groups through the prompting of needed discussions on sensitive topics. Your compassion and motivation to bring people together is a testament to your good core values and is evident throughout the course.”

Amy: “Thank you, Chief Carter. Coming from someone in your position of influence, your words mean so much. Also, I deeply appreciate your willingness to review the course and help me understand how curiosity, contemplation, courage, context and compassion are vital to the work you do to keep the public safe.” -Amy Narishkin, PhD

To learn the skills and feel confident working with anyone who seems different, click here to register for or learn more about the course, “Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity, Diversity and Collaboration with Cultural Intelligence.”

Manage Up

Manage Up

“I’d like to improve my relationship with my boss,” said Kayla in her executive coaching session. Kayla is the Director of Services at her bank. I’d said, “Think of a personal or professional relationship you’d like to improve, and we’ll either figure out how to resolve a problem that’s getting in the way or come up with next steps.”

Amy: “So tell me what’s going on.”

Kayla: “I don’t know what to do about my boss, Linda. I had a great relationship with my old boss at my previous bank. We had a great connection and she had high standards, but I always knew where I stood with her.”

Amy: “Sounds like you had a solid relationship. [She nodded.] What prompted you to leave that bank, then?”

Kayla: “There was no room for me to advance – I had to move on.”

Amy: “Must’ve been a tough decision to leave such a great boss.”

Kayla: “It was. Just recently, Linda told me I was being argumentative in a meeting with a vendor, but I was just asking questions to get a better understanding. Later on, she told me it wasn’t my place to speak, I shouldn’t have even been invited to the meeting. She should have been straight with me in the first place. She should have my back, like my old boss did.”

Amy: “How did that situation impact you?”

Kayla: “I felt invisible, like I don’t matter.”

Amy: “Feelings like that are legit. Our feelings can indicate a problem to solve. Question for you: Is there any chance you’re holding up that old relationship as a standard for this new relationship?”

Kayla, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Amy: “I get that you appreciate your old boss. Ok, just so I know, is there anything you like about Linda?

Kayla, “Yes, she doesn’t micromanage me.”

Amy: “That’s cool. Because she’s not involved in your day-to-day, that may indicate she doesn’t know you well yet.”

Kayla: “That’s true.”

Amy: “So what do you need?”

Kayla: “I need her to have my back.”

Amy: “I get that. I also know you can’t change her, but you can change you. First, though, it’s important to care for you.”


So often we think the other person has to change in order for our circumstances to get better, especially with a person in a position of power. We tend to think power is top-down and comes from the outside. But cultural intelligence empowers people from the bottom-up and comes from the inside of each of us. With cultural intelligence – what enables you to accept a person as they are and communicate with genuine respect for their circumstances — you can find words to care for both them and you.

You can’t genuinely care for another until you’ve first cared for yourself. These four steps help get you in the right mindset to care for you so you have the bandwidth to care for others.

Back to the story

Amy: “When you feel angst, you can slow down, take a breath and work through these four steps…

  1. Acknowledge your emotion(s). Being made to feel invisible hurts a soul. It takes courage to slow down, feel your feelings and hold them tenderly as you would a puppy. Acknowledging allows you to…
  2. Accept your hurt as part of your reality. You might ask, “What can this hurt be pointing to? Is there something I can learn here?” If we don’t accept both the heartbreak and beauty of our lives, resistance, defensiveness and denial set in. That’s what cuts us off from experiencing our own and others’ humanity. That’s also what cuts us off from being our authentic selves and genuinely getting to know others. Acceptance is what allows you to…
  3. Appreciate your courage. It takes courage not to react in anger but rather to respond – in your time and in your way. Take the time and space you need to move out of trash-compactor brain and soften your gaze with genuine appreciation of yourself, your heartbreak and the beauty of your humanity. As time and space open up, you see opportunities for compassion and collaboration that weren’t apparent before. Appreciation is what allows you to…
  4. Act from a place of compassion. That can take a minute, an hour or a week to find. It’s helpful to know that love is more of an action than a feeling.

“To act with compassion for your circumstances, you can ask and answer these two questions…

  • ‘What do I need to care for me during this tender time?’
  • ‘What is mine to do in this situation?’”

Kayla: “That perspective helps.… I need to connect with her. When she, another manager and I have gone out for drinks after work, we’ve had a good rapport. But there wasn’t a deeper connection I’m longing for. I need her to really know me.”

Amy: “Based on that legitimate need, what can you do to create deeper connection?”

Kayla: “I know that, if you want someone to do something for you, it can help to do it first. Ah, there’s my opportunity: I can initiate more regular meetings with Linda so she knows more about what I do. I can share what’s on my mind. Then I can learn more about what she needs.”

Amy: “That’s it. By creating a regular flow of meaningful conversation, you’re creating a win-win scenario for both of you. Closing that communication gap with compassion is you managing up with cultural intelligence. May I suggest a way to use that time during your regular meetings?”

Kayla: “Absolutely.”

Amy: “If your boss hasn’t already provided a structure for your weekly meetings, here are three questions you can use to share your accomplishments, your goals and your ideas for support. You can actually use this line of questioning to manage up and down. For your boss, Linda, share the three questions and your answers…

  1. What have you accomplished?
  2. So what are you working on/toward now?
  3. Now what can I do to support you?”

What happened

A week later, I emailed Kayla to ask her how it’s going. She said, “Linda and I had lunch on Tuesday, and we talked about this. That was the first time we’ve connected one-to-one in person in quite some time. It went really well. I’m happy with the direction we’re headed.”

With cultural intelligence, you begin to see problems as opportunities. You recognize that, yes, these steps take time, effort and intentionality, but good things can happen in this process. Kayla did have to slow down, honor her feelings and needs and muster the courage to discover more compassion for herself. But that’s what ultimately gave her the bandwidth and power to create a win-win for herself and her boss. – Amy Narishkin, PhD

Are there people in your family, friend group or network who would find help in reading Kayla’s story? If yes, please share this blog with them.


