Tag Archives: cultural competency

Hearing each other’s stories

MLKOne of the keys to understanding others is to learn how to listen and learn from each other’s stories. As leaders, it is dangerous to make assumptions about where other people have been and what they might do next. Understanding their stories can help make a personal connection the helps build relationships and move the work forward.

This week we’ve been celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. That always reminds me of a lesson I learned about hearing other people’s stories. I had an acquaintance that I’d known for a long time. Some years ago we were traveling together and getting to know each other better. The person was a retired professor from a local seminary and I made some wrong assumptions about what his political experience might be.

We had an opportunity to go swimming and I saw his legs for the first time when he wasn’t wearing long pants. One of his legs was scarred with what looked like bite marks. As we talked, I learned that he had been with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the courthouse steps in Alabama. The bites occurred when police turned dogs loose to break up the event. He’d been part of history and I never knew it.

On another occasion I was looking at the reviews posted in the window of a local community theater. Someone came up to me and I thought, “here’s another homeless person asking for a handout.” As it turned out, the person told me about an opportunity when the theater sells tickets very inexpensively to local residents. We had a nice talk about plays we had both seen.

When I work with project teams, I’m teaching myself to ask questions before giving my opinions. Tell me more about why you want to do it that way? What happened that makes you so frustrated? How can it be improved to make your life easier? Providing an opportunity for colleagues to share their stories helps build trust and I’ve learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known any other way.

Have you had experiences where hearing someone else’s story helped you to understand yourself and the other person in a new way?

Dee Anne Bonebright

When cultural fit goes too far

whisperingCan you believe what he did? What was she thinking? Where did he get the idea to do that?

How do you react when you hear people on your team making statements like these? How important is a “smooth operating” team to you?

While a team that embraces the culture of the organization and holds a set of shared values, beliefs and unstated assumptions can be a competitive advantage, there is also a dark side of culture that leaders need to recognize.

There has been a spate of stories and articles recently describing the downside of an over reliance on cultural fit in the workplace. Inadvertently, in the quest to hire and develop aligned work teams, organizations have created road blocks to diversity and have reinforced conformity and exclusion. Organizational cultural fit has morphed into “personal” fit which can lead to exclusion.

To leverage organizational culture and not personal similarity, Lauren A. Rivera, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, encourages leaders to use data and focus on the traits, behaviors, values and past experience that are directly related to job performance and the overall success of the organization.

In the end leaders need to manage the tension between personal fit and diversity within the organization.

Todd Thorsgaard



Embracing the edge

Scariest momentI still can feel the butterflies I felt as I drove to compete in my first triathlon. I knew where the race was, I had ridden my bike before, ran in my shoes, knew how to swim but I had never actually done a tri. It was new to me and I didn’t feel comfortable – at all. I was on a learning edge! Yet if I wanted to grow as an athlete I needed to embrace the scary feeling of not knowing what was going to happen next.

Leaders who want to be successful in our diverse and changing workplace also need to embrace their cultural or diversity learning edges. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive,  calls it your place of “productive discomfort.” We all lead from our own experiences and backgrounds. This means that our learning edges are different but that we all have an opportunity, and an obligation, to step into a new situation or explore a new perspective and learn more about different cultures, different histories, different experiences and different ways of thinking.

When we are on a learning edge it is easy to feel defensive, awkward, uncertain or confused. Be prepared for that feeling and continue to push yourself. That is where the true growth happens. Not only will you be developing your cultural competence, you will also be role modeling inclusion.

Some examples of learning edges are:

  • participate in cultural or community events that are not your own
  • get together with colleagues or students who are different than you, and spend most of the time listening
  • involve people with different backgrounds and different experiences when you are solving problems or making decisions
  • actively include discussions of diversity and inclusion in your meetings and work events, even if they are not “diversity” events

Where have you embraced your learning edge of diversity and what did you learn?

