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Sometimes, our big world can feel smaller than it seems.
You may work with co-workers everyday who live thousands of miles away from you. You might have studied abroad, moved to a new country for work, or have friends from all different cultures in your own city. We are all building relationships and fostering connections with people from different cultures.
It’s more important than ever that we understand cultures different from our own. Part of that understanding calls on us to deepen and build relationships with cultural diversity in mind. By understanding what it means to be culturally competent, we can ensure we’re inclusively fostering a sense of belonging in our relationships.
What is multicultural competence or culture competence?
According to the American Sociological Association, we understand culture as the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful. Culture is made up of all the elements that create your personality. In essence, it’s the way we see and do things.
Competence is defined as the ability to do something well. For us to be competent in anything, we need to demonstrate how capable and efficient we are in completing a specific job or task.
Multicultural competence — or cultural competence — is your ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people who identify with cultures and/or belief systems different from your own. This multicultural competence leads to enhanced and effective communication between people that can strengthen relationships. After all, relationships are a powerful piece of what makes us human.
Based on this definition, it sounds like effective communication skills would suffice. However, cultural competence requires more than strong communication skills.
Understanding the culture wheel
One way to see and look at culture is through something called the culture wheel. As we know, many factors make up who we are to help shape our behavior and daily actions. The culture wheel can be a helpful visual and exercise to understand other individuals’ impacts on us. It can also help us with who we are. To be culturally competent, we need to appreciate and understand people of different cultures.
The culture wheel consists of different aspects of cultural diversity that helps make up who we are. Here are some examples of some demographics can make up your own culture and worldview. Ultimately, this can help define our cultural identities.
- Ethnicity or ethnic groups
- Sexual orientation
Source: Intercultural Solutions
Here is activity you can try using the culture wheel:
- Draw a circle in the middle and put your name inside it.
- Extend three circles from that circle and select one item from each layer of the culture wheel to write in each circle. There is no right or wrong selection, simply choose the one that resonates with you the most.
- Reflect on how you define your own culture based on those selections and document your insights.
To enhance your experience, reach out to your coach and share your experience to deepen your self-awareness of your own culture.
4 strategies to build multicultural competence
Fostering meaningful relationships is crucial to the human experience. This requires intentional actions to ensure you are building multicultural competence.
Regardless of where you are in your journey to reach cultural competence, you can utilize these four strategies to help build your skills.
Understand your own culture
Many of us can identify with multiple cultural experiences and yet we may not be aware of them. Taking the time to reconnect with who you are and what shaped your own experiences can support how you show up with others.
Show interest in learning and be curious
Showing curiosity about others’ cultures is important in being culturally competent. Learning is not just about reading books and looking up some information online. Learning is about engaging in new experiences. To learn, you need to give yourself permission to build multicultural awareness and competency. It’s about allowing yourself to unlearn what you once learned to allow for new learning to connect with you, your body, and your mind.
Have a positive attitude towards other cultures
The way you receive and treat others matters. This speaks to the willingness to receive others who have different cultural backgrounds than you do. It’s about seeing others as naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. People of diverse backgrounds have their own way of expressing themselves or others. It’s important that in your interactions, you express an open and welcoming attitude towards them without judgement.
Practice effective communication skills
As you embrace these main behaviors, you can practice some effective communication skills. By putting these skills into practice, you're developing cultural competence and increasing your multicultural awareness.
Some of these skills are:
- Listening. This is the most important skill for effective listening, yet we all fail at it at some point or another. Listening is about being present in the moment with the other person giving them your undivided attention. It’s not a way to anticipate speaking or answers to what you may predict they will say. To the contrary, listening creates speaking.
- Ontological humility. In his book Conscious Business, Fred Kofman defines ontological humility this as we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are. This is his invitation for all of us to accept the fact that we don’t see the one true reality, and no one else does either. He proves the example of controllers and learners. Controllers are attached to knowing everything, all that needs to be done, and what the outcome looks like. The learners, on the other hand, are more open to what might come up in the space and what they know is only a fraction of the bigger picture. Adopting a learner’s mindset is aligned with ontological humility.
