As the world continues to become increasingly interconnected through trade and technology, many organizations are identifying opportunities to find new stakeholders and diversify their business by expanding operations globally. While providing exciting growth opportunities, going global also presents significant cultural challenges and executives must be mindful. Adopting a mindset of cultural humility is essential for successfully navigating different cultural norms, values, and business practices when working internationally.
Cultural humility involves maintaining an open, respectful attitude toward different cultures. It requires acknowledging that your own cultural perspective is not universal and being willing to learn from and adapt to the local cultural context. Practicing cultural humility is especially important when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
DEI issues are perceived very differently around the world. Policies and programs that seem logical and beneficial from a U.S. cultural standpoint may be confusing, inappropriate, or even offensive in other countries. For example, terms like “Latinx” intended to be inclusive to folks who identify as Latin-American and beyond the gender binary in the United States are often seen as alienating in Latin American countries due to the linguistic “imposing” of the letter “x.”Discussions about systemic racial inequity that make sense in the U.S. may not resonate in parts of Europe and Africa, where gender or women’s inequality may be more relevant. For example, today in Belgium, gender inequality is one of the top issues in the national discussion.
Associations and other organizations seeking to expand globally cannot just export their current DEI approaches unchanged. Doing so risks backlash from local partners and customers. DEI goals developed solely from an American cultural perspective will likely miss the mark.
Instead, nonprofits looking to go global need to incorporate a broader, more inclusive worldview into their DEI policies. Here are some tips on how to do that effectively:
Research thoroughly – Before entering a new market, extensively research its history, demographics, cultural values and societal issues. Identify how DEI topics like race, gender, sexual orientation and disabilities are perceived locally. Understanding the cultural context will allow adapting DEI initiatives appropriately.
Engage local partners – Work closely with on-the-ground partners who understand the culture intimately. Get their input to shape DEI programs that align with local norms and needs. Be willing to modify initiatives significantly.
Listen first – Enter new markets with cultural humility, recognizing that your perspective is limited. Avoid assumptions. Listen closely to local people’s views on diversity issues to determine what resonates before proposing solutions.
Customize training – When providing DEI education globally, offer culturally customized versions. Training on unconscious bias or equitable hiring developed for a U.S. audience needs adaptation for relevance in other cultures.
Highlight shared values – Anchor DEI efforts in universal values like inclusiveness, respect, and fairness. This creates common ground across cultures. Emphasize where U.S. and local priorities overlap rather than just exporting an American agenda.
Think globally – Develop some DEI initiatives that can work globally across operations. Initiatives promoting women in leadership or serving customers with disabilities often have international applicability if handled sensitively.
Don’t compromise – While tailoring execution, don’t compromise core DEI principles. Fair treatment, equal access and respect for all remain relevant worldwide even if specific programs require localization.
Incorporate local voices – Intentionally add people representing different geographies, cultures and perspectives to your senior management team, Board of Directors and the teams shaping global DEI policies. This builds in diverse viewpoints from the start.
Measure carefully – Use culturally appropriate metrics to assess DEI progress and create data-driven action plans globally. U.S. measures around representation or equity may not apply universally. Define success locally.
Update strategies – View DEI efforts in new markets as works in progress and update them regularly based on your cultural insights learned through normal business operations. Continuously evaluate what resonates versus what misses the mark and update your organizational global strategy to include these elements.
Lead by example – With almost 80% of workers expressing interest in working for companies that value DEI in a recent CNBC Workforce Survey, it’s clear that looking internally and committing to DEI from all levels of your organization—especially your leadership—could enhance a culture of belonging at home and sustain higher momentum for DEI efforts abroad.
Adopting a culturally humble mindset opens the door to expanding globally in an inclusive, ethical way. Respecting local cultural perspectives and business norms is key. With thoughtful adaptation guided by on-the-ground partners, associations and other nonprofits can spread their mission worldwide while living their DEI values.