Todd Thorsgaard



Joi and pain: lessons in life and leadership

Dr. Joi Lewis is a leader in higher education and an example of a change agent for social justice. She graciously agreed to share some of her passion and energy on leadership, diversity and inclusion. I hope you find her words as powerful as I have found my conversations with her!

I am honored to write about what I believe leaders in higher education should know about diversity, inclusion, and social justice. These issues are foundational to my life’s work and my core values.  As a Student Affairs practitioner-scholar and a social justice activist one thing I know for sure is that as human beings we were created to be in community and be connected with each other, the earth and the universe. I also know for sure that systems of oppression hurt all of us, regardless of our privileged or marginalized identities.

Storytelling is a great way to share the complicated nature of these issues and help us to embrace their contradictions. Our stories connect us and remind us of our humanity; they prompt us to build the muscle in our heart that allows us to forgive, heal and experience the hurtful feelings that oppression produces.  Here are some of my life lessons in: Life, Love and Leadership.

Lesson 1:  I will share an often hidden secret: we all have both privileged and marginalized identities but we are most practiced at organizing around the places where we are marginalized. We are keenly aware of the places where we get targeted. For example as a Black Woman, I am very aware of how my intersected identities of race and gender often set me up to get targeted.

Lesson 2: Even though I possess some identities that have historically been marginalized, I still have much more work to do around interrupting the places that I have privilege and run my oppressor patterns. The term “oppressor patterns” sounds so harsh; it is not an identity that we are eager to take on.  The lesson is that we all have oppressor patterns.

Lesson 3: The good news is that even though we all possess oppressor patterns we can use our “special powers” for good and employ our cultural capital to influence institutional decision making that brings greater equity to everyone. That is better than “super powers” and we all have the ability to do it. Decisions we make about budget, who gets promoted, what programs get supported, or what policies are adapted can be used to positively support more people.

Many years ago I attended a diversity workshop at Metro State. The topic was spirituality and the facilitator was Dr. Jamie Washington. There were about thirty folks at the workshop. I was one of only three persons of color in the room. Jamie asked us to raise our hands if we were Christian. I raised my hand. He then said for the rest of the workshop, which was scheduled for three hours, he only wanted those of us who raised our hands to speak from our identities as Christians. I quickly raised my hand again and said “No that will not work for me. I am black.” Jamie, who is also African-American, said to me, “I see that you are black, but for the next three hours I am not interested in that identity.”

I was furious! What did he mean, how could he expect that of me?  He was asking me to sit in my privilege for those three hours as a Christian and to think about all the privileges associated with the being a Christian (days off for the holidays that I celebrate, Christmas music playing in the malls as early as November, generally no work day on my regularly scheduled worship day of the week, The Bible in hotel rooms, etc.).  This gave me pause for the many things I had not considered. We discussed much deeper issues and folks shared examples of how they and their loved ones had been persecuted for not being Christian and their religious beliefs. I heard about the small things that I just don’t notice, like the way auto-type automatically capitalizes Christian, but does not capitalize Muslim.  This experience changed the way I looked at my multiple and intersecting identities. Although I do not think playing a game of oppression Olympics is useful, it is important to note that all of our identities matter.  It is important for me to do my work around places where I have privilege, not only personally, but also in my role as a leader. This work allows me to have compassion for others who may have a privileged identity that I do not possess and who are sometimes unaware of how their privilege may be running negatively in my direction.

Further, it is helpful to have this lens as leaders when we are making critical decisions that affect our staff and students. We must be aware of how our privilege may make it difficult for us to see how we may run our oppressor patterns towards others.

What can you do to use yourself as instrument:

  1. Build authentic relationships across differences.
  2. Pursue opportunities to place yourself in situations where you are not in the privileged group or the majority.
  3. Read books and articles that will stretch you.
  4. Embrace discomfort, this will spread the discomfort and lighten the load for those who may feel marginalized.
  5. Do take this work seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously.
  6. Never stop learning.
  7. Make it a point to connect with someone who has a different social identity than you (race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, national origin, etc.)
  8. Take risks.
  9. Be curious.
  10. Have Fun!