  1. Photo by Christina @
The Third Way

The Third Way

“I’m not sure how to respond when someone says, ‘You’re hiring her because she’s a woman,’ Yessica said. Yessica is VP of operations at a midsize engineering company. She explained, “I interviewed two women and two men for the project manager position. I hired the woman based on her ability to get the job done well.”

I asked, “You’re asking because the employee who said that sounded accusatory?”

Yessica said, “Yes.”

I said, “That tough. It makes you feel defensive.”

She said, “That’s right. I don’t know whether I should defend my opinion or ignore the remark.”

I said, “That’s a good question. Actually, your response doesn’t have to be either.”  

Three possible responses

There are generally three ways to respond to aggressive remarks and actions: silence, violence and what’s often called “the third way.”

I’ll get to the third way in a moment, but first silence and violence. Silence or violence map to the flight or fight responses of the amygdala part of our brains, sometimes called “the lizard brain.” Silence can be a withdrawing from, avoiding and/or masking the pain. Violence can be attacking, controlling and/or labeling the person or situation. Violence can be loud or quiet, fast or slow, and it creates suffering. Human evolution has conditioned us predominantly for these first two responses. So we have gotten really “good” at defaulting to an us-versus-them, either-or mentality, whether the issue is gender, politics, nationality, race, religion, orientation, generation, education or accent, and the list goes on and on.

That us-versus-them mentality is a symptom of a larger cultural system that influences the way we think, talk and act. More than two-thirds (66.8%) of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are unknowingly stuck in a mindset called Minimization, a stage at the middle of the five stages of cultural intelligence.(1) In order to avoid conflict, people in this stage of cultural intelligence tend to focus on what all people have in common and minimize people’s unique feelings and experiences, including their own. The unintended impact is frustration and anger.

The thing is, minimization is a systems problem, usually not any single individual’s fault. Dr. Edward Deming (1900–93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94% of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2) People who feel minimized are typically dealing with the inherited ignorance of the system. However, when we know better, we can do better. We can do better by taking the third way.

Taking the third way

The third way is a contemplative approach, neither taking on people from a position of power nor minimizing them for fear of the conflict it might cause. The third way is a culturally intelligent response because it’s the compassion you express for yourself and another person, each within your own unique context. When you genuinely appreciate both your own and the other person’s perspective, space opens up and you can create win-win conditions.

When you feel the push to take an either/or position, instead you can…

  1. Slow down and take a breath,
  2. Step out of the power struggle,
  3. Remove the fantasy that you’re right and they’re wrong,
  4. Accept the inherent dignity of both you and the other person,
  5. Recognize the opportunity to create a win-win situation.

When you take a moment, minute or hour to stand in that more spacious third way, you’re in a place of grace out of which creativity, humanity and fresh ideas emerge.

Back to the story

I explained to Yessica, “It doesn’t have to be either/or because there’s a third way. You’re hiring because she’s the most qualified person. And you appreciate the fact that she’s a woman and you’re helping to diversify the company. More women are needed in construction.”

Yessica lit up. She said, “Yes, that’s right.”

I said, “So, it’s not an either/or scenario. It’s both. [She nodded.] You can respond by saying, “You’re right, I appreciate that she’s a woman; we need more women in construction. And the main reason why I’m hiring her is because she’s the most qualified candidate.’ That’s the third way.”

I asked Yessica, “How does that response land on you?”

She smiled and said, “I like that. It’s answering their concern, supporting my hiring choice and acknowledging my desire to diversify the company. Both of us win.”

Everyone wins when colleagues talk, work and lead with cultural intelligence. Taking the third way by using cultural intelligence is the means to greater job satisfaction, productivity, innovation and profit in any business. – Amy Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your family, community or network that would find this blog helpful? Please share this blog with them.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge.,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology
  3. Photo by Kai Graderton Unsplash
  4. Photo by marianne boson Unsplash
Vital Voices: How Cultural Intelligence Advances Women and Workforces

Vital Voices: How Cultural Intelligence Advances Women and Workforces

In her 2010 commencement address at Barnard College, Meryl Streep said that she did a very different kind of acting back in high school. It revolved around being appealing to boys.

“I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits; I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy natural sort of sweetness – even shyness if you will, which was very very, very effective on the boys.“

Why did she take on that role? Streep explained that successfully convincing someone bigger than you about something they don’t know is a survival skill – this is how women have survived through the millennia.(1)

If women survive by pretending to be someone else in order to be heard and recognized in their organizations, those enterprises are missing out on a lot of talent. They’re missing opportunities for innovation, productivity and profit already present in the talent pool and waiting to be tapped.

In my blog post, The Difference a Great Man Can Make, I explained how men can use their cultural intelligence to be allies and help women advance at work. The next questions are…

  1. What hinders women from getting ahead in our culture?
  2. How can women use their cultural intelligence to advance themselves at work, assuming their work environment is open to it?

What hinders women

We learn as girls to read faces and other body indicators. We develop tactics for lowering the temperature of encounters, also known as de-escalation. The ability to de-escalate is supported by socialization and the practical reality that women are often physically smaller.(2)

In the face of threats, humans learn that the “normal” physiological response is flight, fight or freeze. That’s normal if you’re a man. Women too experience faster pulses and elevated blood pressure, but their bodies produce different chemicals that lead to de-escalating and tend-and-befriend responses.(2)

The cultivated feminine habit of tending to the needs of others and putting people at ease can put women at a disadvantage because it can be perceived as weakness. Layered on top of these tendencies is the social pressure on women which Streep alluded to: shifting their behavior to keep the peace. This leaves even the best-intentioned men around us at home, school and work unaware of the almost constant adjustments women are making.(2)

Men’s influence in popular media

On top of that, men’s dominance is apparent in popular media. Books, movies, games and music lyrics feature men and boys two-to-three times more often as protagonists. For example, men, overwhelmingly white, hold roughly 70-73% of the roles in top U.S. films. That gender breakdown in films is equally skewed in other countries.(2)

The fact that men garner twice as much speaking and screen time applies equally in our workplaces and day-to-day lives.

