ADVICE: How to develop and foster cultural intelligence

The business and financial benefits of diverse workforces and leadership teams are evident in the latest research, yet many businesses still struggle with hiring, empowering, and promoting diverse talent.

This is where Wesa Chau, CEO of Cultural Intelligence, intends to make a difference. In this interview, she shares why she started her consultancy, the challenges she faces at work, and her views on unconscious bias and how to manage it in the workplace.

  • Why did you originally start Cultural Intelligence and how have your goals for the consultancy evolved over time?

I started Cultural Intelligence after working in the multicultural Not for Profit (NFP) sector and started to feel frustrated by the lack of innovation in the sector and as I was using my managing consulting hat (that was my first job), there are many more things the sector can learn from the corporate sector on training and using an evidence-based approach to improve. 

When I first started, my clientele was mostly NFP and government organisations because that was where my networks were, however that has shifted to more corporate and University clients. The shift also happened because corporate Australia has started to have the appetite to talk about cultural diversity (extending from gender diversity).

Now Cultural Intelligence spends more effort on evidence-based approaches and data-driven approaches to cultural diversity, rather than “fluffy” talks about the importance of cultural diversity which is hard to get businesses on board. 

For example, last year, we launched our research on Asian-Australian leadership in Australia. The approach we took was not simply about the number of Asian-Australians in leadership roles (or lack thereof), but to understand the natural workstyles of Asian-Australians so we can have a much more nuanced conversation about what skills and contributions Asian-Australians bring into the workplace.

The cultural diversity I see is an imbalance of power structurally and so my consultancy helps organisations create processes and policies to balance out the power imbalance to ensure people from different cultures feel equal.

  • How have your personal experiences impacted the way you manage your business and deliver your services? 

I think personal experience will always impact the way businesses are managed and the services delivered.

For me, I come from an engineering and commerce background, so using data and tools are natural to me and so even for a human related topic such as cultural diversity, I still enjoy looking at data and interpret the data in a human way. What the NFP sector has taught me was the empathy, listening and to always understand things from an individual’s perspective. 

So all my experiences inform my work, the education in engineering and commerce taught me the tools and an analytical mind, whereas my NFP experience taught me the human experience, so I combine the positive aspects of each of the areas and bring a new way to look at cultural diversity – and a different narrative to talk about the topic.

  • When working with professionals and executives to understand the benefits of cultural diversity, what are the biggest challenges and how do you overcome them? 

One of the key challenges to get people to think about cultural diversity is the lack of interest and feeling people are being pressed to do “too much diversity”, because we have just been talking about gender diversity where corporate Australia is finally starting to understand the importance of it, but rather than patting them on the back, some feel like people are slapping on another form of diversity. 

My message to them is always, if you really do diversity well – gender, culture, disability, age and more – then we don’t need this conversation, but simply looking at the face of corporate Australia shows that they still don’t do it well.

Not having people of colour in teams and in senior roles highlights that the team does not value different insights and perspectives, because people born into a different culture have different lived experiences that cannot be replicated by people who have never lived it. For me therefore, diversity is more than just about skin colour, it is about better decision making.

This is one reason why I need a different narrative to talk about the issue. The business case yes, but I wanted to show that Asian-Australians are more natural at certain workstyles and skills compared to others. So our research showed that Asian-Australians are more natural at solving programs (especially in data interpreting). This is critical in the 21st century – the data-driven century and it has just becoming even more important after covid-19 where more and more businesses are shifting their operations online.

  • Is unconscious bias inevitable? Why or why not?

Unconscious bias is normal for humans, it is how our brain works to help us to protect us, so we should not think it’s just bad. However, what we need to do is to understand our own bias and be able to manage our responses, so we do not unintendedly disadvantage a certain group. 