Finally, know that this work is a process not a destination. You will make mistakes, get disappointed, have hurt feelings, laugh, cry, get angry, laugh, get upset, laugh and smile, mess-up, laugh again. Just keep at it. Repairing our humanity is worth it. Our institutions, our students and our communities are depending on it.

I am enjoying this journey of Joi and Pain; please join me as we move forward.

Onward, Joi

Dr. Joi Lewis

Rapping and leadership

Recently I spent time with a colleague who works in diversity and inclusion. I asked her what practical advice she would offer to leaders in higher education who want to enhance their cultural competencies. It was powerful for me that her starting point is community building through trust and commitment between people, similar to our leadership competency of relationship building and trust. She shared the work of Jamie Washington, PhD., Washington Consulting Group who lists two foundations for building a diverse community.

  1. Communities are built through building relationships of trust and commitment
  2. We are all doing the best we can (most of the time)

Then we moved on to talk about a specific tool for developing effective dialogue skills that leaders can use with their teams to create an inclusive work space. RAPS (Relating, Asking, Panning and Sharing) was developed by Dr. Kathy Obear, Alliance for Change Consulting, as a way to help leaders open up dialogue and to facilitate inclusion. Examples and ideas include:

RELATE to the person or their comment/behavior

  • I relate to what you’re saying, I…
  • I have felt the same way…did something similar….
  • I remember a time when I…
  • How do others relate to that comment?
  • Who can relate?
  • What you’re saying seems to relate to what so-and-so just said

ASK about the specifics behind the person’s comment or behavior

  • Could you say more about that…Tell me more…
  • Can you give us an example of what you’re saying…
  • Help me understand what you meant by that?
  • What do you mean when you say…
  • What were you hoping to communicate with that comment?
  • Can you help me understand what your intent was when you said/did…
  • Can you give me some background on this situation…
  • How were you impacted when….
  • What were you feeling when…
  • What’s your perspective about…

PAN the environment and yourself; look for the whole picture and describe what you notice

  • I’m noticing I’m feeling…anyone else?
  • I notice a dynamic in our group…
  • I noticed how quiet everyone just got…I’m wondering what is going on for folks?
  • You seem to feel passionately about that…
  • It seems some people were impacted by that statement, am I right?
  • I’ve been noticing that people get interrupted and talked over as they try to share…
  • This response is unusual for you….I’m wondering what else is going on for you?
  • It seems my comment/behavior had an impact on you…
  • You seemed to have shut down…
  • The energy in the discussion seemed to shift after…

SHARE about yourself ~ self-disclose a story, example; your feelings or reactions

  • When I hear you say that I think/feel….
  • Just last week I…
  • I remember when I…
  • I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable…
  • I assume you meant that as a joke, but here’s the impact it had on me…
  • The dilemma I’m in is….

Where can you add a little Rapping to your leadership style?

Todd Thorsgaard

Fight or flight?

Which do I choose? How do I react when I encounter my own biases or the biases of others? What do I do when I am aware of prejudicial behaviors in the work setting? Like other members of the human race, I fight or I flee. Because of my strong feelings on racial humor I may fight and be confrontational when I encounter it. In situations related to cultural or religious differences, my own uncertainty and discomfort can lead me to avoid the issue and hope it goes away. In the long run I am not acting as a role model for inclusion by being confrontational and I am not making a true difference by avoiding! As leaders in higher education, I believe we need to expand our tool box of responses and add a third option, being a proactive “change agent.”

When I am a change agent I am proactively taking steps to promote inclusive behaviors, rather than reacting to situations. I am not on the lookout for unacceptable behaviors to confront or shying away from uncomfortable situations. I am purposely choosing to learn more, share more and take action in a supportive way. I have learned that when I confront a colleague or team member it usually leads to anger or retreat and a short term response. If I am able to give feedback in a more respectful manner we may be able to open up a dialogue and discover options for growth and change, in both of us!

