Cultural Competency

What is cultural competency?

At its very core, it has to do with how effective we are at interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management, research and experience show that we all think we are better than we actually are at communicating and working with people from different cultural backgrounds.  Most people underestimate the actual effect of cultural differences and operate under the assumption that everyone else values, believes and wants the same things they do.  Overcoming this assumption enables an organization to build a truly inclusive workplace that harnesses its diversity to drive productivity, innovation and creativity.

Why does it matter?

In today’s world to be successful we must be able to effectively communicate with an increasingly diverse set of people, whether fellow employees, faculty and students, patients, customers, suppliers, contractors, regulators, or other stakeholders.  This is true regardless of where an organization is located, its size, and where its customers and business partners are located.  Cultural differences tend to be reflected in differences in language, terminology, interaction with authority, group identity, directness of communication, reaction to ambiguity and other subtleties of interaction.  These differences can lead to misunderstandings about motives and intent.  Thus the opportunities available from cultural differences, namely the potential for greater innovation and creativity stemming from the wider range of perspectives and approaches, can lead to more creative problem-solving and more effective solutions, if the parties involved are culturally competent.

Increased cultural competency involves learning about cultures in general, as well as learning about your own national culture and understanding what you have been “conditioned” to expect of yourselves and others in the workplace, e.g., your preferences for problem solving, delegating, motivating or managing time, and how you view relationships, laws and leisure time.  Cultural competency advances where we begin to appreciate differences and focus on similarities.  Some of this can be accomplished by interacting with people who are different, who do not share the same interests or who thinking differently.  Learning a different language, spending time in a cultural setting different from your own, and sincerely asking questions about habits, attitudes and beliefs can all contribute to increasing one’s cultural intelligence.

What is the benefit of being culturally competent?

There is a list of attributes that experts say are characteristic of culturally competent people.  They include everything from flexibility and adaptability to emotional resilience, curiosity and respect for differences, patience, tolerance and a nonjudgmental attitude.  Culturally competent people seek to communicate inclusively, they demonstrate an ability to flex their style when faced with myriad dimensions of culture, they understand the dynamics of cross-cultural and inclusion-related conflicts, tensions, misunderstandings, or opportunities and are able to negotiate and facilitate through these differences.  They recognize and address their filters, privileges, biases and cultural preferences and commit to continuous learning.  They seek and utilize feedback from diverse sources, and understand subtle and complex diversity and inclusion issues as they relate specifically to marginalized groups (while these vary by region, marginalized groups often include women, people with disabilities, older people, and racial, ethnic or religious minorities.)  Culturally competent people stay current on global and local trends and seek to understand their diverse customer and client needs.

What does cultural competence have to do with business? The role of diversity and inclusion in business is changing because of rapid technological advancements, globalization, immigration, increased demand for skill and education, and an aging workforce.  Globalization is the most significant trend, as employees and managers are asked to work with team members, business partners, and customers from around the world.  Immigration has changed the face of many workforces.  The U.S. labor pool is aging, causing demands for increased flexibility and redefining employee needs and expectations.  And technology has increased accessibility to information and made global communication simpler and faster, thus increasing employee expectations regarding flexibility, the openness of the culture and the availability of information.

How can I increase my cultural competency?

There are many ways to do so, but one way is to commit to continuous learning and take advantage of professional development opportunities.  One such opportunity for all A&P staff will begin in autumn 2017.  The Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement (DICE) certificate will be available to all A&P staff as a professional development opportunity.  A kick-off event will be held July 20, 2017, to introduce this program.  Look for further information as we get closer to the event!

Credit: Much of the information cited above was created by the Society for Human Resource Management. Visit to access its full resources.