Studies indicate that parents and teachers interrupt their girls twice as much as their boys. This isn’t only true for children. A study of legislative deliberations shows that women need to constitute a super majority, roughly 70% of the room, to achieve parity in influence. If they don’t, they have a difficult time being perceived as powerful, influential or important.(2)

How this impacts women

This reality takes a toll on women. The most fundamental bias women face – the one underlying all the others – is the message that women are inherently less worth listening to than men. This message takes its toll as subterfuge and self-denial tend to do. And we pay with an internal dialogue of self-criticism and self-loathing – not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional.(5)

That message takes its toll on organizations too. Without acknowledging the unique perspective of women and seeing them as an asset, companies lose out on the value that diverse voices promise. “Companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least in return on sales by 16% and return on invested capital by 26%.”(6)

The cultural trap

People’s individual actions don’t come out of a void though, they reflect a larger system, the culture surrounding them. Dr. Edward Deming (1900-’93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94% of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2)

To see the implicit systems that influence the way we think, talk and act, we can recognize a particular mental model in play within our culture: minimization. Fully 66% 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.”(3) The percentage is that high because it’s the default mindset of the dominant culture – of an organization as well as of a society as a whole.

Because they don’t want to go against cultural norms and upset a status quo that favors male voices, leaders inadvertently silence and sideline dissenting opinions and differing perspectives, including women’s. As a result, we can be blind to the cultural systems in our organizations that keep women feeling left out or pushed out.(3) This is the opposite of cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate a person’s perspective and adapt words and actions to show genuine respect across cultural differences, including gender. It enables everybody in the room – in any space – to feel safe expressing themselves. But to genuinely appreciate another person’s voice, we need first to appreciate our own.

How do we appreciate and advance ourselves in a culture that diminishes and dismisses our voices and teaches us to do the same?

How women advance

To learn how women advance, I spoke with Ty Shaffer at, the largest campaign training organization in the country. They train women to run for political office and win. Ty explained that because of that most fundamental belief – women are inherently less worth listening to than men – women often inadvertently second-guess themselves, undermining their confidence. VoteRunLead doesn’t teach women how to look or win people over, rather how to use their voice with confidence because confidence is what makes people follow leaders.

Where confidence comes from

Self-confidence comes from self-awareness. We may think we know ourselves well, but if we’re feeling self-criticism or self-loathing, there’s a good chance there’s more to learn. When we’re seeing ourselves as either good or bad, the takeaway tends to be harsh judgment rather than reality. That’s how we end up second-guessing ourselves.

To upend the second-guessing, S.T.O.P.:

  1. Slow down,
  2. Take a breath,
  3. Observe the noise of self-criticism as well as your own feelings,
  4. Proceed with curiosity and wonder.

With observation, you get greater perspective. With curiosity and wonder you hold feelings tenderly, as you would a puppy and then let them teach you. That’s what allows your feelings to move on or through.

When you STOP, your gaze softens. You see more of reality, your humanity – all your messiness and beauty in there together. In that quiet moment there’s room to notice your hopes, desires and entirely legitimate needs.

Self-awareness leads to self-knowledge, which is how self-confidence quietly comes on line. Here is one person’s journey from self-awareness to self-confidence.

But there’s more

Self-confidence is what gives women the courage to counter the cultural tendency to diminish their voice. Along with this inside work, here’s how women advance…

  1. Find a mentor. People with mentors are likelier to get promotions. Mentors show women the ropes and help them navigate office politics. They introduce them to decision-makers who help mentees get high-profile assignments. (10) Don’t be afraid to shoot higher than you would think — senior executives often love sharing their wisdom and often respond well to someone who asks, “Can I learn from you?”(11)
  2. Cultivate community. Because women are often not the norm in the workplace or public office, they need people in their corner. Like any other group of humans, women need validation; nobody succeeds alone. It’s good to seek support and, by the same token, own your unique story. Don’t let anyone steal your power and make your story theirs.(11) Ty said, “To unlearn any false narratives imposed by society, create one huge support group.”
  3. Believe in your mission. Own your expertise. Claim your title. And if you’re not yet completely sure, know that your passion becomes your expertise. Give it time, do the research on your passion and you’ll discover how important your unique voice is. Ty said, “So often it’s women who live in both arenas – family and work – so they naturally have this unique perspective of understanding both spheres of life. That perspective needs to be heard whether it’s by politicians in office or leaders in a conference room, because very often that’s the perspective of the customer.”
  4. Bring your authentic self. To really get to know yourself, try doing a mental review of your workday every night, especially if things have challenged you or made you uncomfortable. Ask yourself, “Was I doing my best and acting in accordance with my personal values today?” If so, that’s a source of strength; if not, no judgment necessary – just keep working to be true to your values. Ty said, “By speaking up and sharing their truth, experience and expertise from their unique perspective, women gain trust.”
  5. Develop your voice. Come prepared to meetings. Know what you’re there to discuss, and if you have something to add, speak up. If needed, give yourself a pep talk before the meeting, and memorize a couple of your talking points so you feel free to make eye contact with others in the room when the opportunity arises to speak. Positive self-talk helps.
  6. Build allies. While research shows that female executives are very efficient, arriving to meetings on time and rushing off to the next meeting, men are more likely to spend time connecting with one another to test their ideas and garner support. So consider arriving at meetings early to get a good seat and chat with colleagues. Stay afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other issues on your mind. Women can address feelings of isolation when they sound out colleagues and build allies by attending the pre- and post-meetings, where much of the real work happens. Informal conversations can help clarify the true purpose of a meeting, making it much easier to take an active part in an ongoing conversation. (11)

Because our culture has buried women’s voices so well for centuries, even women don’t always realize they have internalized the belief they’re not worth hearing. Cultural intelligence is what enables us to change that perspective and recognize our own and others’ unique voices as invaluable assets. Employee safety and belonging is the means to an end for more engagement, productivity, innovation and profit in any organization. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your family or network that would find this blog helpful? Please share this blog with them.