I still find myself wanting to react and confront ideas or actions I disagree with or avoid those “certain sticky” issues related to diversity. It takes work but when I focus on being a role model as a change agent I know I am making difference. I try to:

  • Listen more than talk
  • Reach out and learn more about diverse cultures, backgrounds, perspectives
  • Ask questions to challenge assumptions
  • Include the input and ideas of everyone
  • Remain open-minded
  • Take action to address inappropriate behavior, in a supportive and respectful way
  • Negotiate alternatives to address conflicts
  • Demonstrate inclusive behaviors in my day-to-day actions and language

What causes you to be a fighter or an avoider? Where do you have an opportunity to become a change agent for diversity and inclusion?

Todd Thorsgaard

The institutional dimension of diversity

  • Red tape
  • Bureaucracy
  • Policies
  • Rules

How do you react when you read that list? I know that I am often frustrated by the institutional “red tape” that gets in the way of new ideas or the policies and rules that seem to limit my options. And who likes being a part of a bureaucracy?

Diversity graphic

Yet, because I work in an institution, I am able to multiply my individual contribution to higher education and to students. In the same way, building the principles and values of diversity and inclusion into our policies, rules, red tape, and even our bureaucracy will multiple our personal and academic efforts to achieve equity and excellence in higher education. The culture and infrastructure of our institutions influence the work and the lives of every faculty member, staff member and student. As leaders, our role is to hold our institutions accountable and continually assess the progress we are making in achieving success for all students and all employees.

It comes back to asking, “what can I do?” Each of us can have an impact on the institutional dimension of diversity by taking the following actions:

  1. Share the processes, policies and procedures that promote diversity with your team
  2. Create expectations for your team related to training and education on diversity
  3. As part of your leadership meetings, review and ask if the policies and procedures that promote diversity are adequate and effective
  4. Hold yourself and your team accountable to the policies and procedures promoting diversity
  5. Understand how your institutions commitment to diversity is communicated and use the process

In the end, a little bureaucracy can make a positive difference in our institutions and on all of our students.

Todd Thorsgaard


Valuing diversity, Part 2

For the next few months, we will look at the MnSCU leadership competencies associated with Leader as Relationship Builder.  Our March focus is on valuing diversity.  We’re pleased to start off with a two-part post by guest blogger Ka Vang, Diversity Programs Director.

How can leaders respond to diversity?

As leaders in higher education, we cannot ignore the changing demographic of Minnesota and the United States, which is directly impacting our system workforce and students.

  • In 2004, 1 of every 2.5 Americans was a person of color and 1 of every 1.5 children under 9-years-old was a person of color (U.S. Census Bureau).
  • Hispanic population is expected to triple from 2010 to 2050 (Pew Research Center).
  • By 2050, nearly half of the U.S. populations will be non-whites (WorkforceDiversityNetwork.com).
  • Non-whites are the majority in a significant portion of the largest 100 cities in the United States (WorkforceDiversityNetwork.com).
  • There may be up to five generations of employees in the workplace (Society for Human Resource Management).

How can leaders address the changing demographics? How do we demonstrate that we value diversity?  One solution that has worked at various higher education institutions is called the Diversity Scorecard. This model allows for strategic actions to be performed based on precise data, rather than assumptions and anecdotal evidence.  In this age of evidence-based strategic planning and outcomes, the Diversity Scorecard engages higher education institutions to bring about equity by doing the following three things:

  • Awareness: Engage in institutional self-assessment to provide a clear and unambiguous picture of inequities.
  • Interpretation: Analyze and integrate the meaning of the inequities.
  • Action: Develop strategic actions to achieve equity in educational outcomes based on data, not assumptions.