For example, I hear people say “I’m colour blind” (meaning they don’t care about others’ ethnicity), I just look at their work, but what if people behave differently but it is understood by another group in a different way?  For example, some people do not look people in the eye to show respect, but in Australia that would be perceived as shifty or rude. For a “colour blind person”, they are likely to see this person not looking at them as rude, that is the bias of perceiving eye contact to mean rude.

Our biases build from how we were taught as kids, which uses a frame that fits in the society we live in – i.e. rude people do not look at me in the eye – so to remove that takes conscious efforts. We can only overcome the biases when we withhold judgement on another person based on behaviour, assume the best from the other, and probe deeper at every human interaction.

There is also an Implicit Association Test based at Harvard University that everyone can test to check your own unconscious bias. It is a great one, because it helps you understand your own biases. It is only through knowing about them that you can manage your responses. Again I want to stress to not be too hard on yourself, because we all have biases. It is about how you manage your own responses to biases.

  • Have you ever met someone you felt was not open to cultural diversity, and not worth convincing otherwise?

One thing I have learned over the years is not to take things personally.  Even if I feel I’m having tense discussions with people about cultural diversity and do not feel they are open to it, you never know what seed you have planted. 

Whilst there are people with whom I felt was wasting my time at the time, I later found out that our conversations have planted a seed and a few years later they said to me the conversation we had made them think more about it and changed them somewhat. 

I’m much more compassionate about where they are at in their journey nowadays and am willing to engage with anyone (including some tense conversations) about cultural diversity. I would recommend people to have discussions with all people, however I must say to have conversations with people who are totally against cultural diversity are always difficult conversations, because sometimes they trigger my emotional responses and I get angry. I’m much better at it now, so I can still have interesting conversations with people and not make judgements about people too quickly.

  • For those currently struggling with finding an appropriate way to bring up a lack of cultural diversity in their teams or organisations, what’s your advice? 

There is no one way to do it, it depends on the context you are in – who you are talking to, the support networks you have, your workplace, how it impacts on your role, how confident you are, and more. These all impact how you might bring it up.

I ran a session to explore these issues at the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit run by ANU, PwC and Asialink. People within the session suggested all these ways can work depending on the context: having allies, finding mentors and sponsors, having empathy, don’t internalise conversations, finding friends, setup networks within the workplace, educate people by sharing personal stories, try working out their strategic objectives and relate your cause to that, build other alliances (e.g. women networks, LGBTI networks), etc.

Personally, I will assess the power dynamics of the situation you are in as the first step before developing a strategy to get there. One thing that definitely is required is thick skin – keep bringing it up at the right moments and do not give up, because it is a long battle.  Just think how long it took the gender movement to achieve what they have and still not quite fully achieved, we have only started to get some traction, which means we have a while to go. 

Whilst it is hard, it is important to maintain compassion with people who have not yet joined the journey because they never had our lived experiences and some genuinely do not understand it. We need to keep educating them.


About the expert

Wesa Chau is an experienced manager, board director, speaker, trainer and specialist consultant on cultural diversity.

Wesa is the CEO of Cultural Intelligence, a specialist consulting firm that help organisations better understand cultural diversity and its impacts on design, decision making, customer service, messaging and policy setting. In her capacity as Director of Cultural Intelligence, Wesa has worked with clients ranging from government departments, educational institutions, corporations and not for profit organisations.

As a board director, Wesa’s diverse experiences include serving on the boards of Carers Victoria, Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria and InTouch – Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence. She is currently a board member of Glenuc (Holmesglen Foundation), the Victorian Ministerial Council on Women’s Equality and the Multicultural Business Ministerial Council.

Wesa was named as the 2010 Young Victorian of the Year for her commitment to gender equality, cultural diversity and social cohesion has been recognised through the Australian Leadership Award and an inductee of the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

Wesa is currently undertaking her PhD at Swinburne University understanding what political skills are and how people develop them. She holds a Masters in Business Management, Graduate Diploma in Law and Bachelors of Engineering and Commerce with majors in software engineering and marketing. Wesa is also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and is a qualified teacher.