- Respect for self and others. When faced with new information or behaviors, some people may be offended and feel threatened. This is a normal human reaction. Practicing a level of respect for self and others allows for more open and cordial interactions between colleagues. Applying respect to every situation can help with your professional development, too. Also, it’s important to avoid stereotyping. If you make assumptions about cultural groups and diverse populations, it can lead to a lack of true understanding and respect.
Why you need multicultural or cultural competence
Chances are, you’re interacting with folks from different cultures and cultural groups more often than you may think. There are plenty of settings where multicultural or cultural competence will come in handy. To help, I’ve outlined a few examples of cultural competence that you might face in your life.
One of my coaching clients was interested in developing her direct reports, who speak English as their second language. She delegated more work to them and to free up her time to be more embedded in strategy and planning. To make it easy on them, she provided them all the resources that she thought they could possibly need. She gave them the step-by-step instructions and assigned a timeline for the final deliverable. She was also following up with them on a daily basis and gave them feedback to course correct on projects where needed.
As she continued to share, I had to interrupt her as the list of things she did was exhausting to listen to! When I mirrored her behavior, she realized that she was controlling her direct reports rather than allowing them autonomy, which isn't good for anyone's well-being.
Knowing how your team works and what they need is important. Assuming without clearing the assumption with others can be costly. Not only was it consuming much of her time and attention, it risked alienating her team and stunting their growth as professionals. Speaking English as a second language doesn’t make individuals any less capable of figuring out how to accomplish a project than others.
At school or in academic settings
The classrooms are a great example of encountering cultural diversity. Depending on the school, its location, and the demographics attending, you can encounter a wide range of cultural practices. Educators usually ensure multicultural and cultural competence is practiced in their classrooms.
Students with disabilities require special accommodations to meet their learning needs. Growing up, I remember some schools refused to take students with special needs because they didn't have the resources to accommodate them.
Take mental health as an example. With advanced medical screening tools, more cases are detected at earlier ages. This supports the student’s development earlier on their educational journey. Adults diagnosed with a mental health illness or disability have likely been misunderstood early in their educational journey. Educators might become overly focused on what they see as awkward social interactions. In these instances, students may need the support of counseling relationships or human services. Mental health and health professionals should be able to evaluate social behaviors, emotional connections, and learning needs.
I once worked with an individual who was diagnosed with ADHD. He was often misunderstood growing up, which caused him to get into trouble. He’s smart, self-aware, and very creative but he wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until later on. It’s unfortunate that he had to suffer throughout his earlier years. However, he now is able to use technology and therapy to support his well-being, growth, and professional development. He took the time to understand his own culture of ADHD, which allowed him to improve his communication skills.
In interpersonal settings (think: day-to-day social interactions)
We use our interpersonal skills in a lot of different ways. For example, every time we go to a store or interact with strangers, we’re using our interpersonal skills. When we socialize with friends or talk with colleagues at work, we’re using our interpersonal skills. Cultural competence requires us to be aware of our environment and space. Multicultural awareness calls on our interpersonal skills to build connections and relationships.
In your daily interactions, your interpersonal muscles are likely always being used. Try using some of these tips. For most, learning about others’ cultures simply starts by asking open-ended questions.
- Practice openness and accept differences. Embrace multiculturalism.
- Demonstrate humility without judgment and show the ability to learn.
- Be sensitive to others by appreciating cultural differences and different cultural identities.
- Show a spirit of adventure by showing curiosity and seeing opportunities in every situation.
- Use a sense of humor through the ability to laugh at ourselves.
- Practice positive change or action by demonstrating a successful interaction with the identified.
8 ways businesses can become culturally competent
Fostering an equitable and inclusive culture is everyone's responsibility. A sense of belonging improves the employee experience. Diverse perspectives have also proven to increase problem-solving, innovation, and productivity for businesses. From my experience of working with individuals and companies, I've compiled eight ways for businesses to become more culturally competent.
Acknowledge the need for cultural competency
The first step to enhancing the culture is to acknowledge the need for it. It’s alarming how many leaders overlook this first simple step. While leaders may recognize the need (and employees almost certainly recognize the need), no one speaks it into existence. It’s the classic case of a big elephant in the room that no one wants to mention.