  1. Streep, M. (2010) Tips and Inspiration for Achieving Success, Barnard College Commencement Speech:
  2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, New York: Atria Books.
  3. National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
  4. :
  5. Quindlen, A (2012). Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. New York: Random House.
  6. (2013) “Why diversity matters.” The Catalyst Information Center:
  7. Herring, C (2009). Does diversity pay? American Sociological Review, Vol 74, Num 2:
  8. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  9. Interview with Ty Shaffer. (Jan 2018)
  10. Heath, K., Flynn, J., Hold, M. (June 2014) “Women, find your voice,” Harvard Business Review:
  11. Chatzky, J (1 Aug 2018) How to find your voice at work (and use it), according to these female CEOs,” NBC Better:
  12. Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash
The Difference a Great Man Can Make

The Difference a Great Man Can Make

A manager lamented, “I can’t even compliment a woman on how she looks anymore.” This was shortly after the #metoo movement lit up in October 2017. He was genuinely confused about how to work with the women in his office.

For men who valued female colleagues for their intellect regardless of their looks, the #metoo movement made the workplace confusing. I’ve learned it made them hesitant or nervous about how they’re perceived, putting a damper on healthy workplace cultures and working relationships. A poll by SurveyMonkey and found that almost half of male managers were uncomfortable participating in basic workplace activities with women, including working alone together.(1)

The problem

The problem is people want equality and fairness and think this is best achieved by treating everyone essentially the same.(2) Treating everyone the same is our cultural default, because two-thirds of people worldwide are unknowingly stuck in a developmental stage called Minimization. People in this stage of cultural intelligence tend to overestimate their understanding of others and assume other people’s experience is just like our own. They minimize or de-emphasize individual differences and cannot see the surrounding cultural system that keeps people feeling sidelined or silenced.

However, people’s experiences are far from essentially the same. It may help men to know that research shows that 1 in 5 women, vs. 1 in 71 men, are raped at some point in their lives.(3) Activist and sexual assault survivor Tarana Burke originally started the “metoo” movement in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence find pathways to healing. She strove to galvanize a broad base of survivors to disrupt the systems that allow for sexual violence against both women and men. The movement escalated when the “metoo” hashtag went viral on social media as the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein appeared in the New York Times. Within the first 24-48 hours, Facebook had 12 million engagements with #metoo, igniting a national conversation about sexual violence.(4) Surfacing such problems can make people uncomfortable and painfully aware. However, being uncomfortable is a jumping-off point for problem solving.

To begin, we need to stop minimizing differences and disrupt the system that allows for sexual violence. This isn’t just good for people, it’s good for business.

Why advance women at work?

Reykjavik Energy, the parent company of Iceland’s largest power provider, which was forced to fire one-third of its workforce in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, used its subsequent restructuring as an opportunity to become a fully gender-equal employer. Within five years, by “putting the gender glasses on before taking every single decision,” the company boosted the proportion of women in management positions from 29% to 49%. Over the same period, its adjusted gender pay gap shrank from 8.4% to 2.1% and now stands at 0.2% in favor of women. The company’s chief executive, Bjarni Bjarnason, says the net outcome has been “more open discussions, higher productivity, greater job satisfaction, improved decision-making, higher morale and an all-round far better atmosphere.”(5)

In an interview for Forbes, contributor Michelle King asked Mike Gamson, senior vice-president of LinkedIn Global Solutions, “Why are most men not aware of their critical role in advancing women at work?”(6)

Gamson replied, “There’s a natural human tendency to hire or surround ourselves with people that look and think just like us. That’s a problem for many reasons, one being that when everyone at the top looks, thinks, acts or speaks like you, it’s harder to get that natural exposure to new ways of doing things or emerging opportunities.”(6)

Be part of the solution

“Don’t avoid women, mentor them,” writes Rachel Thomas, president of, and Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit, in a Wall Street Journal article.(7) While women represent over half the available talent pool, organizations struggle to retain and grow talented women. There are a number of ways men can make a difference, here. Men can…

  • Be a mentor. Studies show that people with mentors are likelier to get promotions. Mentors show women the ropes and help them navigate office politics. They introduce them to decision-makers who help women get high-profile assignments. So much of what gets you noticed at work is who you know and who sings your praises.(7)
  • Meet for breakfast, if you’re uncomfortable going to dinner with female colleagues. The so-called Pence rule—the idea that a man can’t eat alone with a woman who isn’t his wife—is a double standard. It results in one kind of access for men, another for women.(8)
  • Ask rather than dictate. Ask women what they need to move up. Maybe she wants advice on how to pitch to a prospective client. Maybe she’s navigating political landmines in her office and just wants guidance from someone who has done so in the past. Maybe she’s thinking about quitting because she’s being asked to attend too many events at night and has young kids at home she needs to spend time with. Conversations such as these are important, typically requiring at most an hour per person per month.(9)
  • Be informed about both big-picture data and the statistics of the company. For example, find out the average pay gap and address it when bonuses are being discussed. By doing basic research on workplace sexism, you could implement new policies to limit your company’s tendency for bias.(8)
  • Remember your own experiences with bias. Even though you may not understand her particular pain, you can recall times when you’ve been sidelined. By engaging in conversations with personal storytelling, you create an emotional connection to the issue, which allows you to understand the perspectives of female team members.(8)
  • Take time to identify how bias might show up in your work day. Gamson says, “The tables are often tipped unconsciously in the favor of white men. Making explicit investments in high-potential, underrepresented talent can help to correct that imbalance. Take the time to identify programs or initiatives you can join to support the growth of employees – and if none exist, consider starting one.”(6) Noticing and naming an issue and opportunity out loud is the first step to creating an environment where everyone feels valued, seen, heard and engaged.

