What is intercultural competence? Part 1

Posted on January 20, 2015 by Jason D. Patent

Much of the work we do at the Center for Intercultural Leadership (CIL) revolves around developing something called “intercultural competence.” What is it?

In simplest terms it means our ability to work well with people from different cultural backgrounds — meaning different patterns of thinking and behaving. For example, my upbringing in the U.S. trained me to speak my thoughts directly to my colleagues. What happens if my company sends me to work in a country where words convey a smaller part of the overall message, and I’m expected to read other, non-linguistic cues to get the full message? This is a very real work challenge faced every day all over the world. How I respond is going to have a big impact on my effectiveness — and depends a lot on my level of intercultural competence.

A natural way to respond to this situation would be to feel frustration (without being aware of why I’m feeling frustrated), and then to instantly pass judgment on my colleagues. I might stereotype, saying, “I can’t stand how they expect me to read their minds. Why can’t they just say what they’re thinking?” Unless I can somehow be made aware that how I’m responding is partly, maybe even mostly, based on my own cultural background, this state of affairs is likely to spiral downwards, with more and more mutual resentment and less and less effectiveness in our work.

What if I could interrupt that spiral, hopefully early on? What if someone explained to me that U.S. Americans, as a whole, tend to express our thoughts more directly than people in many other cultures do, and that in this particular culture communication tends to be more implicit? I might still think my way is “better,” but at least I could begin to see myself and my colleagues as part of a larger system of culturally-based misunderstanding. And as I gained more and more experience, and got to know my colleagues better and came to appreciate their differences from me, I might get better at “reading” their communications, and even at using some of their more indirect techniques in my own communications. Nothing is guaranteed, but at least in this latter scenario we have a much better chance of working together effectively than we did if my colleagues and I had remained blind to the cultural origins of our differences.

At no point do I have to give up anything about who I am or what I believe. All that has happened is that I have gained a skill. I have learned about another possible way of communicating, and have become better at it, without losing any of my original direct-communication skills. I’m a more effective worker and leader, and my company is happy with me because our team is working well together and we’re accomplishing the company’s goals.

One way of looking at intercultural competence is that it involves three basic skills: self-awareness, awareness of others, and bridging the two. The more practice we get at it, the better we get at seeing things from multiple perspectives, and leveraging the diversity of our teams by bringing in a broad array of possible solutions. And that means we get better at solving problems and accomplishing goals — which is what organizations exist to do in the first place.

In future posts on intercultural competence we’ll take a look at the concept from many angles.