In order to ensure the continued success and positive growth of an organization, HR professionals must expand their skill sets and find new ways to harness the value of the modern workforce, which is a deepening well of cultural variety. The skills, competencies, systems, and means of development used in HR all must shift to accommodate this rapidly changing landscape. All aspects of human resource management must adapt to this, from decision-makers to managers to leaders, with truly inclusive action. This article serves to define a key factor in enabling this adaptation: intercultural competence.
While we may believe we are experts at communicating and working with others from differing backgrounds and cultures, research and experience show us otherwise. Our common humanity can sometimes be our undoing, causing us to underestimate the impact that cultural difference really has. We operate according to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” which serves us well among those who are like us, but can lead us astray among those who are very different. This is because it assumes that we all have common wants and needs, and thus if we simply act in accordance with our own values, things will run smoothly. This is an inaccurate assumption, though, and it can cause us to lose sight of the true understanding that is necessary for an organization to build an inclusive, productive, and innovative workplace.
Intercultural sensitivity refers to one’s insight into the deeper impacts that cultural differences have on our interactions, perceptions, and behaviors with other people.
Intercultural competence then refers to our effectiveness in situations or interactions that are interculturally sensitive.
Combining these two concepts yields a notion of Intercultural Intelligence – something that puts modern leaders at the bleeding edge of the competition. A leader, a team, or an entire organization can possess intercultural intelligence. And while its importance when managing or dealing effectively with people from across the world may be clear, we often forget that the same importance applies to our office mates down the hall.
Cultural differences are about more than just nationality. All aspects of diversity contribute to cultural difference, with research (e.g., Hofstede and the GLOBE study) showing that while people from one country may share cultural norms that are unique relative to other countries, individuals and groups within a single country will also have their own variations on their country’s norms. Intercultural intelligence is therefore relevant even for small organizations with a handful or even just one regional location.
Communicating Effectively in a Diverse Group
Diversity has many facets: Ethnicity, Education, Age, Class, Gender, Nationality, Family Status, and much, much more.
Every person is a unique blend of all of these facets of diversity, all of which come together to provide a person with an understanding of “self.” Two people who are alike will share many of these understandings about themselves, but it is exceedingly rare for all people at a workplace to share all the facets of diversity. Working within these differences and understanding the dimensionality of diversity will allow you to effectively communicate your own identity while also respecting and seeing the identities of others in the workplace. This sort of dimensionality applies to everyone in the modern workplace – officemates, business partnerships, suppliers, manufacturers, third-party companies, and so on.
In such a rapidly growing and complex work environment as we see in the world today, we must become effective communicators across diverse ranges of people. This is now universally true, no matter how large or small your organization, no matter where you are located, and no matter who your customers are.
Stella Ting-Toomey, a communication researcher, has found that cultural similarity facilitates relatedness and ease of communication. This means that communication will be more difficult initially in a diverse working group.
The variance among people with greater cultural differences between them highlights aspects of group identity, reactions to uncertainty and ambiguity, and directness of communication. All of this can lead to unease, difficulty with understanding, or subverted expectations and negative reactions to comments or questions.
Nonetheless, Ting-Toomey and researchers like her have also illustrated the great opportunity available in tapping the potential of cultural difference for deeper innovation and greater creativity. This is thanks to the wide range of perspectives, ideas, problem-solving approaches, and knowledge that exists in a more diverse workplace.
Thus, the challenge is presented: our competencies should be honed to facilitate effective workplace communication among people of diverse cultural backgrounds. Our goal should be to feel as comfortable speaking and communication with those of differing backgrounds as we do with those who have the same background. Such an ability is a useful heuristic for the idea of intercultural competence.
Measuring and Developing Intercultural Competence
All organizations, large and small, must develop the appropriate intercultural competence within their workplaces. Diversity today is universal. Whether your organization is regional, small, large, international, or spanning the entire world, cultural differences will exist in your workplace and between the people in it. Working well with your team, ensuring the people in the organization feel heard and can communicate effectively with one another, is crucial to success. This is the core of intercultural competence.
There is therefore a need for the measurement and development of intercultural competence as a quantifiable metric. This takes the form of the IDI, or Intercultural Development Inventory, which was created by Dr. Mitchell Hammer and Dr. Milton Bennett. The IDI is a statistically significant measure of the intercultural sensitivity and intercultural competence of an individual or group that is valid cross-culturally.
Within the IDI, there are two measures each for intercultural sensitivity and intercultural competence. Reports on both can be generated for individuals and for a group based on their respective responses to a questionnaire. The actual and self-perceived development in these areas are both assessed, with self-perceived development always further along than actual. This is because an individual will always overestimate one’s own effectiveness. Graphs of the results are presented with the reports, which can be interpreted and developed by certified IDI administrators, leading to constructive discussion and conversation.
There are many IDI-based measurements that prove useful in HR work for professionals in the field. Below is outlined one such application:
Positioning for organizational growth challenges. This application allows an organization to develop the intercultural competence of its leaders. This includes both individual and group IDI reports for all involved, enabling the development of group sessions that are focused on the team’s (made up of individuals) specific positioning, desires, and needs. Before this session, each individual in the group can take part in personal coaching and engagement to receive feedback, which offers a tailored approach that facilitates a streamlined group session. Both newly-formed and established teams can benefit from this approach, as it allows those of diverse backgrounds to more effectively communicate and yields positive results for all.
The desire for an inclusive workplace is a common refrain among leaders and HR professionals today. However, very few actually put the effort in, with fewer still actually achieving such a goal. A primary contributing factor to this disappointing outcome is an insufficient focus or understanding of communication and behavior among an increasingly diverse workforce. By taking a resolute approach to the building of intercultural sensitivity and competence in the workplace, an organization can grow to achieve both its business objectives and the objectives of an inclusive space.