How to compliment

In the scenario of how to compliment a woman at work, compliment her work not her appearance. Even if offered with the best of intentions, comments on physical attributes can be perceived as aggressive or a demeaning disregard for good work.

When you do give a compliment of any kind and are unsure whether it was appropriate or productive, you can check by asking, “What was the impact of what I just said?” Or “How did that land with you?” Then actively listen to her response, affirming her experience, even if it’s different from what you expected.

If she seems to dismiss or wave off your effort to check your impact, know that she may be inadvertently minimizing her own feelings to save her job. When a person has been historically marginalized under the system of minimization, women, people of color and those who are differently abled may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss – even when asked to speak up. So, it takes time to build genuine relationships, trust and mutual respect.

Achieving diversity, equity and a sense of belonging in the workplace isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s critical to a company’s long-term success. Fostering employee safety and belonging using cultural intelligence is the means to greater job satisfaction, productivity, innovation and profit in any business.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  3. National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
  4. MeToo:
  5. Henley, J (20 Feb. 2018) “’Equality won’t happen by itself’: how Iceland got tough on gender pay gap.” The Guardian:
  6. King, M (28 Sept. 2017) “Three ways men can champion gender equality at work.” Forbes:
  7. Thomas, R. & Brown-Philpot, S (4 Feb. 2018) “Don’t avoid women, mentor them: worried by #MeToo? Here’s how to become part of the solution.” Wall Street Journal:
  8. Campbell-Dollaghan, K (23 Oct. 2018) “9 women executives on how MeToo has changed the way they mentor.” Fast Company:
  9. Donnelly, G, (5 Oct. 2018) “Here’s how men can be leaders in improving corporate diversity.” Fortune:
  10. Photo credit: Clark Tibbson Unsplash
Poetry in (E)Motion

Poetry in (E)Motion

Each team member becoming more self-aware about how their thoughts, words and actions impact themselves and others is key to developing a culturally intelligent environment at work. This is the pathway to ensuring no one feels sidelined or silenced, creating more engagement, collaboration and innovation for any organization.

Without self-awareness there is often an…

  1. Incongruence between our feelings and our non-verbal communication and
  2. Inability to see how we are impacting others.

To develop self-awareness and close the gap between your feelings and nonverbals, consider this poem about #emotion…

The root word of “Emotion” is motion.

That suggests, emotions are transitory by nature,

temporary visitors.


It may sound odd, can be counter-intuitive and is definitely counter-cultural

Our emotions are here to teach us, guide us and leave.

They don’t speak English so they come as feelings,

To be noticed and named,

To be noticed and named.


That’s why the Feelings Wheel can be so helpful.

When your feelings shows up, invite them to pull up a chair and sit down.

Give them a name,

Name them correctly.

Remind your feelings they are valid, even though sometimes they can be a lot

If they’re too much, speak them aloud to a trusted friend or advisor

who loves you well.


Breathe, deep and slow.

Withhold judgment.

Lean in.

Listen up.

Offer appreciation for teaching you, for guiding you.


Recognize some feelings are coming up from past harms or hurts.

Know they often come in a bundle.

In either case, they’re transitory and helpful, if you…

Slow down, sit down, let them teach you.

That’s what allows them, encourages them to move on or through.


In light of the five stages of cultural intelligence, consider this about emotions…

To deny them is to be driven by them.

To judge them is to abandon yourself or the other.

To minimize them is to perpetuate them which can lead to

self-denial and self-loathing.


To accept them is to allow them to teach you and move on or through.

That’s what allows you to adapt your words and actions to show yourself and others the genuine respect you and they are worthy of. 💜


To learn more…

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash
Communication That’s Non-Violent

Communication That’s Non-Violent

“I’m not sure how to handle this situation,” Bianca said. Bianca is Director of Procurement in her organization. “I’m on my way out of the company; it’s not a good fit. My boss is promoting my colleague, who has been with the company for 15 years. I’ll be reporting to him.

Bianca said, “Even though I’ve stood up two projects in the last year I’ve been here, she’s has given him the credit. I’ve pointed out this pattern to her several times, but it’s not getting me anywhere. It’s creating antagonism between my boss and me.”

“In some ways, I can understand her position; she’s being loyal to a longtime employee. I just hadn’t realized until I was already a month into the job that, in this corporate culture, loyalty trumps accomplishment.

I said, “That’s heartbreaking to realize that after the fact. [Bianca nodded.] And now you know you want to find a corporate culture where management values abilities and accomplishment as much as it practices loyalty.

Demonstrating acceptance

What’s extraordinary about Bianca is that, in acknowledging her boss’s loyalty, she was demonstrating acceptance. Acceptance, one of the five stages of cultural intelligence, is what enables a person to accept [or appreciate] others’ perspective as well as their own and adapt words and actions to show genuine respect.

The five stages or mindsets of cultural intelligence include: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation. The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®) is an online tool that assesses an individual or group’s ability to accept and adapt while they’re talking with people who are different. Because 66.8% of the population around the world are found to be in the mindset of Minimization, Bianca is unique. She is part of the 14% of the population worldwide who have attained a mindset of Acceptance.(1)

What acceptance is and isn’t

People in the mindset of acceptance are curious about and interested in cultural differences and similarities.(1) They recognize the inherent dignity of themselves and others and are accepting of their own and others’ mistakes, imperfections, gifts and circumstances as they are. It’s not that they are any less judgmental than the rest of us, but what they do is withhold their judgment to lower their initial resistance to a person or situation just enough to stay open to what’s new or different.

