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Cultivating the Mindset for Cultural ‘Competency’

In an increasingly globalized world, it’s highly likely you will be exposed to people of different cultural backgrounds. And different cultures definitely have different ideas about work, time, power, communication and a host of other behaviors that are present in the workplace.

Underneath these differences is also a mindset about right and wrong. Most people feel there is a right and a wrong way of doing things, and the way they are operating is right, and the “other” culture should adapt. But that is the wrong place to start.

Instead, organizations and their employees must first question that first assumption. To do this, it helps to start not with cultural competency, but with cultural humility. Given the sheer number of cultures in the world, and as America grows more diverse, no one person can be culturally fluent in all the world’s diverse cultures. An emphasis on cultural humility is the most effective approach to creating bridges between colleagues.

Cultural humility describes a leadership approach that is “others-oriented” and doesn’t assume that any culture is the norm or the standard to which to compare others. From what we’ve seen at IBIS, it is not always easy to try on cultural humility—it takes courage to adopt that approach. Cultural humility requires curiosity and time to invest in exploring different perspectives. It’s also a continuous process of learning and unlearning.

Given this continuous process, a training on cultural humility can raise awareness in your organization about cultural differences. In addition to training efforts, organizations need to take a more organization development (OD) approach to cultural humility.

OD-driven interventions instill processes into systems that foster cultural humility and adaptation. For example, let’s say you’re working with someone with indirect communication style. You ask for a document by a certain time and she says yes. However, given your experience with either this person or within her cultural context, you know she may have other questions and concerns, but her culture’s indirect communication style means asking directly if she has other questions or concerns will not lead to a helpful answer. In these instances, it’s helpful to have a policy that managers will always communicate requests in a written email. On the flip side, there should be a company policy for employees that says that when they cannot make a deadline, they will let you know within 24 hours of the deadline.

Communication and time are just two examples of course. Cultures can also vary in terms of attitudes toward hierarchy, conflict management style, tolerance for direct feedback, and other factors (Meyers, 2018).

Cultural trainings seem to be more common with organizations working outside the United States. This is perhaps because U.S. companies have a certain amount of privilege in the global business space, holding more power and influence. This then presents U.S. companies with a prime opportunity to be an ally to those with less power and influence by taking the initiative to ask and promote cultural humility trainings within their organizations. Doing so will allow managers and senior leaders to get the best out of their people no matter what their location or background.