The Diversity Scorecard approach examines data through four perspectives:

  • Access
  • Retention
  • Excellence
  • Institutional Receptivity

For more information on the Diversity Scorecard:

University of Wisconsin – library of articles on the Diversity Scorecard

University of Southern California – The Center for Urban Education in the Rossier School of Education

Reflecting on the scenario in Part 1, using this approach will help you have clear and concise answers  for the reporter who asks you if you value diversity as a leaders – one that comes from the heart.

Ka Vang

Valuing diversity, Part 1

For the next few months, we will look at the MnSCU leadership competencies associated with Leader as Relationship Builder.  Our March focus is on valuing diversity.  We’re pleased to start off with a two-part post by guest blogger Ka Vang, Diversity Programs Director.

Why should leaders value diversity?

Imagine this – It is your first day in a high-level leadership position at your school.  Looking out the window, the sun is beaming bright and the birds are chirping. Everything is looking good until your phone rings. It’s a local television news reporter. Someone has written a racial epithet in your school’s women’s restroom. The reporter wants to know how you will address the racial epithet, as well as this afternoon’s student protest scheduled to bring focus to diversity-related issues at your school. She also asked the following questions: Does your school have a diversity plan? What is the graduation rate of your students of color? Do you value diversity as a leader?

Let’s unpack this scenario by focusing on the last question by the reporter: Do you value diversity as a leader?  One of the leadership competencies for a successful leader within Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is valuing diversity.  The assumption is that a leader is also a relationship builder. In order to build relationships, a leader must be able to work with and value people with various communication, age, religious, ethnic, racial and ability differences.  There are over a dozen reasons why diversity benefits the workforce, particularly in higher education, but I will focus only on a few. Diversity in your leadership will:

  • Prevent “group think” and lead to better decision making, problem solving, creativity and innovation.
  • Contribute to employee and student recruitment, retention and productivity.
  • Reflect and connect to the population your school serves.
  • Promote inclusiveness and access for historical disadvantage populations that have not been served by higher education.

As leaders, we cannot ignore diversity.  We need our employees and students to reflect our changed society. In Part 2, we’ll look at some of the ways it has changed and ways leaders can respond.

Ka Vang

Call me, maybe

You need to update a coworker on a joint project. Thtwo people on the phonee information isn’t particularly urgent, but there’s a fair amount of detail.  Do you send an e-mail message?  Make a phone call?  Or would you drop by the office and talk in person?  Does your answer change if you need a reply by tomorrow morning?

When I joined MnSCU a year ago, it wasn’t the big things that caught me off guard, it was the little day-to-day realities of functioning in a new place.  I was moving from one institution of higher education to another, and much of the organizational culture was the same.  But people in MnSCU call each other on the phone all the time!  At my previous workplace, email was the preferred communication vehicle.  People would even email each other to set up phone appointments.  In my new workplace a phone call is much more effective.  I still have a hard time picking up the phone and calling someone out of the blue, but I’m learning.

Understanding the cultural context in which the work is happening is another aspect of this month’s leadership competency, knowing oneself and others.  It allows us as leaders to communicate effectively, and also provides an opportunity to help others be successful.  I recently met with an employee who was new to higher education.  She asked me to describe three aspects of higher ed culture that she should be aware of. That was a challenging question, and the resulting conversation was valuable to both of us.  Even so, upon reflection I realized that I still hadn’t gone deep enough to surface some of the hidden assumptions that drive our work.

Understanding what it means to be part of the local culture is also important.  Our workplace is located in Minnesota.  If one of our blog readers from Japan, India, or the United Kingdom ever visited in person, they would undoubtedly find cultural differences, both big and small.  My friend Jerilyn had that experience when she moved here from the East Coast, and my friend Corey helped her talk through it.  Together, they’ve created a fun and useful web site about Minnesota Nice.  Check it out.  You may find it a valuable resource next time you work with a transplant to this area.

How can knowing your organizational and community culture help you be a better leader?  What steps can you take to learn more?

Dee Anne Bonebright