In Clarkston, GA where I used to work, there are refugees from all over the world. Today a colleague and I fantasized what it would have been like if we had actually been able to have the space and time to bring leaders together and ask them about the way that meetings are held in their home cultures. What’s the structure, the timing, the flow and the feel? We were musing on the fact that most of the refugee leadership development programs that we had been privy to imposed American meeting structure and goals on everyone.

The unspoken assumption was that our mainstream American operating culture would be the one that would be used. But wouldn’t it have been interesting if the leaders were able to reflect on their own cultural practices, share them with the group and then the group would decide collectively on how they would like to see meetings run? This would include deciding day and time, setting their own goals as to what they want to learn and, most importantly, how the meetings would be run and how information would be shared.

To my knowledge, none of the leadership development processes included sharing of the wisdom of the participant’s own culture and drawing upon it. Food, yes – that was always a big part! But culture goes so much deeper than food. It’s also much harder to describe.

Our cultures unfold in ways that we are not always conscious of – it’s our background schema, or subconscious foundational understanding that we have developed over the course of our years of experience. We know when we feel comfortable or ill at ease but we can’t always describe it or know what is causing the comfort or discomfort. It is like the fish being aware of the water.

Creating a truly inclusive organization means that participants become aware of the water in which we swim; become aware of our background assumptions and understandings that have shaped us. We have to describe and understand the organisational culture that “just is” and from there we can work towards expanding our schema to make space for additional ways of being together. In the ideal picture, it’s a collaborative unfolding – no one person or department is imposing “their” way of being; it’s creating processes that allow not only for multiple different voices, but for multiple ways of actually hearing those voices.

And then we can talk about the awesome food we are sharing too!

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