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Culturally Responsive Leadership

Bridging Divides in a Polarized World

Organizations of all kinds – businesses, non-profits, and government – are more diverse than ever before. People from different cultures, lifestyles, languages, genders, and opinions can and need to work together in an age of social media and news headlines about tensions and scandals – fueling the need for inclusive leadership.

Collaboration in teams

But how can leaders bridge the divides to get the most out of their teams? Some valuable clues for leaders and organizations might come from the field of education – which has been examining and testing ideas for decades. 

One research-backed method that I have successfully used to bridge relationships with and among diverse students in my 20+ years working in urban schools is culturally responsive teaching. This approach can easily be carried over from the teacher/student relationship to leaders and employees to foster increased relationships, engagement, and a general sense of belonging and perceived value by team members. Here’s what it might look like for leaders:

  1. Assess your own behavior and biases as a leader. Often, we are unaware of the subtle biases we hold and how our behaviors (including nonverbal behaviors, body language, and quick decisions) may be sending an unintended message. In other words, we are often blind to our own biases – even when our intentions are excellent. Many people have found the Implicit Association Test, (run by a partnership out of Harvard) to be a fascinating starting point to assess personal biases. 
  2. Don’t try to be color blind. Best practices in cultural responsiveness suggest that rather than being “color blind” or suggesting we “don’t see differences,” individuals feel more respected when we recognize the legitimacy and legacies that affect people’s dispositions, attitudes, and approaches. While we should be careful not to generalize expectations of people based upon outward characteristics, we can become aware of what individuals bring to the table and respect and value those contributions.Rather than seeing difference as a deficit, figure out what you don’t know and help your team leverage differences in order to innovate and grow.
  3. Build bridges of meaningfulness between home-life and work-life expe­riences. With employees spending more time engaging in work activities outside of the office, the lines between home-life and work-life are blurring for many individuals. When work-related tasks are more relevant and meaningful to the realities of employees beyond the work place, the buy-in, commitment, and motivation will likely yield better productivity as well as a higher level of satisfaction in the work place. One way to do this is to ask employees about their work style preferences. How do they best prefer to communicate? What is most valuable to them? What motivates them to want to succeed in their career and how can you tap into those connections through flexibility in the work place?
  4. Foster a workplace where colleagues come to know and praise their own and each others’ cultural heritages. Encourage opportunities for employees to explore and find value in their own unique cultures as well as those of their colleagues. In doing so, people may realize they have more things in common than expected. Allow opportunities for self-reflection and sharing and create a space where honest conversation about difficult topics is encouraged and supported.

Leaders set the tone. Much like children in schools learn better when they feel respected, understood, connected, and included, adults will be more productive and committed when they feel valued.

In these challenging and divisive times, creating a culturally responsive workplace is an important step to getting the best out of everyone on your team.


About the writer

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Dr. Elizabeth D. Cramer
Professor and Online Graduate Program Director at FIU's College of Arts, Sciences & Education.