Resistance is the opposite of acceptance. Resistance is a pulling away from reality based on incomplete information. When we feel resistance in our gut, our perspective narrows to binary thinking. Then we inadvertently dismiss the other person, blame them for the discomfort we’re feeling and/or lash out at them in anger.

To get beyond the resistance we feel, a culturally intelligent person knows they have an opportunity to slow down and get contemplative for a moment. In contemplation, we can take a breath and reconnect our head with our heart. With head and heart connected in a quiet moment, we can come to see or learn more of the reality of the situation or person.

While Bianca did not appreciate how she was being treated, Bianca was able to acknowledge where her boss was coming from within their company’s cultural context. As hard as it is to surrender to the circumstances and accept the reality of the situation, Bianca was doing it. She was able to stay open to learn more; that’s where her power was.

Non-violent communication

Bianca said, “I’m wondering how to handle this situation. How do I talk to my boss in the interim?”

I said, “Are you asking because it’ll take 4-5 months to find a new job at your level? [Bianca agreed.] What situation do you need to handle with her?”

“While I’m looking for my next position, how do I handle her words and actions so I don’t feel so invisible, like I don’t matter? Should I remain silent and go-along-to-get-along or call her out?”

I said, “It sounds like you’re thinking it’s an either/or – you win or she wins. [Bianca nodded.] You don’t want to lose any more than you already have, and you also don’t see a need to alienate her, because she has only ever known this corporate culture in her career.

Bianca said, “That’s right.”

I said, “There’s actually a third way to respond. You can use what is called non-violent communication. Non-violent communication is a method of communication designed to increase empathy and improve the quality of conversations and relationships. With it, you share your…

  1. Observation
  2. Feeling
  3. Need
  4. Request

“For example, you might say something like, “When you give Mark the credit for a project I stood up (observation), I feel invisible because I value your opinion (feeling). At our next meeting, I’d appreciate if you’d consider recognizing my contribution (need and request). That way I’ll be even more motivated to do my best work.”

Bianca said, “Oh, I get why that works. No one can argue with your feelings and needs. That’s powerful.”

I said, “It is powerful. It’s also empowering because you’ve called out the unhelpful behavior rather than the person. They may still act defensive, but that’s on them not on you, because you haven’t personally accused her of anything. You shared your observations with a respectful tone.”

I asked, “Can I add one more point? [Bianca agreed.] When you use non-violent communication, don’t put your expectations on her to respond in a certain way. How she responds is “between her and her God.” The point is, by using non-violent communication, you’re not minimizing her or yourself. You’ve simply let her know your observation, feelings and need and then you made a request. The ball is in her court; you’ve said your piece. You also have not abandoned you, your values or your need to speak up. Sticking with you in the pain is the work you get to do to practice acceptance of you.

Bianca said, “I like that. That’s a great way to care for me in this interim period.”


No doubt, using non-violent communication takes time, effort and intentionality. Bianca did have to slow down and observe her reaction to what was being said and done. Then she had to think through her feelings, need and request before she spoke again with her boss. But when you can muster the courage to step outside the binary win-lose scenario, you can discover more compassion for yourself. Seeing you, identifying your boundaries and then finding a quiet time to speak them aloud with the other person takes practice. Self-awareness and practice bring more confidence; that’s what ultimately gives you the bandwidth (and power) to care for other people around you. That’s how you create a win-win for you and everybody.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your family or network that would find this blog helpful? Please share this blog with them.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Photo credit: Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash
She Found Her Voice

She Found Her Voice

“She needs to find her voice,” the CEO said. “Petra hardly says a word in meetings, even when it pertains to Human Resources.” Petra is the Vice President of HR and leads a team of 52 personnel. She is one of three women on a 21-person executive leadership team.

In our initial individual executive coaching session, Petra told me she is most effective in one-to-one conversations. But she’s introverted, and that introversion along with her boss’ criticism, didn’t make her feel confident about speaking up in their executive team meetings.

Petra is correct; it takes courage and confidence to speak in front of groups.

The context

In U.S. culture, “the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there,’”(1)

On top of that, men’s dominance is apparent in popular media. Books, movies, games and music feature men and boys two to three times more often as protagonists. And men, overwhelmingly white, hold roughly 70-73% of the roles in top U.S. films, on-screen and off. That gender breakdown in films is equally skewed in other countries.(2)

The fact that men garner twice as much speaking and screen time applies equally in our day-to-day lives. Studies indicate parents and teachers interrupt their girls twice as much as their boys.(2)

This reality takes a toll on women. The most fundamental bias we face, the one underlying all the others, is the message that women are not inherently worth listening to as much as men. This message takes its toll on women as gaslighting and self-denial tend to do; we pay with an internal dialogue of self-criticism: You’re not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional.(2) This message, along with the push to be bold and comfortable in the spotlight, can crush women’s confidence.

This message takes its toll on organizations too. Without acknowledging the unique perspective of women and introverts and without seeing them as an asset, companies lose out on the value their diverse voices promise.

And because we don’t want to go against cultural norms and upset a status quo that favors extroverted male voices, leaders inadvertently silence and sideline dissenting opinions and different perspectives, including introverts’ and women’s. As a result, we’re often blind to the cultural systems in our organizations that keep women feeling left out or pushed out. This is opposite of cultural intelligence.(3)

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and adapt our behavior to show genuine respect across cultural differences, including gender and personality types like introversion.

Back to Petra’s story

Because introverts prefer think time, I texted Petra the morning before our afternoon meeting. “In preparation for our executive coaching session, please think of three takeaways and their examples from the last 10 months of working together.” I wanted to hear from her how we’d made a difference in her life and leadership.

At the start of the meeting, I asked her, “What are your takeaways from our coaching conversations?”

