Cultural Empathy – An expansive and authentic view on diversity

It’s been almost three months since I gave this talk to a group of educators and school board trustees. Since that time, there have been several new stories that have firmly placed in our collective faces the reality that we in the US have a major issue with diversity. My talk does not speak directly to any of the issues, but I believe I get at the heart of the problem, and that is what I call “cultural empathy” — our individual ability and desire to understand the perspective of someone who is different from ourselves.

Recently I was chatting with some parents and friends and I mentioned that I was working with a local school on their diversity initiatives. Both individuals seemed to flinch when I said the word diversity. Now, I wasn’t surprised by their reaction. I took this as the perfect opportunity to engage in a conversation rather than assume that their views and mine were incompatible. After a two hour conversation I sincerely believe that we both understood more about each others experiences and challenges navigating conversations about diversity.

What happened in this situation? I intentionally chose to suspend any judgements I had about this couples views on the topic. I believe that one of the major barriers to achieving authentic diversity in any organization is our human propensity to judge others. Our judgements can also make us draw incorrect conclusions about others.Harvard University social psychology professor, Ellen Langer, has studied the relationship between people’s stereotypes of themselves (not others) and their performance. All of us are mindlessly prone to believe stereotypes of ourselves unless we question them.How much more must we believe stereotypes about others, who we don’t know?

What if we could develop the ability to suspend all judgement and become better listeners, especially when we are discussing topics with folks that may have a different perspective? Unfortunately, the word diversity seems to carry significant baggage for certain groups. For others, it is their calling card to address perceived and real inequality or exclusion.This is the first step we have to consciously take — suspend judgement — if we want to engage in an authentic conversation about diversity.

The second step we have to take if we want to engage in a discussion about diversity, is to clearly articulate why we believe diversity is important to your organization. Studies like the recent study by McKinsey & Company, and others by the Gallup Organization, that consistently find that diverse teams out-perform non-diverse teams, from a gender and ethnic perspective.

The July/August 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review was devoted to the topic of diversity. Their research finds compelling evidence for organizations to take a measured and thoughtful approach to their diversity programs. Intel CEO shares his motivation for building a diverse organization — “I have two daughters. They are both technically bright. I want them to come into a workplace that is better than the way the workplace is today.” His view is the opposite of some organizations where the senior leaders have explicitly delegated this topic to the Diversity and Inclusion department. These leaders do not or cannot articulate a vision of diversity themselves, much less the value diversity brings to their organization. The question I think we need to ask ourselves is, are we genuinely interested in deepening our empathy and understanding towards others who are different from us, or do our diversity efforts have the potential to divide groups and create an atmosphere of exclusion? I think we would all agree that on an individual basis, extending empathy and understanding towards everyone, listening respectfully to points of views that are different from our own, will strengthen and bolster any community. Developing a community that expresses cultural empathy and understanding for different perspectives is a value an organization must hold highly, to achieve authentic diversity.

Another obstacle to achieving authentic diversity in our organizations is our own individual unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are created and reinforced by our environments and experiences. Our mind is constantly processing information, oftentimes without our conscious awareness. When we are moving fast or lack all the data, our unconscious biases fill in the gaps. The reasons we struggle and flounder with topics like diversity is because we fail to make it personal. We reduce these things to “initiatives”. Now, I believe we need to start somewhere, so I understand the need for such and initiatives and affinity groups — but if these initiatives or groups do not challenge us to look at the world through the eyes of others,  then I’d emphatically state that these groups do not promote authentic diversity! We all need to challenge our assumptions about what diversity looks like.If you have a desire for your organization to embrace authentic diversity, you will need to consider that it will take time.

I suggested the following three steps to for anyone who is serious about exploring the idea of cultural empathy, vis-a-vis, authentic diversity:

  1. Write down an experience in your life that has shaped your views on diversity. It isn’t until we reflect thoughtfully on how our experiences have shaped our views that we can begin to articulate our own views authentically. I recently took Flintridge Prep’s administrative council through this exercise. Everyone shared their stories with the group. What became apparent was that every individual had in some way experienced being misunderstood and had had the feeling of being on the outside. After the meeting, several of the members expressed to me that they had worked with some of the individuals for over 15 years, and felt that they really got know some of their peers for the first time.
  2. Secondly, challenge yourself to identify your own unconscious bias and how and where it shows up in your own life.The simple act of writing a few words, sentences, or paragraphs everyday can have a profound and instant effect on your life for the better. If you don’t already journal, I would recommend this practice to enable you understand yourself better.
  3. Third, begin looking for opportunities to build an authentic relationship with someone who doesn’t look like you. I empathize with you if this idea doesn’t sound particularly appealing. However, it is only when we intentionally seek out others who are different to ourselves that we begin to learn about other peoples stories, experiences and perspectives. Said differently, it is highly unlikely that any one of us will develop any sort of empathy for others who are different, if we remain in essentially homogenous vs heterogeneous circles.

I’m reminded of the words of the 1st century Roman philosopher, Cicero’s words,

“ All I can do is to urge you to put friendship ahead of all other human concerns, for there is nothing so suited to man’s nature, nothing that can mean so much to him, whether in good times or in bad… I am inclined to think that with the exception of wisdom, the gods have given nothing finer to men than this.”

Authentic diversity is a beautiful thing,because it reminds us of our shared humanity. We all crave to be understood for who we are and our unique stories; none of us want to be labeled — we are so much more complex and nuanced than labels allow. Real, authentic diversity happens one relationship at a time – I hope that all of us will lean into and embrace the beauty and benefits of cultural empathy and authentic diversity at work and beyond.

Advertisements