ASA 012: Diversity Competence and TOPOI Model

How can you act more competent in the world of diversity? 

Monika Chutnik
Diversity Competence and TOPOI Model

More and more frequently we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. My impression is that we get a lot of DEI guidelines, but they don’t often show us how to behave in a specific situation. I’m very glad to have Magdalena Szumna as a guest today. We are going to explore a little bit more practical approach to dealing with situations related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.


In this episode you will learn:

  • Why diversity competence is important
  • What is diversity competence
  • About TOPOI model
  • How to use TOPOI model – case studies
  • How to develop diversity competence


Three main conclusions that I’m taking along as outcomes from this conversation:

  1. Look at each situation from various angles. TOPOI model might offer an interesting perspective here.
  2. Check on your own intentions and fears in facing a particular situation or a person.
  3. In case anything is a bit troublesome to you, talk to another person to double-check your own assumptions.


When you listen to this conversation, please think about who else might be happy to know what we are talking about and share with this person later on. I really care to be reaching the right people with my content, so thank you very much for this in advance.

I wish you fun and discovery!


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If you need to educate leaders in how to create psychological safety in your remote teams, or if you would like to increase  inclusive leadership practices, or resilience of your employees – please contact us at ETTA


Additional materials:

  • Article: Making sense of intercultural dynamics: the TOPOI model
  • Article: Making Sense of Intercultural Dynamics (2): Case Application of the TOPOI Model
  • Book: Diversity Competence, Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do.
  • Book: Diversity Competence
  • Magda’s LinkedIn profile
  • Magda’s company: Indigo Diversity
  • ASA 003: Psychological Safety in a Virtual Team – 4 Steps to Mastery
  • ASA 004: What are Microaffirmations and why you want to have them in your team
  • ASA 011: De-Polarizing Dialogue



About Guest

Magdalena Szumna is an avid advocate of cultural diversity and inclusion and a certified diversity competence and intercultural communication trainer with extensive business experience. After 18 years of working in international organizations, both in local and global roles, the last decade of which she had spent in the Netherlands, she founded Indigo Diversity Consulting ( A training and consultancy company offering bespoke learning programs in these areas. By doing so she helps impact driven organizations build and cultivate an open culture of dialogue, integrity and equal opportunities, where people naturally lead better, innovate smarter and thrive longer. Ensuring they have the impact they are striving for.

“In my daily work, I had the opportunity to observe how diversity and intercultural competences – and their lack – affect team performance, sense of belonging and job satisfaction. How much energy could be saved and frustration – avoided were we better prepared to work in today’s diverse world. How much more pleasure and inclusion in relationships with others could it give us… Hence my motivation to share my experience and knowledge in the field of diversity competence in business.”

A sociologist and cultural anthropologist by background, and a traveler by nature Magda is passionate about helping people look at themselves and others through a new lens, turning every encounter with diversity into an opportunity for creating an inclusive and equitable environment for everyone.


Why diversity competence is important

Diversity competencies are the key competencies in today’s world. Competency is not only of leaders, But also of all of those who communicate with people different from themselves. So practically all of us. There is a lot of talk about DEI or diversity, equity, and inclusion at the level of systemic changes. Those that regard organizational management policies, employment policies or compensation policies, gender parity in management boards and so on. And that is great. But…

We still have a lot of work to do here. I do have an impression that less time is spent on building the necessary competencies of people in the organization, so that they are able to implement those policies in their everyday life and work. We should act on both levels.


What is diversity competence?

One might be tempted to say that diversity competencies are not that different from interpersonal competencies. We are talking about communication skills between people in the end, and there’s a lot of truth in this. The challenge here is that when we learn those interpersonal skills, we learn them in quite homogeneous groups to which we belong. Often, many of those groups at the same time, be that our family, school, work.


Cultures don’t meet, people do

The concept that I work with comes from the thinking of intercultural competence indeed and its various models. It offers a broader perspective. It does not focus specifically on cultural diversity, which makes kind of point of focus or takes a closer look at the macro level, the patterns and the tendencies that occur in a group or national culture in many instances. But instead takes the micro perspective. So kind of zooms in on a specific interaction between specific people with all their complexity and diversity. With all the cross sectional unique elements that make up their identity. Such as gender, age, skin color, the role in which they play in any given interaction, the cultural context. So in this sense, it is kind of guided, a bit maybe provocatively, by the statement: Cultures don’t meet, people do. And this is actually a subtitle of the book of diversity competence: “Diversity Competence: Cultures Don’t Meet, People Do” by Edwin Hoffman and Arianne Fedoran. I believe that the way they propose to look at diversity competence is very helpful.


TOPOI model

The model of diversity competence that I work with and find very helpful is called TOPOI. Topoi from topos – Greek word for place. And it’s also an abbreviation of a set of 5 lenses through which we can view a specific interaction.

There’s a framework of 5 lenses for the 5 letters of TOPOI. Each of them allows us to zoom in on the particular interaction from a little bit different perspective.


T for Tongue

That one refers to verbal and nonverbal language. In this instance, what we look at is how verbal and nonverbal communication or language, and the meanings that people assign to given elements, impact the particular interaction. Are we speaking the same language? Are we speaking the same language as not our native language?

It is also about the nonverbal communication. When we talk about organizational culture, it’s how many shortcuts or how many abbreviations you use. A lot of organizations have their internal slang, which can be excluding towards people who might be the newcomers joining an organization.

That’s exactly the area of tongue, that’s where a lot of interactions which we can look at or exactly zoom in can be impacted by.


