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Guest view: Cultural competency can improve business success

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Research shows that individuals — even those who are committed to equality for all — possess prejudices and biases.

Garrett Trout, CEO of TrueNorth Wellness Services
Garrett Trout, CEO of TrueNorth Wellness Services - ()

Over past generations, stereotypes or implicit biases that affected a company’s choices have become less “a part of doing business” and more a source of protest and changes in consumer behavior.

As our world becomes increasingly diverse and complex, a company’s success can be bolstered or hindered by its understanding of cultural competency. On an individual level, being willing to identify and evaluate one’s own possible biases is integral to working with others today — both on internal teams and in building customer- or client-facing relationships.

How can employers engage their teams around these issues?

In the behavioral health and wellness sphere, we have a natural tendency to consider our approach. As a team, we work through sensitive topics such as substance abuse, mental illness, depression and suicide.

In serving seven counties across southcentral Pennsylvania, we also interact with a very diverse group of individuals, each of whom brings a unique set of experiences and circumstances to the relationship.

At TrueNorth Wellness Services, our cultural competency committee formed to educate our employees on how to improve our ability to interact with diverse population groups. As the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration clarifies in defining cultural competency, “culture” is a term that goes beyond just race or ethnicity. It can also refer to such characteristics as age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, income level, education, geographical location or profession.

This focus is vital for behavioral health and wellness, and we’ve had excellent response from our employees in adding a “Diversity Corner” section to our employee newsletter, offering ongoing trainings such as “Identifying One’s Own Biases,” and engaging in a Trauma-Informed Care Learning Community this year with the National Council of Behavioral Health.

But health care isn’t the only field that benefits from increased cultural competency. Any organization in any industry can benefit from efforts to improve internal teams and relationships. A business that becomes overly focused on caring only for the clients (or the customer, or the bottom line) does so to the detriment of its internal teams.

Understanding bias and how it affects our ability to interact with each other can provide an improved frame of reference for the judgments we make about other people.

Consider a team assigned to work together to develop and implement a system to address a communication challenge. When the team first meets, one individual immediately takes the lead, assigning roles and delegating tasks. Most of the group falls in line, except for one individual who consistently “drags out” discussions so that everyone has ample time to share his or her perspective.

The meetings last longer and longer for each gathering, and the self-proclaimed leader ends up frustrated and angry. Meanwhile, the individual who ensures everyone is heard feels as if he has put in valuable time and work to build long-term relationships with the individuals in the group.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

Viewed through the lens of cultural competency, neither would be true. One individual pushed for individual effort and efficient meetings that would allow maximum time for individual work. The team member who invested time to hear from each person in the group chose to work through issues together, prioritizing instead the group and the long-term relationship.

Neither person intentionally sought conflict, but their cultural backgrounds led them to prioritize different things.

By considering one’s own biases or beliefs (“The best way to accomplish a task is by dividing and conquering,” or “People who ask several questions or repeat points that have already been made just end up wasting time in meetings”), an employee is able to view a situation through a different lens and improve his working relationship with a teammate.

When we do not take the time to address cultural competency, we risk customers and employees who feel that they have been dismissed or ignored. Ultimately, we forfeit opportunities to build relationships and build trust — and without trust, customer and employee loyalty becomes much more difficult to achieve.

Regardless of your industry focus, that’s a sacrifice that ultimately affects your bottom line.

Garrett Trout is the CEO of TrueNorth Wellness Services, a behavioral health and wellness nonprofit based in Hanover and serving southcentral Pennsylvania. It has additional locations in Chambersburg, Gettysburg, Harrisburg, McConnellsburg, Shrewsbury and York.

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Bill Fotsch November 4, 2017 1:44 pm

Focus on individual performance misses the reality that most businesses are team sports. Empowering employees to think and act like owners, driving and participating in the profitable growth of the company, is a proven way to drive results and engagement. Industry leaders like Southwest Airlines, Capital One and BHP Billiton and hundreds of private companies treat their employees like trusted business partners, enabling them to make more money for their company and themselves. They consistently see both profits and engagement soar. This Forbes article provides more background: http://www.forbes.com/sites/fotschcase/2016/05/31/engage-your-employees-in-making-money/

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