How organisations can build cultural agility

To accelerate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace, business leaders should implement practices based on science, not fad, says Paula Caligiuri

In the past year, we have seen widespread corporate responses from senior executives denouncing police brutality and racial and gender inequity, and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. These employers have their finger on the pulse of their staff – about 80 per cent of employees surveyed want business leaders to use their platform and take a stand to end police violence, condemn racial inequity and prioritise diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

However, there is a difference between vetted corporate communications condemning inequity and the talent management practices that have the power to make real progress. Only the latter, rooted in science, can make an actual difference. 

To appear action-oriented, many ineffective diversity and inclusion practices, such as unconscious bias training, have become an ill-advised fad in organisations. The best-case scenario is that this training teaches employees that our brains take mental shortcuts, forming subjective perceptions in about one-tenth of a second, faster than we can rationally make a judgement. We need to actively slow down our judgements and decision making.

Unfortunately, research shows that unconscious bias training could be making matters worse. Employees, now nervous that their ‘bias’ will activate, remove themselves from interactions with people who are demographically different, the very interaction that has the potential to build cultural agility. This is the vicious cycle.   

I have worked with numerous organisations to develop practices designed to cultivate a culturally agile, inclusive workforce. In training, I allot about five minutes to explain the brain’s fast, faulty and inaccurate processor, always avoiding the word ‘bias’. Unconscious bias training cannot reduce inequity in organisations, regardless of how well-intended (or well-rated) the training. Companies need proven practices to actively foster cultural agility.  

Here are five examples of effective HR practices:


Leaders can promote longer deliberations and support an environment that welcomes feedback. This will be a challenge for high-performance cultures, as those organisations tend to disdain taking time to consider multiple perspectives.


Hire people with cultural agility. Culturally agile individuals have the capacity to manage their split-second subjective perceptions and have achieved this by actively seeking out multicultural experiences. A greater number of culturally agile employees in your organisation will foster a more inclusive environment. 


Help employees find common ground by cultivating opportunities to increase perceptions of similarity. Decades of research, including my own, have shown that this single change fosters people to have greater regard for each other. For example, watch how two strangers become instantly connected once they realise they have the same birthday. The ability to find similarities is a skill. To help employees develop this skill, structure ways for employees to find commonalities. 


There should be zero tolerance for anyone who engages in overtly biased acts or any leader who allows structural or systemic biases to continue under their watch. Only strong leaders who model equity and inclusion can effect change. If you are a leader of leaders, reproach those who are proud to hire people from the same alma mater, town, club, fraternity/sorority, etc, unless those entities are regarded as highly integrated and comfortably multicultural. 


As Peter Drucker famously noted: “What gets measured, gets managed.” This is true in all aspects of business, no less so for equity, inclusion and cultural agility. Learn from employees by conducting staff surveys and holding focus groups. Find ways to measure perceptions of racism, sexism, ageism or any other-ism that keeps people from feeling like they belong, through whatever process, or processes, will work best in your organisation. It is also important to evaluate positive perceptions to learn if employees feel they can be their total and authentic selves at work every day. Find pockets of excellence that can be emulated throughout the business.

I am not naive to think that changes within companies can end systemic inequity everywhere and for everyone. It is a behemoth of a problem. Nonetheless, we can take an important step by implementing practices that rely on science (not fad) to successfully foster cultural agility, equity and inclusion.  

The time to act is now. The pandemic has increased stress levels, heightening feelings of insularity and exclusion. While it is natural for us to cling to familiarity when under stress, this retreat into comfort has also made us more tribal. Turning around this negative trend requires proven strategies, rooted in science.  

Paula Caligiuri is a D'Amore-McKim School of Business distinguished professor of international business at Northeastern University, president of TASCA Global and author of Build Your Cultural Agility