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Cultural Humility: A Necessity for Inclusion in the Workplace

Author: Sinduya Sivayoganathan

Our experiences and background help define how we view the world and interact with the people and systems in it. It also influences how we are perceived and treated by those same people and systems. Because our experiences and backgrounds play such an important role in our daily lives and how we engage with others, cultural humility becomes a critical necessity for inclusion and belonging, especially in the workplace.

Cultural humility is rooted in the concept of ‘cultural competence,’ which emerged during the 1960s and 70s when healthcare providers recognized the need for cultural knowledge to provide effective care. However, the concept of cultural competence is flawed in that it implies a need to be ‘all-knowing’ about different cultures and assumes that people of one culture are a monolith. Additionally, cultural competence suggests that an individual can attain categorical knowledge about a group of people. This can lead to biases and stereotypes that falsely imply that one set of ideas applies to all in a ‘group,’ overlooking the nuances within a culture. The implication of needing to be ‘all-knowing’ denotes an “endpoint” to being culturally competent, implying that within any particular group there is only so much that can be learned. However, we know this is not true.

What Is Cultural Humility?

Cultural humility, coined by healthcare professionals Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-García in 1998, addresses the issues with cultural competence by building on its foundation. Cultural humility rejects the notion that people need to become cultural “experts” in order to respect and incorporate others’ backgrounds and realities in interactions, decisions, and systems. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) and the UPenn Centre for Health Equity, cultural humility is the lifelong commitment and the process of self-reflection and learning to understand and address personal and systemic biases as well as power imbalances between individuals. This is to develop, maintain and advocate for equitable and respectful systems and spaces. It also encourages us to develop and maintain respectful relationships based on mutual trust. 

Cultural humility focuses on encouraging us to deal with our own oppressive and harmful attitudes and actions as well as our complicity with institutional and structural oppression. It enables us to open up to understanding, respecting, and embracing other people’s experiences and realities. In other words, it emphasizes the need for people to be on a continuous learning journey when it comes to understanding, respecting, and embracing other people’s experiences and realities. This is particularly important in organizational leadership and decision-making processes that often impact many systematically excluded team members and stakeholders. 

Cultural humility can also play a big role in addressing larger societal disparities, including health disparities by incorporating cultural humility practices in benefits and wellness packages, recruitment and retention efforts to promote a diverse and inclusive workplace, and more. Research has shown that organizations that take actions to foster cultural humility often see an increased sense of belonging in the workplace. It also promotes higher levels of psychological safety, inclusive interactions and engagements, greater stakeholder wellbeing and mental health, and greater conflict resolution successes. Furthermore, cultural humility acknowledges and respects team members’ individuality, while promoting empathy, connection, and a healthier workplace culture.

How to Foster Cultural Humility in the Workplace?

Tervalon & Murray-Garcia use cultural competence as a foundation and identify three criteria necessary to develop cultural humility in the workplace. Based on this criteria, we offer some actions organizations can take to help foster cultural humility and inclusion in the workplace:

  1. A lifelong commitment to self-reflection. 

An important aspect of developing cultural humility is nurturing a lifelong commitment to self-reflection. This is a commitment to learning about one’s own and others’ cultures, backgrounds and experiences. It is also about taking on an open and curious mindset that acknowledges we are never done learning and growing. Some actions organizations can take include:

  • Encouraging team members to engage in dialogues about their experiences and cultures.
  • Creating opportunities for team members to get to know each other and build interpersonal relationships.
  • Providing team members with resources to support their learning growth.
  • Planning activities and events that celebrate cultures and provide opportunities for learning engagements. 
  1. Understanding and addressing power imbalances. 

Power imbalances are often very evident in the workplace, particularly among those who are and who are not represented in leadership and decision-making processes. Power imbalances are also exacerbated when the nature of the culture in the workplace is eurocentric and fails to understand and value the identities, backgrounds, and experiences of non-eurocentric cultures.

Understanding and addressing power imbalances requires acknowledging that we are complicit players in an unfair power structure and encourages us to help fix disparities by being respectful allies. This includes asking yourself, “How can I grow and use my understanding of my own and others’ culture and experiences to disrupt inequity and exclusion in the workplace?” A few ways organizations can help team members understand and address power imbalances in the workplace include:

  • Offering resources for team members to better understand the history of discrimination and oppression, as well as the impact it continues to have on systemically excluded groups and cultures today.
  • Providing opportunities for team members to engage in brave conversations about their power, privilege, and the responsibilities that come with it.
  • Including team members in conversations about how one can develop and evaluate culturally relevant and appropriate interventions to advance equity and inclusion.
  • Offer leaders opportunities to come together and reflect on the power and privilege they may hold and assess what role they have in addressing power imbalances, fostering cultural humility, and creating an inclusive and equitable workplace.
  1. Institutional Accountability

Holding the workplace and it’s systems accountable for providing inclusive and equitable spaces ensures that cultural humility is impactful and truly creates an equitable and inclusive workplace. It’s about asking yourself, “how can I work on an institutional level to ensure the systems I am a part of or engage with will work towards nurturing further equity and inclusion?” Examples of some actions include:

  • Offering team members opportunities to participate and contribute to DEI work.
  • Collecting and analyzing data about organizational practices, policies, programs, services, and community partnerships through a DEI lens.
  • Developing goals, KPIs, and action plans that incorporate cultural humility to stay accountable.
  • Reviewing policies and practices for bias and rewriting them to make them reflective of various stakeholders’ cultures, customs, behaviors, and information needs.

Cultural humility is critical in ensuring we can work to disrupt the harm oppression and ignorance can cause and help build systems and spacesthat are inclusive of all. It is a reminder to organizations that their stakeholders’ culture matters and an opportunity for leaders and team members to foster inclusion and belonging, manage bias, and embrace other people’s experiences and realities. 

Organizations have a critical responsibility to ensure equitable and inclusive workplaces, and cultural humility plays a vital role in doing so. More importantly, it is important to remember that cultural humility is not only for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders or advocates. It’s for everyone. 

Book a call with one of our associates today to learn more about how you can foster cultural humility in the workplace!

Header and Feature Image by Brett Zeck on Unsplash ❤️

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