O for Order

That talks to the opinions and the logic of each person in the interaction. So looking at how our starting points in a conversation might differ. What is a different logic that we bring to the conversation? It can translate to diversity coming from cultural backgrounds, but also, for example, people coming from different departments in the organization. How often we see those perspective being very different.


P for Person

That is about the lens which zooms in on the way in which each party of the interaction sees themselves. And the other side. So the other party in the interaction in a given relationship. For example, whether they are in a kind of any hierarchical relationship or whether they are peers. Interaction might look very differently when two colleagues from the team talk and might look very differently when a top management interacts with someone who is much lower in an organization hierarchy.

And it doesn’t even necessarily have to be an actual discrepancy. It is about a perception. So do I perceive you somehow at a different position to myself. Or do I come to the interaction with some set of assumptions about how different you are from myself? Or how different our viewpoints might be?


O for Organization

That talks to the lens in which you look at possible differences in knowledge of the positions, the rules, the procedures, and any other organizational aspects which may play the role at the level of our interaction. The fluency in understanding the rules of the game. A great example of that is a newcomer to an organization and someone who’s been functioning within the organization for many, many years.


I for Intentions

This is about recognizing your partners in the interaction, their motives, feelings, needs. Those hidden assumptions and values. We can understand why they behave the way they do. This lens is probably the most complex – it touches things which very often are not explicit.


TOPOI model

You can think about TOPOI as a set of lenses that explains the interaction.

The main advantage of this thinking is that it gives the opportunity to create a little bit of space in reflections. It’s a bit like a muscle that becomes more and more fit with training. It becomes kind of a second nature to be keeping those different lenses in mind. It brings us closer and allows us to see the other side as a person, away from those particular lenses that we’ve just talked about.


How to use TOPOI model – case #1 

I can share with you an example from my professional life. In my team, I had a colleague. For the first couple of years of our work, pretty much every meeting or interaction would leave us both with this strange feeling that something was off. We just could not find the flow in our collaboration. We both spoke English as a foreign language. Both very fluently, so I don’t think there was an issue coming from a fluency point of view. My native being Polish, her native language being Dutch.

If we take the T as the first lens to zoom in, we could think of whether the fluency of the language could play a role. But more so, what is the meaning of silence and taking breaks in conversation. And I recognize that for a long, long time, I would be super annoying and super intrusive from a perspective of my colleague. As every moment that she paused for thought or took a longer break, I would jump in. I would throw in the word. I would give her a a suggestion, or I would be so excited in a desire to kind of show my interest and involvement in the topic that I would just involuntarily interrupt. My intention was to show that interest in the topic and how excited I am of what you’re saying. And that was perceived as being intrusive, as not listening, as distracting and kind of trying to hijack a conversation.

Initially, it might not be fully clear which lens of TOPOI to apply. Maybe you need to go through all the 5 to look for some hints. (Monika Chutnik)


How to use TOPOI model – case #2

Let’s say we look at a situation between an employee, a team member who comes to the manager and asks for a day off on Fridays. He doesn’t want to work on Fridays and motivates the request that has to go to the mosque. In the context of everyone else in the team who works regularly on Fridays, the manager may think: “Oh gosh, I can’t let him, because other team members work. We work here in this organization. Everyone is expected to work on Fridays. But I don’t know how to go about it. Because if I say that, I might seem intolerant or be accused of discriminating based on religion…” Your mind immediately might go into all of those thoughts.

Instead of reducing the situation to the conflict, a clash of religions or cultures, TOPOI invites us to look at all the elements of identity and actually zoom in the one that’s most relevant in this particular situation. And from the organization’s point of view, it is the interaction between an employee and a supervisor.

First of all, they are at work relationship. Simple as that. They should first refer to that context as applicable in this situation.

It somehow restored a bit of an agency to both parties. And gives the opportunity for changing and negotiate a satisfactory solution. Maybe, it will be a a shorter working day. Or a day without meetings, which makes working hours a bit more flexible and the employee can incorporate their needs. And yet in the same time, be able to fulfill the obligations that the person has towards the organization. And it kind of breaks the deadlock that purely a cultural approach can introduce.

So it is important to look at the TOPOI model as not only a tool to interpret what’s happening. But to look at the situation from those different lenses and then pick a solution that can be informed by the organization lens and take it from there.


Develop diversity competence by applying TOPOI model

When we talk about developing competencies, we talk about the formal methods, like trainings, lectures, as well as learning  in everyday life and experience. So the scope of the training or learning programs may vary greatly, depending on the needs or readiness of the organization. From a series of lectures or webinars, where we focus on the knowledge elements of the competence. All the way through workshops, kind of more hands on sessions where we can also develop some of the skills we talked about. To kind of work on practical case studies that are relevant to the particular group that we work with. For example, working on a specific real life situations that occur in the team. And lastly, working on the attitude or the mindsets. It is a bit of a longer term endeavor. It depends on where the given organization is on its path.

And, of course, in this particular element of competencies, the role modeling by the leaders and the management boards is key. You can’t expect certain behaviors in the organization, if it’s not kind of a way of being that is embraced and modeled by the leadership.


Closing message

My closing message is that diversity competence is not about anything else, but truly looking at another person as a human being.

I think this is the beauty of the whole DEI work. But specifically, when we talk about developing competencies required to do better, to foster more inclusive and equitable environments, it is all about stepping away from the othering and labeling and stereotyping, but really focusing on humanizing otherness and on looking at the other person with this whole complexity of different elements of their identity.


Thank you!


Photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash

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