Transphobia, Cultural Intelligence & Empathy

For the June edition of our Towards Utopia newsletter we asked Charlie Craggs to write her view on Cultural Intelligence. Charlie’s experiences and advice below are total gold – thank you Charlie!

Tired of the transphobia I faced in my everyday life, five years ago I started Nail Transphobia as a way to change the narrative. I knew it was often because people are uneducated that they don’t understand and wanted to do my bit to help build knowledge. Most people haven’t met a trans person but have misconceptions about trans people. I knew that if people had the chance to sit down and have a chat with a trans person it would help them understand and more importantly see that there’s not much to understand.

I now spend more and more time working with businesses and believe that for a leader to be a good leader they must be educated on different communities and cultures. Why? Because they will meet someone from these communities in the work environment, be it an employee or a customer, and need to understand the nuances of their lived experiences.

To get super specific, there are three reasons I believe cultural intelligence is important:

  1. So you know what not to say / what to say , ie not saying something really offensive which will both upset the person and could even require HR to get involved. Or something slightly offensive, a micro aggression like asking a black person if you can touch their hair etc., which will damage the organisations culture.
  2. So you can act accordingly when someone else in the workplace does or says something offensive like this, and is also able to recognise it before the victim comes to complain about it (whether it be subtle micro micro aggressions or blatant transphobia.)
  3. So they can lead by example, being both a role model and an ally, fostering an accepting environment and inclusive culture.

And it’s not like it’s hard to build cultural intelligence! You can read articles and books from authors from those communities or follow people on social media who make content relating to those communities. Educating doesn’t mean asking marginalised people who are tired of answering a million basic questions about their identity another million questions, ask google instead, it has probably got the answer.

And if you want to go deeper, there’s loads of ways to experience different cultures. By reading and following literature / people from these communities you’ll hear about things like protests and celebrations you can go to and experience. By immersing yourself in different cultures you’ll get a deeper understanding and with this comes empathy.

To Thrive Leaders Need Cultural Intelligence

Over the past year I’ve asked over 350 Leaders ‘Who knows what Inclusive Leadership is?’ and on average only 10% of the room raise their hands. Perhaps it’s not a surprise— Inclusive Leadership is a new phrase on the I&D block, most rigorously explored in Deloitte’s 2016 study. But it is a phrase that at Utopia we welcome with open arms — it makes uncompromisingly clear that inclusion starts with leadership and that to achieve inclusion leaders have to change.

Deloitte identify six characteristics of Inclusive Leadership and one in particularly is interesting to me; Cultural Intelligence. By Cultural Intelligence Deloitte mean that leaders have to take an active interest in learning about other cultures, seek out opportunities to experience culturally diverse environments and are confident leading cross-cultural teams.

I find this interesting as it marks a dramatic shift in how leaders have traditionally interacted with cultures or experiences they are not familiar with. Rather than it being the responsibility of the person who is different to the leader to educate the leader, it is on the leader to educate themselves.

Why this change? Let’s take a scenario I experienced 15 years ago. At the time I was leading a team of 20 people and during one busy afternoon a male member of the team asked to have a private word with me. We moved to a meeting room where he mentioned he would be observing Ramadan. My response was to ask what this meant. He explained what Ramadan was, that he would not be eating during the day, he would like a room to pray (the company at the time had no prayer rooms) and simply for me to be aware of his experience.

He patiently took the time to educate me — a kindness I feel grateful for but also embarrassed and ashamed. No matter how thoughtfully I hope I reacted I fear I failed him in two ways. Firstly as a leader it was just plain ignorant to not understand the world’s soon to be largest religion and secondly putting the onus on him to educate me had the potential to make him feel at best unsupported and at worse marginalised.

What could be learnt from my experience? In today’s knowledge-based economy the role of leaders is to bring the best out of their people and empower them to get the job done. A critical ingredient of this is to ensure everyone can authentically be themselves by feeling included and that they belong. Authenticity means energy goes into achieving the day’s tasks, not covering who you really are, which in turn leads to greater productivity. Win win.

As the world becomes more plural and to enable authenticity, leaders must have understanding of the experiences and needs of their staff whether that be during Ramadan, Hanukkah or other religious observations. And culture does not only mean religion — a leader must also understand, for example, what it means to transition from being a man to a woman or the damage a micro-aggression based on your ethnicity or sexuality can cause.

Of course questions and conversation should always be exchanged between leaders and their teams — listening to lived experiences is as important as absorbed knowledge. The difference is today questions must come from a place of educated kindness carefully built through empathy and understanding. Charlie Cragg’s companion piece gives an excellent perspective on how to achieve this — do read it.

To conclude, if you’re a leader, get educated and get culturally intelligent. Ignorance can no longer be an excuse and at its worse is bad for both business and society.

To be as helpful as possible, the Utopian way, here are Utopia’s five tips to leaders (or anyone) who wants to become more Culturally Intelligent:

  1. Know your bias: Take all the Harvard IAT tests, identify where your unconscious biases are and then work hard to overcome them. Steps 2–4 will go a long way to enable this.
  2. Educate yourself: Go to Wikipedia, or a reference you trust, and learn about different religions, cultures, experiences. Explore historical contexts and change perceptions. For example: the Trans community has existed for centuries; Neurodiversity was a critical part of humanities evolution.
  3. Go deeper: Read books that talk first-hand about experiences you may not have had. For example: Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race; or Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s Generation M: Young Muslim’s Changing The World.
  4. Meet people: Deloitte stress the need to experience culturally diverse environments so take part in your local Pride, book Charlie Craggs to do your teams’ nails as part of Nail Transphobia, attend your local community Iftar to signify the end of the days fast during Ramadan.
  5. Ask for feedback: The opposite of inclusion is exclusion and as a leader you need to know who and how you exclude. Create an anonymous feedback mechanism and ask for honest thoughts on you as a leader. Action it and then ask for feedback again 6 months later. Turn exclusion into inclusion.