The Journey to Cultural Competence


To be culturally competent is to be able to interact, communicate and work with colleagues and associates who come from different cultural backgrounds. In the modern business world, companies have more diverse workforces, myriad different departments, and partners and operating centers across the globe. That means company leaders and employees need to understand how to reach their associates across the six different levels of culture: national/societal, organizational, functional, team, identity group, and individual. But what does that mean for you? The payoffs of being culturally competent not only include smoother working relationships with your current colleagues and associates, but also the ability to reach new partners and expand business into new markets.

Gaining cultural competence cannot be done quickly. Rather, it is a lifelong journey that begins with a mental commitment and embracing the following tenets:

1. An open attitude is a prerequisite for developing cultural competence. As cultural competence is a long-term learning journey, keeping an open mind as colleagues and situations change is essential.

2. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize your own cultural values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. It is an essential step that comes before being able to learn about the cultural preferences of other people and groups. The best way to gain self-awareness is to take the Cultural Orientations Indicator (COI) assessment, which outlines your work-style preferences across three dimensions: Interaction Style, Thinking Style and Sense of Self.

3. After gaining self-awareness, you can move on to other-awareness, which is the ability to observe and identify the roles, behaviors, attitudes and cultural orientations of your counterparts.

4. The conduit to putting self- and other-awareness to use is cross-cultural knowledge. That means learning specific and general facts about the social and business cultures of the functional or national group you will be working with.

5. Leveraging the four key cultural skills will help you transform the knowledge gleaned from learning about other social and business cultures into cross-cultural effectiveness. These four skills are: cultural due diligence, style switching, cultural dialogue and mentoring. Taking time to learn about colleagues’ cultures (due diligence), adapting your behavior to match their preferences (style switching), discussing with them the cultural gaps that may get in the way of effective performance (cultural dialogue), and helping others adapt to new cultural contexts (mentoring), are the best ways to interact, communicate and work effectively with people from other cultures.

While the journey to cultural competence may not be a short one, it is an essential course to being able to work in the modern business world.