March 16, 2015
Sara Taylor

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz!” This is how Cheryl described her change in mindset. “You know the scene where it changes from the grainy black and white images to the full high-definition color?” Cheryl was a leader that had worked to develop her Cultural Competence. She described how she didn’t even realize that she was blind to the rich complexity of differences around her until she changed her mindset. Once she was able to see that complexity she was able to respond to it more effectively. “It’s not that it wasn’t there before, it’s just that I couldn’t see it. When I couldn’t see it, I was missing out.”

Cheryl could easily see that it’s about effectiveness. Today’s Cultural Competence isn’t just about teaching when you should bow or shake hands, it’s about our ability to interact effectively across difference. It’s also what every workplace needs more of. As we can see in Cheryl’s example, building Cultural Competence requires more than just developing a skillset. It also requires we change our mindset. In that way, it is unlike building any other competence we work to develop in the workplace.

Think of any other area you are competent in—photography, creating a spreadsheet, gardening. In each of these competencies, we can define distinct levels of ability from beginner to advanced and professional. The number of levels may vary, but what is consistent is that you can clearly distinguish those distinct levels. The same is true for Cultural Competence. In fact, we can distinguish five distinct levels of this ability. As we move through those levels our effectiveness increases.

Here’s where the similarity ends. Unlike photography or spreadsheet building or any other competence we build, with Cultural Competence as we develop our skillset we are also changing our mindset. When we move from beginner to advanced photography we don’t have a different worldview. With Cultural Competence we do. Our worldview actually changes from one stage to another.

This is why building our Cultural Competence is so complex. We have to pay attention to both the mindset as well as the skillset. Building a skill is more of a transactional activity while changing a mindset is more transformative.  Since we know that higher stages of cultural competence are more effective, that means that if you want to be more effective, you have to change your mindset.

We’ve taken the five mindsets and labeled them A-E and mixed them up. See if you can put them in order of development from least effective to more effective. (The answers are below)

Mindset A: “A focus on differences divides; A focus on similarity unites” 

Mindset B: “I have my own unique cultural background, and so does everyone else. No one point of view is better than another; the more different voices we can include, the better off we’ll be.”

Mindset C: “Some cultures and points of view are obviously more right than others. If you deny that, you’re just being dishonest.”

Mindset D: “It’s important to approach people from where they are, so I shift my behavior when appropriate. The last thing I want to do is to unknowingly force my cultural view on someone else.”

Mindset E: “I’m not really interested in experiencing ‘cultural differences.’ I’m fine just the way I am, thanks.”



Answer: E, C, A, B, D



January 17, 2014
Sara Taylor

Trying to get from point A to point B quickly? A map is usually a good idea. Fortunately, in our Cultural Competence work today, we have a great map that tells us both where we are as well as where we want to be. It’s Milton Bennett and Mitch Hammer’s Intercultural Development Inventory. It marks our stage of development based on the Cultural Competence framework of Bennett’s DMIS. Unfortunately, that map of the IDI also tells us that over 95% of us are not where we want to be. That is, we want to be much more culturally competent than we actually are. In fact nearly 70% of us are stuck in the third of five stages of development, lacking the ability to move into the culturally competent fourth and fifth stage where less than 15% of the population resides. It’s almost as though when we enter into this third stage we fall into a quagmire that slows our development and holds us in this last of the ineffective stages.

 The difference between the third and fourth stage is significant. In fact, when I lay out the stages on a continuum, I draw a line between the third and fourth stage and refer to them as left side/right side. It is only when we are operating on the right side, the fourth and fifth stages that we are effective in our interactions across difference. We begin to see the full complexities of differences that are at play and, eventually, are able to adjust to them. On the left side, the first three stages we take on a monocutlural mindset while the right side we take on a multicultural mindset.

So how do we advance this seemingly immovable mass of 70% of the population from the ineffective left side to the more effective right side? We focus on the key developmental shifts that need to take place in order to advance the mindsets and skillsets. These key developmental shifts are:  

Left Side  

Right Side  

Conscious or sub-conscious determination of right & wrong

Awareness, accountability and non-evaluative assessment

Bias is bad; I’m not biased

Intentional preference

Treat everyone equally

Complex differentiation

Inability to see behavior/value decoupling

Ability to decouple behaviors and values

Discomfort with identifying or focusing on differences

Comfortable pointing out differences

Golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated

Platinum rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated

Committed Dualism

Committed Relativism

When we fully understand each of these key developmental shifts and continually drill the right side mindsets and skillsets we can be much more efficient as we develop our Cultural Competence. Much like the new GPS that not only warns of the delays where everyone else is getting stuck in traffic, the key developmental shifts also offer alternative routes to get me much more quickly to where I want to go: greater effectiveness and competence.

