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The Difference that Makes a Difference

Our Experience with Developing Intercultural Competency

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of

Nehrwr Abdul-Wahid leads McKnight Foundation staff on an intercultural bridging strategies session.

The IDI describes current capacity while also indicating what kind of learning is required to build greater capacity. McKnight staff spent 18 months working to develop those competencies, and their facilitators led the organization through a series of seven intensive all-staff workshops. In addition, McKnight made coaching available for individuals and teams.

Abdul-Wahid explains that the challenge with Minimization is that one of its key components is both a strength and a source of interfer­ence. “We need commonality to recognize each other’s humanity,” he says. “Recognizing similarities between cultures and having shared expectations is a strength. But Minimization leads to an over-de­pendence on commonality. Minimization wants an environment of comfort. Minimization is conflict averse. There’s an inability to have honest, authentic discussions.”

Once the group understood the relative strengths and weaknesses of the orientations on the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC, the theory upon which the IDI is based), it was time to more fully explore the organization’s hidden assumptions. Through exercises that pushed the group to think about the invisible aspects of culture, McKnight started to see the hidden rules of the dominant culture in our country and in its own offices. McKnight began to see how various HR policies may unintentionally privilege some styles and approaches while marginalizing others. This made the organization more conscious of its norms and helped people see that saying “that’s just the way we do things around here” was the sound of minimizing differences.

“I’m a direct communicator,” Christiansen says. “And it’s served me very well in my career. But now I can see that my communication style is a personal and cultural preference.” Christiansen realizes that being culturally competent means being more open to other commu­nication styles, and actively working toward being more accepting and accommodating.

Implementing Change for Real Results

Karyn Sciortino Johnson discusses emerging tension points during an IDI workshop.

Soon, McKnight was ready to start putting what they learned into practice. The next step was to form what’s called Action Learning Teams, small groups tasked with bringing organizational change using the new intercultural competency mindset. Nearly half of all Foun­dation employees participated in an Action Learning Team. After staff identified key areas where they recommended seeing changes to pol­icies and procedures, McKnight settled on three focus areas for the Action Learning Teams: deeper learning, grantmaking, and employee leave policies on bereavement and holidays. Each team was charged with collecting feedback from their colleagues, developing a plan and making specific recommendations.

“The simplest one was Human Resources,” Christiansen says. “One of the outcomes was the decision to change from having 11 assigned holidays to having 12 non-assigned holidays that people choose for themselves and then observe.” Even a seemingly simple change like this wasn’t so simple. “The switch has ramifications for facilities, for reception, for operations, and for the people in HR,” she says. In the end, the group was able to implement the change.

In the summer of 2017, the group held an all-staff retreat that marked a capstone to all these months of learning and testing new ideas. The facilitators revealed the results of a recent reassessment the staff had taken. Everyone wondered if the time, money and effort that McKnight employees invested over the 18 months resulted in increased effectiveness in Intercultural Development. IDI trainers say the shift from Minimization to Acceptance, the next orientation on the developmental continuum, is one of the most difficult; most organiza­tions do not shift immediately. When it was revealed that McKnight’s intercultural development had indeed shifted to Acceptance, the room broke into applause and there was a collective “Whoop!” at the news of the developmental shift.

Nate Wade discusses structure and accountability during an IDI staff retreat.

At the staff retreat, Wolford made it clear that the Foundation’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion didn’t end with the IDI staff trainings. “We see it as mission-critical to have our staff be better equipped to engage across differences, and the IDI was one tool to help us increase organizational capacity and effectiveness,” she says. “The next step is continuing this development while increasing our area of focus to advance diversity, equity and inclusion through our policies, practices and behaviors. We have identified some next steps including deeper learning on implicit bias and structural racism to inform our strategy and approach. Using what we have learned through this initial phase of work we will consider how we approach our external role as a funder, an employer, economic entity, institution­al investor, convenor and thought leader.”

Institution-Wide Changes for the Better

McKnight has implemented a number of changes as a direct result of the IDI work. A program administrator in the International team is now devoting 40 percent of her time to supporting the DEI work. A DEI advisory committee – consisting of Wolford, Christiansen, and Kara Carlisle, the vice president of programs, along with the three staff leads of the original learning teams – has formed to guide staff-related work on DEI. In January of this year, McKnight released a

Topic: Diversity Equity & Inclusion

April 2018