Petra said, “My first takeaway is now I know it’s natural to judge; I don’t need to be so tough on myself. My brain judges others to protect me. That’s how I know to get out of situations that aren’t safe. But if I’m not careful, my judgment can block me from fully hearing a person. My judgment isn’t wrong but it is limited based on my background and experience, that creates my bias. What I need to do is slow down, notice my assumption and then recognize there’s almost always more to the story.”

I asked her for an example. Petra explained, “There are three leaders in transition and vying for one job now. I may not totally understand why they’re reacting the way they are and it makes me feel judgmental. But when I slow down, I realize I can’t really criticize their behavior because I’ve never been in their situation. I can only imagine how hard it must be for them.”

I asked, “How does this perspective help?”

Petra said, “When I was talking with the leaders, after delivering the bad news that their positions were being eliminated, I said, “I recognized how hard this must be.” I told them I’m here if they want to talk or have questions. Two of the leaders did circle back. I think it was because I was able to withhold my judgment and hear them out that they felt safe to come back.

“My second takeaway is that I’m not thinking everyone has to be 100% on board. A person, or even a situation, can be okay even if they’re not all wonderful. No one or situation is all good or bad. Nothing is going to be perfect.”

I said, “It sounds like you’re upending the perfectionism that’s rampant in our culture. We think everything has to be just right or just so to be valued or valuable. (Petra nodded.) With that pressure off, it seems like you’re accepting your own and other’ humanity, all messiness and beauty in there together.”

Petra said, “I am. An example is one of my direct reports needed to talk with the Chief Financial Officer; she felt uneasy about the conversation. I suggested that she look at it from his perspective. Everything in his world has to add up; it’s either black, white or red.”

I said, “Sounds like you were teaching cultural intelligence, teaching her to accept the CFO where he is and adapt her words to meet him there. How’d their conversation go?”

Petra said, “That’s exactly what I was doing. My direct-report told me she felt the conversation went well. The CFO responded well to her idea. I felt good about how I’d helped her reframe their conversation.”

Petra said, “The third takeaway is I’m learning to affirm others.”

I said, “It seems like you were doing that before, no?”

Petra said, “Well now I’m more intentional about it. I used to think, because I don’t need affirmation, neither do other people. It was harsh and I know differently now.”

I asked, “What’s affirmation to you?”

Petra said, “Affirmation is accepting people where they are and where they’re hurting.  It’s letting the other person know it’s okay to be where they are. An example is a friend of mine, whose son just came out to her as gay. I had a chance to listen to her express how hard it has been. I practiced being okay with where she is and affirmed her feelings. Because another friend of hers had launched into her own story to relate without really hearing her concern, my friend told me she was grateful I’d really listened.”

The impact

I asked Petra, “How do these takeaways impact your leadership?”

Petra said, “I feel more confident in the input that I’m giving. (She was quiet and thoughtful.) I feel more confident in my style; the way I lead is good for me and my team. (More quiet.) I feel confident in my humanity. I’m okay with how I am, with who I am.”

I said, “Do you recall, you and your boss initially hired me to help you find your voice? (Petra nodded.) All these months, we’ve never talked about you finding your voice. Instead, we affirmed you and your leadership style. Then I gave you tools based on your style of leadership. Have you found your voice?”

Petra said, “Yes, I have. I’m speaking at least 40% more than I used to. But I don’t just talk to talk; I talk when it’s necessary. When I do speak now, I’m confident. Also, my boss has dropped telling me I need to find my voice.”

I said, “That’s great to hear! I appreciate the affirmation. (Petra smiled.) Speaking of affirmation, I appreciate you suggesting that I shift my language about teaching cultural intelligence to incorporate the words ‘leadership training’ and call my work ‘culturally intelligent leadership training.’”

Petra said, “It’s what you’re really doing, Dr. Amy. (She paused.) Well, it is and it isn’t leadership training.”

I asked, “How is and isn’t this work leadership training?”

Petra said, “It’s not the kind of leadership training where someone is telling you how you should be or lead. This is leadership training where I get to be my authentic self. You’ve helped me lead in a way that’s genuine and meaningful for me. This is culturally intelligent leadership training.

Petra was accepted as the leader she is and given tools relevant and valuable for her style of leadership. That’s what allowed her to discover her confidence and ultimately her voice as a leader in the organization. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your network that would like to discover their voice as a powerful and compassionate leader? Please share this link with them.


  1. Cook, G. (Jan 24, 2012) Scientific American, “The power of introverts: A manifesto for quiet brilliance.”
  2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, New York: Atria Books
  3. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  4. Photo by Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash.
Cultural Intelligence is the Cure for Cultural Blindness

Cultural Intelligence is the Cure for Cultural Blindness

In a recent workshop I gave, a White CEO told the group that reports of Tyre Nichols’ death barely hit his radar screen. It hadn’t occurred to him to discuss it with anyone – at least not until he saw how much it affected his Black partner. She told him the news of the tragedy had lit up her phone with texts from family and friends. He told us he was stunned by the difference in their respective communities’ levels of response.

During our workshop, the leader told us he realized he wouldn’t have known the impact of the tragedy on the Black community if it hadn’t been for their relationship.

Research shows it’s not uncommon for people of the dominant culture in any community, organization or country to be culturally blind to the system, or cultural container, and the way it affects them and underrepresented communities.(1) If people haven’t 1) built authentic relationships with people outside their culture, 2) considered the impact of the dominant culture on marginalized people or 3) actively developed awareness of their own culture’s characteristics through education and travel, they simply don’t see the cultural container. It’s like being right-handed in a right-handed world. The system works in your favor, so you don’t notice that, for left-handed people, the desk doesn’t support their writing arm, the notebook’s spiral gets in the way and the scissors don’t work in the “wrong” hand.

See the blindness

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 culture: cultural blindness, which is also called minimization. More than two-thirds (66.8%) of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are right in that blind spot – the “Minimization” stage at the middle of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence.(1) The percentage is that high because it’s actually the default mindset of the dominant culture in any organization and in every society all over the world.

