Building intercultural competence

woman giving a boy a piggy back

How differently do we treat others who are not family or friends, especially those who are not from the same background, culture, race or religion?  How do you establish that familial feel and closeness that siblings often have?  We have highlighted a few areas to reflect on and offer a free resource for your global team.

Anyone who has grown up with brothers and sisters, or knows someone who has, knows that family life has its ups and downs.  Yet the family bond means that despite differences, we learn to live together and treat each other pretty well.  It’s not always perfect, there are disagreements and resentments, but normally the family bond holds steady.  By staying in close contact with our family, we are more likely to express our feelings openly and offer and receive forgiveness in difficult situations.

Contrast that to how we treat others who are not our family or close friends. For example, in the workplace, team members who are not of the same background, culture, race or religion.  What do you have to do to get along with them?  How do you establish that familial feel and closeness that siblings often have?  What might you do to create the honesty and openness that is a key element to most family relationships?

For many, it just kind of happens over time.  A common interest or a similar sense of humour is something we can share.  But not everyone will have these qualities and you will need to gain and develop the necessary knowledge, skills and attitude for working with people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Building Cultural Competence

Intercultural competence doesn’t just happen but must be developed.  This process can be life-long and even the most experienced of business travellers will tell you that there is no one point at which an individual becomes completely inter-culturally competent. 

Critical self-reflection becomes a powerful tool in this process so start by considering the question “what does it take to get along together?” Highlight three or four elements that you feel are necessary to be successful in your interactions with those from different cultures.

Consider situations that have required intercultural competence previously - what helped make you more appropriate or effective?  Reflect on how you can continue to develop your intercultural competence, especially in the areas you rated as lower or perhaps a weakness.

Now reflect on the following areas:

Your Attitudes: respect (valuing other cultures), openness (withholding judgement), curiosity and discovery (tolerating ambiguity).  Ask yourself:

  • How truly open am I to people from different cultural, socioeconomic or religious backgrounds?
  • Do I make quick assumptions about a colleague? Do I prejudge colleagues or situations or do I withhold judgement while I explore the context of the situation?
  • Do I measure a colleague's behaviour based on my own preferences or do I try to understand their behaviour based on theirs?
  • Do I value those from different backgrounds, and how do I demonstrate this even if I disagree with their beliefs and opinions?
  • Am I willing to learn about different cultures?

Your Knowledge: cultural self-awareness (meaning the way your own culture has influenced you and your worldview).   Ask yourself:

  • Can I describe my own own cultural programming? For example, what cultural values affect how I behave and communicate with others? What are some of my core beliefs and how have they been influenced?
  • How would I describe my values and preferences? How would I describe my colleagues' values and preferences? How might they be different from or similar to my own?
  • How much do I know about my colleagues' worldviews? What information am I missing and how may I get it?

Your Skills:  How developed are my language skills?  Ask yourself:

  • When do I demonstrate good observation, listening, evaluation, analysis, interpreting and relating to others?
  • Do I check and clarify, rather than assume understanding of others?
  • What premium do I put on verbal and non-verbal behaviours that make me feel comfortable?

Once you have worked through these reflective questions, you are ready to create a development plan for yourself.  Like all action plans, this should be designed to help you bring about change, and in this case aimed specifically at improving your readiness and effectiveness to work internationally. Use the SMART framework.

Finally, think about your own work situation now and in the future and the type of international interactions you are likely to have. 

  • Which of your strengths will be the most useful to you? 
  • Would there be real benefits for you if you could develop new skills and approaches?
  • How relevant will they be to your current or future role?

Free Resource? If you have a cross-cultural team and would like a free and simple tool to help identify how they feel about intercultural challenges and help them to identify potential areas for improvement, request a copy of the "Intercultural Competence: Self-Reflection Questionnaire"

To read more information, click here.

Babel delivers language training in all major world languages, coaches delegates to be culturally competent in their global roles, briefs expats for starting new jobs overseas and helps create high-performing remote teams.

Babel Language & Cultural Consultants