Intercultural organizational development: Leaning into change

January 8, 2019



Change can be challenging. It disrupts our sense of equilibrium, safety, and security. To manage change, we often try to overemphasize that which we believe we can hold constant. However, the only thing that is really constant is the ongoing state of change. Biologists call this “homeorhesis” — being in a constant state of change, development, and evolution. Organisms change and develop, people change and develop, communities change and develop — and so do our organizations.

The pace of change has escalated in the last 50 years as a result of changes in demographics, technology, globalization, and the economic, political, and social changes associated with these large-scale social forces. All indications are that the pace of change will continue to accelerate as the world continues to shrink and we are more dependent on each other for innovation, community connection, and basic resources. As this occurs, the disparities and inequities that currently exist regarding access to resources, opportunities, and social power have become ever starker.

Nonprofits with a mission to serve our diverse communities are at the forefront of trying to respond to these conditions. To do so effectively will require our organizations to adapt our strategies, programs, and internal policies, practices, and procedures to integrate competency regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity into every aspect of organizational development in order to create an organizational culture that embeds equity in all that we are and all that we do.

An important first step in advancing diversity, inclusion, and equity goals is developing and honing individual and organizational intercultural competency skills. Intercultural competency is the capacity to shift and adapt our perspectives and behaviors according to cultural contexts in order to be more effective in accomplishing our mission and goals.

Embedding a culture of equity first requires developing the skill of cultural self-awareness to make your current organizational culture transparent, including how dominant cultural norms might be unintentionally institutionalized within your organization. Utilizing this information, the next task is to intentionally work together to support the organization in becoming more proficient in seeing, thinking about, and interacting with cultural difference and shifting power differentials in increasingly complex ways.

One of the ways to do this is to center universal design in the evaluation and (re)construction of current organizational policies, procedures, and practices. Universal design is the practice of designing all organizational systems — physical, social, and economic — to focus on the experience of those who are most marginalized. By centering the experience of those who are most marginalized, we most often find that systems are created that function better for all of us.

Moving towards centering the experience of those most marginalized in our organizational planning will mean significant change for many of us. Change is often not comfortable. Like any event that people find stressful, change can be dealt with in such a way that it becomes a negative crisis. Or change can be embraced and managed so that it becomes an opportunity for positive growth and adaptations that help us achieve our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. What is clear is that we cannot have change regarding injustice unless we are willing to change ourselves and the organizations and systems in which we operate.


Types of Change

There are predictable aspects to change. However, not all change is the same. Knowing which type of change the organization is undergoing is critical to success. Three types exist, and each requires different change strategies, plans and degrees of engagement.

The three types of change are: (1) developmental, (2) transitional, and (3) transformational. Traditional project management and what is commonly called, “change management” effectively support developmental and transitional change, but they are insufficient for transformational change. Facilitating intercultural organizational development and achieving equity are examples of transformational change.

Developmental organizational change is simple movement and generally is viewed an important improvement. It may be a gradual process and it is often seen as a surface change regarding diversity; for example, increasing the numerical representation of people of color on staff without shifting the ways in which white dominant culture might be embedded in organizational culture.

Transitional change is movement from old to new, where both are known. There is a beginning and an end, but both have been defined. There can be turmoil in this situation, but the final outcome is visible.  For example: taking a new job or switching roles from employee to supervisor, or an organization may change to new computer software. Transitional change is more intrusive than developmental change as it replaces existing processes or procedures with something that is completely new to the organization. These sorts of changes are often necessary to move an organization towards a culture of inclusion. Navigating transitional change requires skills around problem solving, project planning and project management.

Transformational change may involve both developmental and transitional change. It is common for transitional and transformation change to occur in tandem. Transformational change is the most difficult to deal with because it is movement from the known to the unknown. There can be a shift in fundamental values and beliefs which lead to questions like “what do we stand for now?” “how do we do our work? and most significantly, “who forms, informs, and performs our work?” Assumptions change, and the things we take for granted change. Successful transformational change requires developing new perspectives and practices. Navigating transformational change, particularly regarding equity, requires high level skills involving self-awareness, tolerance for ambiguity, flexibility, understanding of the nature of change, and change and conflict management.

As your organization embarks on its diversity, inclusion, and equity journey, it will require you to lean into change — and the discomfort, ambiguity, innovation, adaptation, and creativity that will emerge. Good first steps would be examining your organizational culture, identifying who might be currently most marginalized in your community and by your organizational practices, and utilizing universal design principles to address these disparities to move towards more effectively achieving your mission and creating more equity.


zemskyBeth Zemsky, MAEd, LICSW, comes to her work out of her continued commitment to engage people in learning activities that move them to understand critical social and cultural issues. Building on best practice approaches, Beth specializes in intercultural organizational development with organizations working towards social change and structural transformation including foundations, non-profits, educational, health, faithbased, and social change organizations.

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