The Problem With the “Canned Culture” Approach to DEI

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

This is the fourth in a series of insights adapted from the new book “Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact,” co-authored by Dr. Ernest Gundling and Dr. Cheryl Williams. To order the book, please visit Amazon.

Normally, there’s nothing wrong with canned things—soup, tuna fish, tennis balls, etc. Those are all fine.

Yet when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, too many organizations and providers rely on “canned” culture content for their so-called insights. This is both prevalent—and ineffective. Countless leaders have learned the hard way that fresh and up-to-date cultural knowledge, including awareness of the diversity that exists within every society, is essential. In fact, such in-depth knowledge is required for the success of almost any cross-boundary project, whether it is driven by a commercial enterprise, a non-governmental organization, or a government institution.

Luckily, there are effective ways to build an effective working understanding of culture. Let’s take a deeper dive into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the cultural insights that make a difference.

What is the “Canned Culture” Approach?

Cultural awareness is a critical factor in many different organizational functions—building effective global teams, integrating new acquisitions, rolling out company-wide initiatives, or developing future leaders. The problem? It’s usually an afterthought. When it is incorporated, the odds are that it usually comes in the “canned culture” approach.

You can recognize the canned approach by its trademark characteristics:

  • Bite-sized country profiles 
  • Broad generalizations about national values and behaviors that ignore recent data, local variations, or changing social trends
  • Hackneyed lists of “dos and don’ts,” without any tie-in to the real-world business or mindset challenges companies face
  • Tidy and nuance-free cultural comparisons
  • Well-rehearsed stories about cross-border protocol snafus

While some generalizations (e.g., “Germans are very direct”; “Japanese value harmony”) can be a useful starting place, they are inadequate if they are the only tool in one’s cultural toolbox. The irony behind these “canned culture” perspectives is they often result in the actual diversity of an organization’s employees or stakeholders being underutilized or neglected.

People from minority backgrounds and from different parts of the world frequently have keen cultural insights to offer. However, they hesitate to speak up due to language differences, deference towards senior executives, lack of confidence in the presence of executive peers, or a reluctance to put forward personal viewpoints with which others may disagree. Those who are most comfortable with the dominant organizational and national culture wind up playing leading roles in discussions and decision-making while unintentionally blocking or trivializing diverse viewpoints.

Approaches That Do Work

There are several steps that any organization can take to leverage more relevant and incisive cultural perspectives. These include seeking knowledge about the diversity that exists within every culture as well as between different nationalities, drawing out employees’ local knowledge through effective facilitation, and deliberately making “diversifying experiences” a part of developing current and future leaders. 

Diversity within Cultures

Each of us only needs to reflect on our own home country to heighten our awareness of how country-level generalizations have limited validity. There are differences among the citizens of every part of the world based on some combination of factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, politics, gender, regional background, education, sexual orientation, age, international experience, and so on. While there are usually shared national values most residents recognize (e.g., the value of “freedom” in the U.S. or of “family” in India), these values can be interpreted by people from the same country in radically different ways. Cultivating a current and functional understanding of any country requires us to see through various local lenses or perspectives, asking questions like:

  • What are the shared values in this location, and how do different groups interpret them?
  • Who are the social “insiders,” and what groups or individuals tend to be “outsiders” who are marginalized?
  • What are the key diversity factors that comprise the primary fault lines between different groups?
  • Which people am I actually going to be working with, and what are their individual backgrounds and perspectives?
  • What are local perceptions of my country and of me?

Culture is also layered, and it is important to consider which forms you are dealing with and how malleable they might be. For instance, in a cross-border joint venture, it will probably be necessary to consider the different national cultural backgrounds of joint venture employees, the distinctive organizational cultures of the joint venture partners, and how to build newly combined teams with shared cultural attributes.

Figure 1: Cultural Layers

Leveraging Local Knowledge

Research on organizational behavior increasingly points to psychological safety as a feature of high-performing teams, successful global initiatives, and leadership development programs with a transformative impact. Its outward manifestations—roughly equal air time for participants, openness to risk-taking and offering up new ideas, a readiness to challenge the status quo, and rapid mutual learning—hold true in each of these settings. 

Leaders and facilitators may need to use every technique they know to establish this kind of climate as quickly as possible in their meetings and messaging: selecting a diverse range of participants, setting ground rules, asking well-targeted questions, drawing out some people while requesting others to hold back, using discussion groups of various sizes, providing multiple opportunities to contribute, asking for alternative points of view, pushing back against one-sided opinions, and blending different modalities of interaction such as structured mutual listening, debate, story-telling, or humor.

At its best, an atmosphere of psychological safety produces strategic cultural insights by revealing the complexity behind broad country-level generalizations. It becomes possible to cheerfully explore cultural trends that may confirm, contradict, elaborate, or qualify standard wisdom. (E.g., “How do our harmony-loving Japanese joint venture partners express disagreement or engage in political infighting, and what is the legacy of their particular organizational culture?”) Local employees who previously stayed in the background, deferring to more vocal team members from headquarters, often deserve greater recognition for their market knowledge, multilingual skills, customer and employee contacts, and ability to achieve business results. With some encouragement, they could identify local employee engagement issues, new and relatively unknown competitors, emerging consumers, or unforeseen risks.

Diversifying Experiences

Many companies are attempting to bring greater diversity to their executive ranks. This is admirable and important, and there is still a long way to go for most executive teams. However, just selecting a diverse executive team does not guarantee an effective approach to cultural diversity. Diverse representation sometimes only leads to intractable conflicts between different interest groups. In addition to representation, it is necessary to provide a series of career opportunities that diversify the experiences of these team members themselves, regardless of their backgrounds, so they can practice mutual empathy, weigh different perspectives, and serve both as skillful advocates and as catalysts for bringing together various ideas in novel ways. 

Instead of an out-of-the-box “canned culture” approach to learning about other cultures, one that builds flexibility through diversifying experiences will get the best results. Cultural diversity is only perceptible to those who are prepared to recognize it and respond.

(See the next blog in this series, “The Limits of Diverse Representation,” for more about diversifying experiences.)  


The three-part approach that we recommend herelooking for diversity within cultures, drawing out local knowledge, and cultivating diversifying experiencesrequires a more complex and strenuous journey than simply dining on “canned culture.” Nevertheless, it is likely to yield far better outcomes by engaging talent worldwide and implementing strategies based on deep market insights into customer needs and sources of competitive advantage.



About the Authors

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D
Co-Founder and Managing Partner

Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, the latest co-authored with Dr. Cheryl Williams, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Ernie on LinkedIn

Dr. Cheryl Williams

Cheryl Williams, Ph.D., aims to reconcile global workforce requirements with the rapidly-evolving areas of inclusion, equity, and belonging. Her experience with cultural intelligence, gender equity, and race relations, serves as the cornerstone for her research and client work.  Dr. Williams is also Professor Emeritus at Concordia University, Irvine, California (CUI). She has worked in over eighty countries spanning Europe, Asia/South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa/Southern Africa, South America, and North America. Dr. Williams holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University, and M.S. and B.S. degrees from Purdue University. She co-authored Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.

Connect With Cheryl on LinkedIn