Understand their employees and customers needs
Be attentive to the many cultures and cultural backgrounds that make up your organization. Your employees and customers represent so many cultures, experiences, and belief systems. You can reference the culture wheel to get a sense of all the different cultures within your organization. Once you have an understanding of what cultures are present, try to take it one step further: understand the cultures on a deeper level. How many cultures within cultures are you addressing? What resources do your employees need to be more efficient at their job? What experience are you promising your customers and how are you delivering on that?
Provide equitable opportunities for employees
While companies are subject to laws that try to ensure equality, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity statement in the US, experiences within the workplace are often very different.
We know that there are talented people everywhere. But opportunities aren’t, and the problem becomes self-reinforcing. As a result, companies have to be intentional about providing equitable opportunities for all. Some might struggle to find a job because of a lack of resources. Others might face discrimination or unconscious bias, especially during the hiring process. Others might lack the social network or connections to even get their foot in the door.
Cultural competency and equity go hand-in-hand. Take a close look at DEI research both within your organization and externally to get a sense of what underlying issues you may be up against. It can be helpful to work with other leaders to help each other develop a better understanding of your organization’s cultural landscape. By working with others, you can dig into how your culture may or may not be supporting equitable opportunities and how you could improve.
Hire for culturaladd, not cultural fit
Businesses have worked diligently to build their current culture with their current employees. One of my clients invested in a software that allows him to screen all potential candidates according to the criteria that fits his company’s culture. Yet he’s struggling to diversify his hiring and sustain long-term employment. As we deepened the coaching around this, he realized that in order for his company to grow, he needs to find candidates who will disrupt the current culture. This is not to shock and kill the current culture, it simply gives it a boost in a different growth area that will be sustainable in the long-term.
Be aware of bias and address it
Many clients come to me asking about understanding their own biases, and I’m delighted to support them with that. However, being aware of your biases is one thing. Addressing biases is another. Let’s take implicit bias, or unconscious bias, as an example. This is the hidden bias that we may not be aware of, yet it influences our decisions and actions. Gaining awareness of it can take time and can be difficult to face. And while awareness is the first step, it’s still not enough to be culturally competent. Addressing it requires transparency and vulnerability.
One way to start addressing your own biases is to use the intention, action, and impact framework. Once you notice that you are making a decision influenced by one of your unconscious biases, declare your intention. Then, act as you see best fit, and notice the impact you have on others. If the impact didn’t match your intention, then you've had an unintended impact on others. As a leader, own your unintended impact and be vulnerable in sharing your intention and intended impact. Seek support from others to improve the actions and allow for another attempt at it.
Use the cultural quotient (CQ) assessment
The new quotient that we are measuring these days is the cultural quotient (CQ). Leaders with high intelligence quotient (IQ) and/or emotional quotient (EQ) are not always able to navigate with competence across diverse cultures. Being culturally competent is important to the organization’s success in the long run. Some assessments, like this one, can be helpful in determining the overall cultural competence within the organization.
Hire a culturally competent business counselor
What is a culturally competent business counselor? A culturally competent business counselor can work with clients to help them understand themselves and their relationships. From there, individuals can use this information to make better, healthier decisions. This is critical for diverse, global businesses where cultural competence is needed to be successful.
Work with a coach
Working with a coach who is qualified in the DEI space is another way to cultivate a culturally competent organization. Coaching has proven effective in allowing leaders to deepen their self-awareness. BetterUp’s Inclusive Leadership Coaching Circles™ help professionals delve into these types of issues in small groups with peers, supported by an expert coach.
Why is cultural competence important?
Through cultural competence, we are accepting other diversities around us. We may not agree with them, yet we have appreciation and willingness to work alongside. As humans, we are social beings where social connections, and relationships are powerful parts of who we are.
When we accept ourselves and others for who they are without judgment, we are able to enjoy transparency and open communication. We are also able to foster collaboration across the organization, enhance customer services, and provide equitable and inclusive spaces.
At the end of the day, we are humans. We benefit from constant reminders that we are a work-in-progress. Cultural competence starts from the inside out. It’s key to acknowledge our differences, embrace them, and take responsibility for our impact.
BetterUp Fellow Coach, MBA, CPCC, PCC, BCC