AltoPartners Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Cultural competence and diversity initiatives

January 19, 2023 Share this article:

DE&I guide Cultural competence and diversity initiatives 2023

Google the term “cultural competence” and the results will contain many links to articles in the health and social work fields.

That’s because it’s a key skill in the medical and care fields, where practitioners face daily challenges related to working with people from different cultures. What happens when a Spanish-speaking patient arrives at an emergency department, and no one around her speaks Spanish? What happens when a medical professional wants to do a blood transfusion but the patient is a Jehovah’s Witness and refuses? What happens when an African-American nurse has to help a patient who is rumoured to be white supremacist?

In all these cases, medical professionals are told that understanding and implementing cultural competence is crucial for the well-being of the patient.

But is cultural competence a skill that’s necessary in business? Yes, says the University of Southern California (USC). As workplaces become increasingly diverse, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (DE&I) become more common, managers need to work with people from other cultures. A culturally competent manager and a culturally competent company benefit from creating a psychologically safe workspace, in which people from all backgrounds feel comfortable being their authentic selves and aren’t afraid to raise concerns. That sense of safety can enhance work in several ways, especially in organizations that emphasise teamwork, USC says.

What is cultural competence?

We all think we know what culture means, but it’s worth unpacking the concept. Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts, among other things.

Using that definition, it’s tempting to think that cultural competence means being steeped in one’s own culture – but in fact it refers to an ability to successfully negotiate cross-cultural differences in order to accomplish practical goals. In the workplace, that might include being able to work collaboratively with colleagues from different backgrounds.

The related concept of cultural humility is the process of inquiry and reflection involving one’s own awareness of cultural and personal biases. It includes demonstrating sensitivity and awareness of significant cultural issues affecting others and offering opportunities for other people to share their own experiences, feelings, values, and beliefs without fear of judgement. Practicing cultural humility means a person can admit they do not know something and be willing to learn from others.

Cultural competence, on the other hand, emphasises knowledge, attitudes, and skills. In the business environment, it also means the organisation’s collective knowledge and understanding of different cultures and perspectives. Training organisation HRDQ says: “It’s a measure of your workforce’s ability to work with people of different nationalities, ethnicities, languages, and religions.”

The essential components of cultural competence

Training organisation Diversity Resources lists six areas in which workplace cultural competence is needed:

1. Beliefs and worldview – people have fundamentally different ways of seeing the world, and their role in it. In the West, people tend to believe they’re in charge of their fate. But other cultures may take a more fatalistic view: either it’s meant to be – or not.

2. Communication styles - different people have different ways of communication, especially regarding context and directness. In North America, people tend to say what they mean. But in other cultures, people are more indirect.

3. Formality – cultures differ greatly in greetings, manners and etiquette.

4. Hierarchy – cultures differ in whether their societies are horizontal or vertical. In the West, people are generally seen as equals. But in Asian, Latin, and Middle Eastern cultures, there might be more emphasis on hierarchy and strong leadership concentrated at the top.

5. Perceptions of time – people differ greatly in the ways they relate to time. Americans tend to be short-term and fixed: deadlines are deadlines. But in many other cultures, people tend to think more long-term, and dates and deadlines are more flexible.

6. Values and priorities – one culture may place an emphasis on the individual’s career; another may value the group, and long-term business and work relationships.

What skills and knowledge are needed to be culturally competent?

A team of academics at Nebraska University emphasise that becoming culturally competent is a process rather than an end point.

  • First step in the process: Knowledge

Increasing cultural and global knowledge: Learning more about other cultures is a step towards understanding. This might involve learning a second language or researching religious traditions.

History is important: Conflicts that emerge between groups are often rooted in issues that have historical origins. The history of colonisation, for instance, can mean that people from dominant cultures fail to understand how their norms and values affect others.

What’s happening in the world? Global events impact everyone. A war in an apparently far-away country might be very real to a someone who grew up there but now lives somewhere else.

Self-knowledge: Reflecting critically on one’s own biases and prejudices helps to develop the skills necessary to effectively engage with individuals whose cultural background is different. See our AltoPartners article on unconscious bias for more about this.

  • Second step: Attitude

Tolerating different cultural backgrounds is a step in the right direction. But tolerance usually means that you are simply “putting up” with something that is undesirable. Cultural competence goes beyond that: instead it involves being appreciative, affirming, and inclusive of all cultural backgrounds.

  • Third step: Skills

Active listening: Active listening entails thinking about the feeling behind what is being said. The emotion gives evidence of the real intent of the conversation, which allows the listener to respond appropriately. Active listening involves minimising one’s own internal chat about how to respond to what is being said.

Empathy: The second component of cultural competency is demonstrating empathy, the art of seeing and feeling the situation of another, walking in another person’s shoes, or seeing the world as that person sees it.

Engagement: The third component of cultural competency is effective engagement. Engagement should be mutually beneficial and a reciprocal learning experience in which you learn from one another.

What not to do when working across cultures

Intercultural trainer Anna Katrina Davey warns against:

  1. Assuming we live in a global world and that cultural differences are diminishing: Not so. “When different cultures come into contact with each other, some manifestations (of difference) may converge, while others are more likely to amplify.”

  2. Relying on “common sense”: What is considered common sense behaviour by one culture, may not be common or make any sense whatsoever within another cultural context.

  3. Relying on country-specific lists of do’s and don’ts: Acquiring knowledge of foreign cultural systems is an essential component towards cultural competence. But it is important to pay attention to quality and to context. A list of 10 or more things to do or not to do when working with someone from another culture can generate simplistic and unrealistic expectations.

How leaders can foster culturally competent organisations

Compliance training organisation Traliant has this list:

  • Provide cultural competency training that looks at actions that employees and managers can take to improve their understanding of cultural competence and how it applies in everyday interactions.

  • Highlight the importance of pronouncing unfamiliar names correctly and addressing individuals by their correct name and pronouns, in accordance with their gender identity.

  • Ensure that important workplace statements, notices and other information are available in the multiple languages found in the organisation.

  • Encourage employees to listen to and respect what each person can bring to projects, meetings or conversations.

  • Create employee resource groups (ERGs) that provide a platform for employees to share their unique experiences, cultivate mentoring and allyship, and have opportunities for cross-functional and cross-cultural interactions.

  • Optimize communication channels so employees can engage wherever they are located. With many employees working remotely or in hybrid work environments, it’s important to find different ways to connect, check-in, engage and celebrate cultural diversity.

  • Keep a critical eye on any marketing or branding initiatives, looking especially for things which might be offensive in other cultures.

  • Promote a culture of belonging in which individuals from under-represented groups feel valued and heard. Emphasise this in the company’s mission and values and extend it to policies, processes, training, communication and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.