We’ve all heard the term “diversity and inclusion” over and over again. Cultural diversity – or “diversity” for short – is the variety of behavioral and mindset patterns and norms that characterize different cultural groups, due to the common experiences, influences, values, and beliefs (the “culture”) of each of those groups. Diversity is a reality – it’s a fact of life in the U.S. and most everywhere else on the planet. Inclusion, however, is a choice. Inclusion is not an attitude or a perspective – it’s behavior. Being inclusive means acting, after gaining awareness and insight about diversity. We have a name for gaining awareness and insight about diversity and then acting on it by engaging in inclusive behavior – we call it intercultural competence. A critical step in developing intercultural competence (therefore creating an inclusive environment) is to understand these different behavioral/mindset patterns and norms (or cultural differences, for short), and discern how you can adapt to these different norms without losing yourself in the process. Just as culture is learned and shaped through a collection of experiences and influences, so also can intercultural competence be learned.
Before you can really learn about others, though, you first have to appreciate the cultural “filters” or “lenses” through which you yourself are experiencing the world around you. Only then can you distinguish with any precision or consistency how you can best approach navigating cultural differences. This process is also known as moving from monocultural mindsets—where one’s own culture is the primary lens, to intercultural mindsets—where one’s own culture is recognized to be one among many, with each culture providing different alternatives for seeing and behaving in a situation.
So what does this have to do with business? Competence around culture in a business context means that people can understand the similarities and also the differences present – understand their own lenses, and also take on other lenses to broaden the range of alternatives before them. They can see where there is likely to be tension, and where there is opportunity for cultural synergy. Organizations, employees, and leaders with intercultural competence are better able to anticipate tensions (or at least the potential for tensions) as well as the potential synergies, and can distinguish among the range of cognitive and/or behavioral adaptations they might try in a particular cross-cultural situation in order to yield the greatest dividends.
Building intercultural competence is a journey that truly never ends. One can make substantial progress and notably increase skills and improve outcomes, yet one is never “done” since there will always be new and changing cultures to explore and work with. The frameworks for working with cultures with intercultural competence, though, are the same and thus the process is manageable and predictable.