HR Administration

Interculturalism vs. Diversity: Why Both Are Critical to D&I Success

By Susana Rinderle

May. 29, 2013

WF_WebSite_BlogHeaders-12Do you know the difference between diversity and interculturalism? Do you know why you should?

The answer to the second question is that wisdom from both fields is critical to the superior success of any D&I initiative, program or training, but few organizations or consulting firms draw on both. The first step to changing this is to know the answer to the first question.

Interculturalism was born out of the work of enlightened anthropologists and sociologists in the mid-20th century and put into practice largely to equip American elites (diplomats and business executives) to be successful in communicating and achieving goals with their counterparts in other nations. Basic intercultural concepts include dimensions on which cultures and individuals fall at varying points on a continuum (such as individualism and collectivism), and the importance of values and how these drive behavior and manifest differently from culture to culture.

The diversity field  —  increasingly referred to as diversity & inclusion or D&I — has its roots in the U.S. social movements of the 1960s. Its basic focus has been to increase social justice by increasing access and participation in society and industry for underrepresented demographic groups such as women and people of color (“minorities”). Diversity work traditionally focused on justice and fairness goals such as increasing the numerical representation of underrepresented demographic groups, to filing and handling discrimination lawsuits, to training people how to be less prejudiced in their beliefs and more respectful and equitable in their actions. Anti-racism, white privilege and historical trauma work fall into the diversity category, but go deeper into addressing the historical and interpersonal dimensions of power inequity.

There are strengths and weaknesses in both fields. Interculturalists are often weak in their knowledge about the history of U.S. minorities, while diversity practitioners can be weak in their knowledge about other countries, immigration and the global business context. Interculturalists are strong in their knowledge of the intricate and interrelated dynamics of culture — which diversity practitioners usually lack — while diversity practitioners are often well-versed in the unequal power dynamics that often play out in human relationships involving difference. Similarly, interculturalism is sometimes viewed as superficial or laden with negative judgment, while diversity work is sometimes seen as unnecessarily disruptive or uncomfortable.

Both are necessary to ensure the wild and lasting success of any D&I initiative, program or training, especially as the global and the local are increasingly intertwined and humans are increasingly concentrated in cities where interactions with difference are inevitable. When presented in a non-judgmental way that considers multiple contexts, intercultural wisdom provides people with useful self-awareness, a framework for understanding different people and practical skills for navigating differences. When presented in a blame- and shame-free way, diversity wisdom opens doors of awareness and dialogue about how power imbalances contribute to blindness in those with power, in silence and compliance in those without, and to exclusiveness where employees don’t feel safe or supported in sharing their unique brilliance with their organization.

What organizations or firms have you seen that combine both interculturalism and diversity well? What can you do as a leader to draw on the wisdom of both for your D&I goals?

Susana Rinderle is a principal consultant with Korn Ferry, and a coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email

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