Updated: Mar 23, 2021
“Change is inevitable. Growth is Optional.” - John Maxwell
Back in 2018, a friend said, “Katherine I know you do something involving culture but I still don't know exactly what you do.” Since 2000, I've worked as an Organizational Psychologist, specifically as an Interculturalist or what some call a Cross-Cultural Trainer. The methods are drawn from coaching, but that confuses it more than clarifies it. I realized that nobody understands what I do because I don’t know how to explain it.
Apparently, I’m not alone. That idea was reinforced last week when I gathered with activists, thought leaders, inventors, founders, HR practitioners, and marginalized people from around the globe. The topic was how to revolutionize organizations, but another takeaway was that individuals don't have to wait for that level of change to be part of the solution.
The challenge is that the steps forward (whether organizations, groups, or people) are complex so the transition from Where We Are Now to Creating Equal Organizations is going to take time. It will take years, if not generations, to transform paradigms and systems, so why wait to influence what we can.
Whether you are resisting change or advocating for it, the work is the same - look inward. Shift the microscope on Others to a mirror that reflects on the Self.
Ethnocentrism is a common phenomenon that plays out in the workplace when people are confronted with doing things differently than they think they should be done. Before it was minorities and ex-pats who bore the burden of adapting, but now the work is in everyone’s hands.
If the first step in identifying ethnocentrism starts by looking inward, then here are a few phrases that are human to say, but that could also be problematic:
“We are all the same.”
“People need to get used to it.”
“If only they would do it [the “right”] way (my way).”
“We do it better than they do.”
“What’s wrong with those people.”
“That makes no sense.”
“That’s common sense.”
“If only they would do it right the first time, they wouldn’t have to spend all of that time fixing their mistakes.”
“If only they would move faster, we wouldn’t have to waste so much time and miss opportunities.”
“They are too slow.”
“They are too fast.”
“We need more empathy.”
“The solution is in the data.”
“Us vs. Them”
According to Dr. Milton J. Bennett, all of those statements are examples of an ethnocentric approach to responding to something that is different than expected. I’ve heard people on the same team believing, that their way was better than their colleges and vice versa. Those beliefs are powder kegs of conflict just waiting to get triggered.
The Workplace Needs to be Revolutionized. There is no doubt about that, but culture is like the ocean - we share it, we need it, our humanity depends on it and it fluctuates between calm and fierce regularly. The ocean, like culture, can’t be controlled, but people can learn how to ride it.
Therefore, how to navigate the shifting seas of differences and similarities is not only in the hands of our organizations but in each of our hands as individuals. It will require all sides, not just ideal-driven dichotomies. The next steps of growth will require compassion for where each person is in their learning stage because all good people sometimes do bad (usually without knowing it).
Dr. Taibi Kahler's research says that how an individual will become ethnocentric when they go into stress is predictable. He also says those stress responses are masks that stifle an individual's ability to stay in their authentic self.
As an educator, I don’t want to be mad at someone because they don’t know something. I want to meet them where they are and figure out how to Build that Bridge with them. The goal then becomes matching intent to impact. We all have as much potential to harm one another as we do to heal. We have choices.
The goal in my work isn’t to vilify, blame, or shame. It is to elevate people to their fullest potential. For example, what if we grew to listen to each other more deeply. My colleague Kelli McLoud talks about the power of Storytelling AND Storylistening in creating bridges between people and groups.
Another self-awareness activity is to practice asking ourselves if we are listening to a story for what it means to our Selves (1st Level Listening) or for what it means to the Other (2nd Level Listening)? That’s one immediately usable and applicable shift that each individual reading this blog can make today.
I learned the concept of The Four Levels of Listening during my ICF Coaching Certification program. It's not natural to pay attention to another's needs, so requires practice. The body doesn't lie. There is no faking it. Deciding to be a good listener is the step before taking action. Competence requires practice.
Walter White, the CEO of Allianz said, “If you have a lever long enough positioned in the right place then you can move the world." This blog is my attempt at building that lever, finding the right position and placement, and identifying when it is the right time to start making the tectonic shifts necessary to move forward.
Join me as I work through challenging issues that people face in the workplace. We don’t have to have all of the solutions or answers to all of the challenges that are arising right now, but many need the conversation. I'm yet to meet someone who doesn't believe in Accepting Differences and Respecting Others at work. It's a starting point that almost everyone can agree on.
Right now, each one of us can start our own Intercultural Revolution in our own daily lives with a simple 5 step process:
Observe How We Listen - Practice 2nd, 3rd, and 4th level listening.
Accept Our Unique Differences - Your needs and wants are different from someone else’s needs and wants. Yes, there are patterns we can observe in groups, but it is the individual who holds the power over their own life, actions, destiny, history, and definition of needs. Repeat step 1.
Respect Others and their Validity - Your way isn’t the only way, it’s the only way you know. If you have never traveled, then travel. It is the salve we need to soothe humanity's ills. Respect demands listening at a minimum of level 2.
Commit to Adapting Humanely - Be kind to yourself as you start the journey of building a more equal world because it starts with you. If someone disagrees with you, they are your teacher. If you are using a microscope and focusing it on an Other, then be kind to them, then exchange it for a mirror to reflect on your Self.
Repeat - It will take many lifetimes. Don’t give up. We may not be able to build a perfect future right now, but it deserves a strong foundation at the very least.
Imagine a world where schools, companies, fire departments, and all groups recognize how much power they have to change things for the better?
I still don’t know how to describe the work I do, but what I do know is that if a whole lot of individuals make step-by-step adjustments in their daily lives, then we don’t have to wait for organizations to make their tectonic shifts. We can start an Intercultural Revolution from the ground up, one person at a time.
Our arsenal? Love.