Tools in your DEI toolbox

I usually answer by giving examples highlighting

  • the importance of the systemic approach
  • the value of comprehensive assessments and data-driven interventions
  • the need to view the stakeholder engagement process as a critical outcome
  • the necessity to develop DEI competencies of leaders and teams

To dig deeper into this last piece, I have recently invited a wonderful colleague Hamlin Grange for a virtual fireside chat. Hamlin has decades of experiance in IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Rasim) and was appointed to the Order of Canada for his work in this area. He is unquestionably one of the leaders in the field. I was thrilled to sit down with him and discuss one of our favourite tools to develop and measure DEI competencies  – the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI). 

We both firmly believe that intercultural competence is critical in DEI work. Here are a few highlights from our conversation and additional points I want to share. 

In this post:

Why do cultural differences matter?

Diversity is a fact. In today’s workplace – whether in Toronto or Warsaw – we have people who have different values, beliefs, needs, workplace behaviours, and ways of interpreting the behaviours of others. In short, people with many cultural backgrounds related to various dimensions of diversity meet 1. The common misconception is that culture equates to a country or ethnicity. In reality, it is a much wider concept – we can talk about cultural differences related to different religions, socio-economic groups, and various groups within disability culture e.g. Deaf culture, or within LGBTQIA+ communities.

What’s more how work is organized is not “objective” nor “neutral” but based on assumptions about the “ideal” employee and their needs and values. Our organizational policies and practices often do not account for differences and unintentionally create barriers. Next time you read policies in your organization, I invite you to examine critically the implicit assumptions and values behind them – e.g. how the family is defined, what holidays are observed and what the options for taking days off are, what behaviours are valued in your talent management practices e.g. being vocal about wanting to be promoted and showcasing your achievements versus highlighting the success of the team.

Here is where intercultural competence comes in. It is about seeing cultural differences (and also similarities) in all their complexity, and it is about being able to adapt your behaviour to be effective. This could mean changing what you do e.g. using a less direct communication style to make sure that what you mean gets across (very important for those like me used to giving negative feedback directly!). Or it could mean designing better practices like creating multiple ways to contribute ideas instead of a team brainstorming session as the only way – the problem you are solving for is not that some team members are quiet during team discussions but that you don’t get their input!

Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC)

DEI work is fundamentally about how we engage with differences, make sense of them, and design for them – on an individual, team, and organizational level. The ability to see differences depends on where we are in our development.

I think that the reason why Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) is so effective in developing teams and leaders is that it assesses where people are and provides targeted ways for them to move forward. IDI is based on the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC). The framework describes 5 mindsets toward cultural differences: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance, and Adaptation. Let’s take a look at one of them.

The majority of people who take IDI – around 65% – are in Minimization. This mindset highlights commonalities and has a lot of strengths. What limits its effectiveness is that it can mask a deeper understanding of cultural differences. It can take two forms:

  1. We focus on commonalities because of a limited cultural self-understanding. If we belong to a dominant cultural community and live in an environment where practices are determined by our values, we often don’t notice them. Like a fish, we don’t consider the water we swim in until we are out of it.
  2. We focus on commonalities because it is a survival strategy for navigating the values and practices largely determined by other groups. We “go along to get along” and minimize aspects of our own identity.

When a leader says “Age is just a number” it disregards the fact that our age (often intersecting with gender) is related to the caregiving responsibilities – many employees aged 55+ are also caregivers for their loved ones. Accessibility needs for older workers are also missed. When leaders say “I don’t see race” it disregards the lived experiance of team members facing individual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism and does nothing to address them.

In organizations like this, it often doesn’t feel safe to be different. Downplaying parts of our identity at work – covering – takes a toll on our well-being and deprives others of truly knowing us. It could look like a gay employee not bringing their partner to a company party, a mother avoiding mentioning her children, or a person with disability keeping their hearing aids covered. You can find more examples here.

When an organization approaches DEI initiatives from a minimization mindset, the effectiveness of its approach and initiatives is limited. “One-size-fits-all” policies may lead to poor recruitment & retention outcomes for employees from marginalized groups, there could be a strong pressure to conform and not “rock the boat” (do/say something that upsets people or causes problems). A deeper appreciation of diversity is lacking and its benefits are not fully realized.

A tool for you

The conversation with Hamlin was inspired by a quote by Buckminster Fuller:

  • If you want to change how a person thinks, give up. You cannot change how another thinks. Give them a tool the use of which will gradually cause them over time to think differently.

For me, IDI is certainly such a tool. It increases self-awareness and provides in-depth and actionable information on how to move forward and develop. I used IDI for individual development with executive leaders, managers, recruiters, HR teams, DEI teams, and employees working directly with the public (e.g. members of the police, non-profit front-line employees). I also used it with functional teams and leadership groups.

The benefits? In the own words of one of the leaders in a large telecommunications company: Not only we recognized personal growth from Anna’s coaching but, as a team, we became a more aligned leadership team and have implemented a number of practices benefiting our entire organization.

By engaging with cultural differences in all their complexity, we can build better teams and organizations. Learn more about developing intercultural competence with IDI and get it for yourself here. If you missed the fireside chat DEI toolbox – Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI), you can watch it here.


Anna Kostecka (she/her)

Managing Director at What Works. She is a globally-minded Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategist with 12+ years of experience supporting organizations around the world on their DEI journey.