October 24, 2013
Sara Taylor

This is for the well-intentioned: those of you that don’t want to offend, those that aspire to be fair and treat others respectfully. In my experience, that’s the vast majority of us. The harsh reality for the well-meaning is that, regardless of our intentions, our biases often and unknowingly determine how we perceive others, the situations we’re in and how we respond and interact.

The fact that this happens many times unintentionally is the frustrating reality. Our brains operate so quickly and innocently jump to misperceptions. The question then becomes, how can we be faster than our brains? To dissect what goes on in that split-second, we can look at the three levels of observation. At deepSEE, we use the SEE model to explain those level and we start with a simple activity. Keep in mind that as you read through this activity you are aware that it is an activity used to illustrate bias. In that regard you will likely be more conscious of biased perceptions. However, when we do this activity with groups, they are unaware of the purpose and thus approach it, as we all typically approach every moment and situation, with our biases unchecked.

We begin by showing the picture below and ask participants to describe the picture with as many items or statements as they can.

We’ve shown this image to hundreds of groups. Each compiles a long list of descriptions and usually those descriptions are fairly similar. The typical, though slightly abbreviated list looks like this:

•    Happy family
•    6 people and a dog
•    Grandmother sitting on the floor/ground
•    Loving son and father
•    Angry boy in the back
•    Dog-lovers
•    Tattered rug and picture on wall
•    Warm climate
•    Ethnic family, possibly African or Caribbean
•    Woman on floor is more stylish

After generating the list, we show them the SEE model: See, Explain, Evaluate to describe the three levels of observation. Only the first level of See is without bias. It is the level of objective information gathering and limited only what we actually see. The second level, Explain, adds the first layer of bias. It is more subjective based on our experiences, culture and values, to name a few. This level is what we think we see or observe. The final level, Evaluate, adds even more bias and judgment. It’s how we think and feel about what we think we see.

What does it matter? The farther we move into the second and third levels of Explain and Evaluate, the more our bias is determining our thoughts and actions and the more likely the chance of misperception. After explaining the three levels, we then ask the group to look at their list of descriptors to identify those that were without bias—those that stopped at the first level of See. Typically, it’s one or two out of a flip chart full of descriptors. In the list above, the only See description without bias is “6 people and a dog.” Keep in mind that these are all well-intentioned people, yet the vast majority of their thoughts went to the levels where bias resides. That’s because that’s what our brains are designed and trained to do.

What do we do about it? Since there’s no off switch for these second levels of observation, we need to learn how to work with them. The first step is moving the discussion about bias out of the realm of blame and shame. It’s something all of our brains do. When we accept that, we can approach awareness of our biases more openly. The second step is becoming more aware of the drivers of the second and third levels: our culture, experiences, values and beliefs. Only when we are fully aware of how these drivers control our perceptions and misperceptions, are we able to stop them when they get in the way. Only then are we able to be faster than our brains.

October 4, 2013
Sara Taylor

 Developing our Cultural  Competence, requires new mindsets and new skillsets. The model that best helps us understand those mindsets and skillsets is Milton Bennett’s DMIS (Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity) which describes five stages of developing competence.

Denial:  Doesn’t see difference.

Polarization: Begins to see difference and typically doesn’t like it, putting one group above another.

Minimization: Assumes similarity and minimizes difference. 

Acceptance: Clearly sees the differences without judgment.

Adaptation: Shifts or adapts behavior to match the cultural behavior of others.

Unfortunately, nearly 70% of us are stuck in Minimization, the middle stage of competence, and the advancement to the fourth stage of Acceptance is difficult and complex. A correlating model that helps us understand one of the key developmental shifts that takes place as we move from Minimization into Acceptance is William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development. His model, also developmental, lays out four stages of intellectual development as he witnessed them in college students.

 Dualism: a sense that there is one right answer or perspective 

Multiplicity: consideration of other perspectives

Relativism: the right answer may be relative and ambiguity is a given

Committed Relativism: Adheres to one particular perspective and fully considers the validity of other perspectives

 These stages hold similarities to the stages of the DMIS. Much more importantly, understanding the concept of committed relativism can be especially valuable as we try to make the significant developmental shift from Minimization to Acceptance.

 To better understand how we get stuck in Minimization, it’s important to understand where we’re coming from: Polarization. This second stage has an us/them, good/bad mindset. As such, we pay attention to differences and categorize them positively or negatively. When we move out of Polarization, we want to distance ourselves from that mindset and instead adhere to what I call the minimization mantra “a focus on differences divides; a focus on similarity unites.”

 While nearly 70% of us may be operating from that mantra, it unfortunately is not the most effective. In fact, the next stage of Acceptance not only requires that we do focus on differences, but that we are able to see those differences on a complex level and with non-evaluative judgement.

 As mentioned, the concept of Committed Relativism can help us make this developmental shift, particularly in seeing the Polarization notions of good/bad and us/them from a different perspective.