The problem with having so much of humanity stuck in the default is that minimizing and ignoring others’ differing experiences creates an environment in which people tend to focus on what everyone has in common and assume others’ experiences are like their own. This inadvertently minimizes, dismisses and marginalizes those of underrepresented groups. Cultural blindness – the belief that color, class, ability and generation, etc. make no difference can be well-intentioned but is definitely flawed.

Members of the non-dominant culture groups tend to be very aware of the system but go-along-to-get-along because they are not in positions of power and therefore can be hesitant or fearful to speak up or out. This dismissiveness of people’s humanity is often demoralizing and dangerous for people of non-dominant groups in any organization.

How this happens

People’s individual actions don’t come out of a void, they are a reflection of a larger system, the dominant culture surrounding them. Dr. Edward Deming (1900–93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94% of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2) The problem of cultural blindness, then, is not that anybody’s inherently evil but that people have an inherited ignorance of the system. The good news is, if ignorance is the fundamental problem, it’s a fixable problem.

The antidote to cultural blindness is to become more aware of the systems that influence us, which make us less likely to perpetuate them. To upend minimization, people of dominant culture can become aware of their culture and its impact on themselves and others, as well as recognize that each person’s experience is just one of many cultural patterns.(1)

Who I learned from

The danger is very real for my friend Kimberly St. Clair. As an African American mom, she is particularly worried about her son, who is on the spectrum. She’s can’t anticipate how he’ll behave under the pressure of a traffic stop. She was so worried that she developed a tool and curriculum, Doc Dash, designed to keep civilians and officers safe during traffic stops.

Kimberly developed the products because traffic stops are the most common form of police-civilian engagement and one of the most dangerous duties police officers have to perform. Police in the U.S. pull over more than 50,000 drivers each day, which amounts to more than 20 million motorists a year.(3)

But the real problem are the police and civilian fatalities. Police in the U.S. killed 1,192 people. And despite being only 13% of the population, Black people were 26% of those killed by police in 2022. Tyre Nichols’ violent death was a result of one of these interactions.(4)

Because, statistically, people of the dominant culture are unaware of systems and their impact on others, they don’t necessarily have the practice, skills and vocabulary to talk and learn with people who have been historically silenced. That’s probably why so often, after a tragedy like Tyre Nichols’ death, Kimberly is asked by her White friends what they can do to help.

When you know better you do better

It’s no one person’s fault how the system works but when you know better you can do better. Particularly important for people of dominant culture, you can upend cultural blindness by developing your cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is what enables a person to accept and appreciate another’s perspective and choose words and actions that show genuine respect.

With cultural intelligence you can….

  1. Educate yourself about the characteristics of your dominant culture and its influence on how you think, talk and act.
  2. Learn how the dominant culture impacts people of historically underrepresented groups and block access to legal, financial, educational, mental and physical well-being.
  3. Lift up voices that all too often go unheard for greater authenticity, safety and collaboration for everyone.

There are many ways to lift up others’ voices and be an ally. Most important for people of dominant culture is to be alert to how minimization inadvertently infiltrates our conversation even with the best of intentions. To be a culturally intelligent ally, you can…

Listen, don’t talk. Resist the temptation to jump in and speak for someone before you talk with them. Don’t assume you know what they need. That would be minimization. Learn about their experience. You could say, “Would you mind telling me about your experience? What do you hope for?” For an example, read the “How it works” section in this article: “How Effective Leaders Use Connection not Correction.”

Focus on them, not you. It can be tempting to get people to focus on you as the advocate, but you end up minimizing their voice. Leaders make it about the other person and step back. They might say: “Elena gave me permission to share her idea.” Or, “Aaron had an insight – would you like to share that now, Aaron?”

Talk with them, not about them. Effective leaders don’t guess based on appearance but find out from the source what the needs are. They notice who’s not in the room who can be impacted by their decisions. Leaders do the rounds and walk the floor to learn first-hand. They ask, “What are the needs?” then later paraphrase what they heard and say, “Do I understand correctly, is this what really matters to you?”

Learn from your mistakes. When you overstep and get called out, it’s tempting to drop into silence with shame or react in anger by defending yourself. Instead S.T.O.P. – slow down, take a breath, observe your feelings and imagine how the other person feels, then proceed with curiosity and wonder to see what you can learn about how the dominant culture impacts others. So often it’s in that moment of vulnerability that we find compassion for others and can perceive practices or policies that need to change.

Recognize that trust is built over time. After years of being belittled under the system of minimization, people of non-dominant groups may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss even when asked to speak up. In this blog, journalist Abby explained, “As a White person, I have extra work to do – particularly with people from underrepresented groups who may be unaccustomed to being heard. To create a space where they feel safety and trust. It’s worth the time investment because I get to meet and talk with people I never would have known before and get their story.”

Speak up for others. If someone says something hateful or ignorant, invite them to share what happened that made them feel the way they do. Whether or not you can imagine what happened or agree with their conclusion, you can affirm their feelings. Then you might ask if you can share your perspective. For an example of how to speak up in a way the person can hear you, read my article, “How to Deal with an Ignorant Remark.”


When we know better, we can do better by stepping up as an ally with compassion and courage. When we work in cahoots – noticing and naming gaps, striving to create a culture where both historically dominant and non-dominant group members together feel heard, seen and valued – that’s when diversity benefits everyone. When community members use their cultural intelligence to appreciate everyone’s experience is unique and we can all learn from one another, this is what enables us to create safe communities and companies where everyone feels like they belong. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your network who would like to learn more about how to be a compassionate leader? Please share this link with them.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge.,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology
  3. Levin, S (April 21, 2022) The Guardian. “US police have killed nearly 600 people in traffic stops since 2017, data shows.”
  4. Mapping Police Violence Database:
  5. Photo credit: David Underland on Unsplash