Why cultural agility is the antidote to ineffective EDI programmes, part one


The need for cultural agility has never been higher. Companies are trying to improve equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). At the same time, the stress of the pandemic and the need to work from home has made their employees’ circle of trust tighten, making a spirit of openness feel more elusive to many.

To add to the challenge, ill-advised unconscious bias training, now ubiquitous, is likely making matters worse. Those who have learned to sense their own ‘biases’ avoid natural conversations with people who are demographically different, the very activity that promotes cultural agility.

Unconscious bias training may be the most popular form of EDI programme, but it is often not successful and may exacerbate failings in intercultural understanding, says Paula Caligiuri

What’s new?

Fortune 1000 companies now average about $1.5 million annually on EDI programmes. Globally, companies’ budgets for EDI training have increased sixfold in the past few years, with 20% of companies increasing these budgets while cutting budgets in other areas.

Unfortunately, mounting evidence now shows many well-meaning EDI training programmes produce no change in employees’ openness and acceptance of diversity.

A waste of corporate resources is the good news, in some companies these programmes produce the opposite of their stated goal, increasing stereotyping and the like. To make a positive change in EDI companies need to focus on proven methods, not fads.

Based on my research, HR needs to focus less on diversity and unconscious bias training and more on cultural agility training. The competencies for improving EDI can be developed within organisational initiatives. This article shares some of those suggestions.

More on effective EDI:

Is using umbrella terms such as BAME, LGBT+ and disabled hindering inclusion efforts?

Why most corporate diversity strategies fail and how to ensure yours doesn't

How HR can approach changing conversations around diversity

The BBC has dropped the acronym BAME – should you?


Key findings

Almost every c-suite executive I have spoken to names improving EDI as one of their top priorities. This is a popular stance as about 80% of their employees want to see their senior executives condemn racial inequity and prioritise D&I in the workplace. It is a laudable goal with far-reaching benefits. The problem is how the goal is being executed.

To appear action-oriented, many companies are offering unconscious bias training. This training however, might be considered an ill-advised fad having the opposite effect on fostering EDI.

When offered in isolation from broader cultural agility initiatives, unconscious bias training might be lowering not increasing cultural agility in the workforce.

There are three main reasons why.

Reducing prejudice and discrimination requires demographically different people to communicate with and feel connected to one another. To achieve this, employees need, for example, to sense each other as similar, interconnected and working collaboratively toward a shared purpose. A focus on bias, conscious or unconscious, places the focus on differences.

Everyone with a functioning brain forms split-second subjective judgements based on their lifetime of stored data. While it is helpful to be aware of unconscious processing, we need to remember that most people interact consciously, not unconsciously. Scoring poorly on an implicit bias test does not mean a person is xenophobic, racist, sexist, ageist, etc.

Unfortunately, many who have gone through the unconscious bias training are now nervous that their so-called ‘bias’ will be visible to others, priming them to withhold having authentic conversations with people who are demographically different.

Training resources, both time and money, are limited. Unconscious bias training uses the resources that could be used to build cultural agility. Benchmarking has made matters worse. The fact that other companies are engaging in unconscious bias training has become the rationale for investing in it, devoid of the ultimate effect on fostering long term EDI.

Only about 30% of professionals have cultural agility, which is the ability to interact comfortably and effectively with people from different cultures, whether those differences are based on gender, race, profession, generation or nationality.

Cultural agility remains one of the most underdeveloped competencies in the workforce and yet it is also one of the most critical in organisations becoming increasingly more diverse.

While it is natural for people to cling to familiarity when under stress (for example, when enduring the pandemic), this retreat into emotional ease has made many people less willing to extend their circle of trust.

In a tough climate to build cultural agility, it is helpful to rely on science for guidance on what will work. Based on my research, there are clear suggestions for helping employees gain cultural agility.


Suggestion 1: Train on how to find similarities

There are tangible ways to help employees learn how to find similarities with others. We have conducted research on and created programmes which pair people into demographically different groups and helped them use structured questions to find the things they have in common.

When compared with control groups, those who focus on finding similarity have a heightened sense of belonging, support, and openness, the very features you want in the hearts and minds of your employees to have a positive and enduring change on EDI.

To conduct this training effectively, organisations need to use the appropriate level of comfortable self-disclosure for the context. The goal is not for staff to learn intimate details about each other or to make people feel uncomfortable and exposed. Rather, it is to develop the skill of finding similarity.


Suggestion 2: Cultivate an appreciation for context

One of the most important acknowledgements of culturally agile people is that they understand that their skills are limited in situations where they do not fully understand the context – situations when they need to vary their approach to be effective (e.g. when working with those from a different generation, profession, nationality).

People who have higher levels of cultural agility appreciate that context will affect their ability to succeed and actively seek to understand it.

There are many techniques to reinforce an appreciation for context. For example, when respected leaders ask questions about context, ask for feedback, enquire how to be effective in each situation and the like, they model that it is acceptable to engage in humility without reducing credibility.


Suggestion 3: Create a cultural agile workforce through selection

The greater the number of culturally agile employees in your organisation, the more EDI will flourish. You can select for and hire people with cultural agility using assessment tools, such as the ‘Cultural Agility Selection Test’ (CAST).

In addition to thinking about how to hire, you also need to think about how not to hire.

Specifically, consider the way networking and recruiting unfolds in your organisation and whether it is allowing cultural agility to flourish.

An easy way to test this is to observe whether a hiring manager could be overtly and comfortably proud of the fact that they just hired someone from the university they attended, their sports club, etc.

If they can share this ‘good news’, your organisation likely has a broader problem with cultural agility unless, of course, their recruiting source is regarded as highly integrated and comfortably multicultural.


Suggestion 4: Build self-awareness

Cultural agility requires two things: an understanding of the way in which individual values differ and an understanding of one’s own competencies in supporting it. The former enables employees to appreciate how their values, norms and perceptions of others’ behaviours have been fostered through their life’s socialising agents, including family, educational systems, profession and generation.

Appreciating a difference in socialising agents is fundamentally and critically important for EDI initiatives to flourish because they remove the conversation from the topics of race, gender and religion.

In addition, there are certain competencies that support the expression of cultural agility such as curiosity, humility, tolerance of ambiguity and perspective taking.

Many employees remain unaware of their strengths and developmental opportunities in cultural agility competencies. At minimum, there are free resources such as myGiide that you can encourage within your organisation to foster self-awareness. 


Check back tomorrow for part two of this different slant for turning this research into reality. 


Paula Caligiuri is a D’Amore-McKim School of Business distinguished professor of international business and strategy at Northeastern University.