 Relativism: Those individuals that are struggling with the concept of relativism have a difficult time letting go of the notion of good/bad. It is difficult for them to not see particular perspectives or behaviors as either right or wrong.

The most common example that I hear is “How can you say that some practices are ok? I will never be ok with the submission of women, for example. It’s just not right.” The belief is that moving into the stage of acceptance requires approval or agreement with all cultural practices and beliefs when in actuality, it requires us to look at those practices or beliefs more fully and in a non-evaluative way.  When we are able to see the differences as relative—to the multiple contexts of a culture’s history, geography, system of matriarchy/patriarchy, religion, and so on—we’re able to see how others arrived at the behavior and belief that they have. I may not agree, but I understand how they got there so I can begin to see it in a non-evaluative way: not good or bad, just different. This is one of the key mindsets of Acceptance.

 Committed: Conversely, individuals that are grappling with the concept of Commitment are having difficulties because they associate that commitment with the us/them mentality from Polarization that they want to distance themselves from. The sub-conscious thought process for many is, “I’m trying to connect with this person, so I don’t want to point out how their behaviors or values are different from mine and thus highlight the us/them nature of our relationship. A similar manifestation is a discomfort with differentiation because in their past stage of development, individuals tied that differentiation to a judgment. My group is good; their group is bad. To move beyond that, we hear statements such as “I’m proud to say that I’m a color-blind leader and treat all my staff the same.” Essentially, this mindset operates on the premise that identifying a difference (us/them) means you’re inherently attaching a value to that difference (good/bad).  Understanding the concept of commitment can help individuals move through this developmental challenge into acceptance because it actually helps individuals better understand the “them” and lessen the gap between the differences. That is because commitment comes after fully considering the perspective, values and behaviors of others in a non-evaluative way—this, also, the mindset of Acceptance.

 Thus, the concept of Committed Relativism gives us a new lens through which to see the stage of Acceptance. It becomes the stage of development in which we are fully able to consider the relativity of other perspectives and viewpoints enough to be able to see them in a non-evaluative way and enough to be able to fully commit to our own perspective, having considered those other options. It is a stage that is advanced enough to see that commitment can come along with a notion of relativity, the stage in which we are open to other perspectives yet sure of our own. Most importantly, it is the stage in which we begin to be more consistently effective in our interactions across difference.



September 20, 2013
Sara Taylor

It’s the kind of response to D&I work that I most love to hear, “I get it now! I see how this touches literally everything that I do and everything that our organization does. We need it in order to be successful.”  This particular quote came from a CEO of a large organization referring to Culture and Cultural Competence and it came after work in his organization to explain the complexities of the two.

His “Aha moment” is even more striking because, as a successful and seasoned African American leader he had championed Diversity and Inclusion work for several decades. Yet, in his words, he still didn’t “get it” until he started to build his Cultural Competence. He’s not alone. More and more leaders and D&I practitioners are starting to realize that Cultural Competence is the piece they’ve been missing to take their own performance or their D&I work to the next level.

Much of this is thanks to developments in this field over the last several years. Those developments have moved the work from the classroom of expat and study abroad training focusing on country-specific differences to the Board room and C-Suite focusing on Key Developmental Shifts© necessary for individual and organizational high performance.

This change started with a broader definition of cultural differences beyond those that are easy to see such as race, ethnicity, gender or language to include the complex differences that shape our values, perceptions and expectations which, in turn, drive our behavior. These differences are more difficult to see so it’s easy to understand why so many of us miss them. In fact, we know that nearly 90% of us can’t see these cultural differences, much less respond to them effectively.*  

This broader definition of culture requires a more comprehensive definition of Cultural Competence. As I define it, Cultural Competence is the ability to interact effectively across difference. Consider that every interaction is a cultural interaction. When we build cultural competence skills in the individuals of our organizations, we ensure greater effectiveness in those interactions—interactions where decisions are made; customers are served; innovation is created. What leader wouldn't want greater effectiveness and success in each of those individual interactions happening in their organization every day?

Moreover, Cultural Competence isn’t just an individual skill; it’s an organizational skill as well. An organization with greater Cultural Competence is going to be more successful reaching new markets, creating engaging environments, even responding to change and driving innovation, to name a few of the benefits.

So why aren’t all organizations involved in this work? One reason could be because it’s a relatively new and developing practice, but the more likely reason is that more than 95% of us think we don’t need it. I’m not just picking that number out of the air. That’s an actual statistic of the number of individuals that think they are significantly more culturally competent than they actually are.*

Much of that stems from the fallacy that exposure to or comfort with differences equals competence. In what other area would we say this is true? Would we put someone in a room with a bunch of math geniuses, make them feel comfortable and assume they would emerge a mathematician?   As with any other proficiency, in order to be more effective, we need to do intentional developmental work. That is the work of Cultural Competence.

*As measured by the Intercultural Development Inventory