Experiential Learning Through Cultural Immersion

Inclusive Leadership
Minute Read

Diversity and inclusion is one of the most pressing issues facing companies today. But after years of rolling out initiatives that reap few to no rewards, diversity fatigue is setting in.

The numbers in Atlassian’s “State of Diversity and Inclusion in U.S. Tech” show just how much diversity fatigue is affecting the tech industry. While 80 percent of the 1,900 respondents surveyed agreed that diversity, equity and inclusion was important, individual participation in related initiatives fell by as much as 50 percent, with more than 40 percent of respondents believing their companies needed no improvement despite fewer than 30 percent of underrepresented groups experiencing representation, retention and a sense of belonging.

There are many reasons for burnout. Diversity programs are often introduced into companies that are struggling with representation already, which means filling diversity slates takes longer and requires more investment. Plus, while D&I is largely viewed by companies as valuable, leaders aren’t held accountable to progress the same way they are when it comes to earnings.

But perhaps the biggest reason for burnout is the simplest: The existing programs aren’t working. Focused more on quotas, multiyear program roll-outs and company restructuring, many of the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in play today are missing the point.

Ultimately, creating inclusive environments that foster diversity comes down to understanding and appreciating individuals as full-fledged people rather than categories, which leads teams to support and fight for equity in ways that combat fatigue.

What We Can Learn From Cultural Awareness  

Cultural awareness is a familiar term in global companies. In these companies managing employees across continents, cultural awareness means understanding that people from different cultures and backgrounds react differently to varying styles of communication, management and motivation, according to Lauren Landry’s “The Importance of Cultivating Cultural Awareness at Work.” Consequently, they need to understand those around them, and then cultivate collaboration, recognition and appreciation strategies to deepen relationships.

One of the key ingredients behind success in cultural awareness is exposure. The more employees collaborate across differences and cultural divides, the more trust and appreciation they build.

Yet so many companies don’t cultivate cultural awareness or the conditions for people to collaborate across their differences. Silos develop, even in the same four-walled offices. Even if silos don’t develop, many companies haven’t achieved critical mass, so employees don’t get the exposure they need to practically see how to solve for D&I outcomes. This leads to the phenomenon Atlassian uncovered among tech workers: Employees don’t think there’s a problem because they’re not close enough to the problem to see it.

However, there is an opportunity for elements of cultural awareness to be introduced to companies of all stripes in the form of cultural immersion. Through cultural immersion, leaders and employees not only learn the foundations of diversity, equity and inclusion, but can often apply them in real-life settings unfamiliar to them.

A Path Forward Through Experiential Learning

The case for exposure as a means of reaching diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes has held strong long before the term “DEI” existed.

In the aftermath of World War II, Harvard sociologist Samuel Stouffer found that white soldiers who fought alongside black soldiers as equals were more likely to view their counterparts as fellow soldiers, reducing bias. White soldiers who fought in segregated troops, however, did not view blacks any differently than before they fought in the war.

It turns out that working toward a common goal together in a real-life setting has a much greater impact on change than discussing thoughts around diversity, equity and inclusion in a classroom.

This is the same argument about the effectiveness of experiential learning, which has come to the fore as one of the best forms of adult learning precisely because of its emphasis on exposure and application.

This is what cultural immersion is meant to do — achieve cultural awareness through experiential learning.

Creating Deeper Bonds

One organization that has harnessed the power of cultural immersion to drive DEI outcomes for itself and its corporate partner organizations is Upwardly Global, a national nonprofit that helps recent immigrants and refugees return to their professional fields in the United States through career coaching and corporate connections.

According to Rebecca Tancredi, Upwardly Global’s national vice president of partnerships, organizations like Accenture, Starbucks and WeWork partner with the organization because it offers access to diverse pools of talent they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, as well as opportunities for employee engagement through service programs.

“A lot of companies understand that their employees are happier if they engage with service,” Tancredi said. “For these professionals, they can help our job seekers learn to interview in the U.S. style in a way that uses their professional selves.”

The experience of volunteering often leads to hiring, with volunteers learning that many of the tools used to screen out applicants, such as searching for well-known schools and companies or flagging gaps in professional experience, screen out refugees and asylees who are otherwise qualified for the roles.

“Refugees are always going to have a gap in their résumés,” Tancredi said. “If you screen them out, you’ve lost the ability to consider that pool of talent.”

Upwardly Global’s experiential programs aim to create opportunities for companies to learn more about job seekers face-to-face through practice interviews and speed networking events. With a goal of 100 corporate events this year, the organization hopes volunteers learn more about different cultures while job seekers understand what U.S. employers expect from them, regardless of whether hiring decisions are made.

Tancredi says exposure does lead to many hires, though, including in Upwardly Global’s own offices, which have hired job seekers from Peru, Iraq, Benin and Colombia, among other countries.

Designing Cultural Immersion Initiatives

When it comes to cultural immersion, there are many misconceptions.

Perhaps the most common is that it is prohibitively expensive to engage in cultural immersion because it requires taking employees to other countries to expose them to people of different cultures or backgrounds. Yet, immersion can take place in the local community or even by bringing people into a company for a daylong program that allows teams to develop rapport and relationships with those unfamiliar to them.

Regardless of the approach, cultural immersion initiatives should be designed with three steps in mind: priming, experience and action.

Priming is the practice of framing the initiative and getting participants ready to learn. This might involve providing them with an overview of key terms, engaging in perspective-setting exercises or bringing in a storyteller to share an experience.

Armed with the right tools to go into an experience through the priming step, employees should have the opportunity to work on something that exposes them to people and ideas they haven’t interacted with before. Whether meeting refugee entrepreneurs, supporting job seekers or even working with community members on solving a problem, the main purpose is to provide an experience that forms relationships by bringing different people together around a common goal.

Finally, after the experience is over, it’s important to define action steps to continue the learning. Initiative designers should help participants create an action plan for applying what they’ve learned to work and everyday life over the next seven, 14 and 30 days. They should also make sure to provide suggestions and examples for those who are still processing the information.

Time to Let the Old Ways Die

Cultural immersion’s goal is to create learning opportunities and facilitate deeper connection points between people who don’t normally interact with one another. Its blend of learning and relationships serves as a missing link necessary to drive diversity, equity and inclusion forward.

Our traditional programs are too focused on classroom-based education and rolling out symbolic messages and commitments that don’t get realized in practice. These programs trigger diversity fatigue if there aren’t enough underrepresented employees to include. Even in the companies that do have enough diversity, mutual understanding and cross-collaboration are hard to come by, hampering positive outcomes.

The established approach to DEI doesn’t take into account what really leads to change: exposure and experience.

With cultural immersion initiatives, getting to know different people with unique backgrounds and ideas leads to increases in companywide diversity, shared goals and overall feelings of belonging, representation and trust.

As Tancredi put it, “Exposure matters more than anything else. I can’t tell you how many times volunteers meet the [immigrants and refugees involved with Upwardly Global] and realize when you get to know somebody, you notice that the difference isn’t a big deal.”

Originally published by Chief Learning Officer.

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