Building Cultural Competence

See also: Understanding Others

In the late twentieth century, people became aware of the importance of diversity within organisations. More recently, organisations have moved from ‘diversity awareness’ to aspiring to become ‘culturally competent’. However, what do we mean by cultural competence, and how can it be built within organisations and individuals?

This page unpicks the concepts of culture and cultural competence to explain more about what they mean. It goes on to examine how organisations and individuals can develop cultural competence, including how they learn more about different cultures, recognise cultural differences and adapt to different cultural norms.

Defining Culture and Cultural Competence

Defining culture

There are many different definitions of culture. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary alone defines six separate constructs, including good taste, and its development. For the purposes of this page, however, we can define culture as:

The customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group: the characteristic features of everyday life shared by people in a place or time.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

It may also be useful to think of culture as four elements that are passed between generations in any society. These are:

  • Values: what is important in life;

  • Norms: expectations about how people behave;

  • Institutions: the structures within society in which the values and norms operate, including both physical and mental institutions; and

  • Artifacts: things within the society that are derived from the values and norms.

What is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence is defined as:

“…the ability of a person to effectively interact, work, and develop meaningful relationships with people of various cultural backgrounds.”

Source: De Guzman, M. R. T., Durden, T. R., Taylor, S. A., Guzman, J. M., & Potthoff, K. L. (2016). Cultural competence: An important skill set for the 21st century. University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension.

In other words, cultural competence goes far beyond mere tolerance. Being culturally competent means that you actively recognise and respect diversity in all contexts, and are able to interact appropriately and effectively with people from other backgrounds.

Four Elements of Cultural Competence

In 2007, Martin and Vaughn wrote an article about strategic diversity and inclusion management, in which they defined four elements of cultural competence. These are:

  • Awareness of your own cultural worldview, which was defined as being conscious of your personal reactions to people who are ‘different’. You can find out more about this in our page on Intercultural Awareness.

  • Attitude towards cultural differences, or your beliefs and views about the differences that you identify.

  • Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews, or how much we actually know about how different people behave, and what is considered acceptable in different cultures—and how much our own behaviour reflects that knowledge.

  • Cross-cultural skills are about how we interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures, and particularly how we communicate. There is more about this in our page on Intercultural Communication.

Why Cultural Competence Matters

We know why diversity matters: because more diverse organisations, teams and groups consistently outperform less diverse groups across almost all measures.

There is more about this in our page on Diversity in Teams and Groups.

However, why does cultural competence matter?

The answer is that as diversity increases, so do the difficulties in communicating effectively across cultural divides. The US and UK are often described as ‘two countries divided by a common language’—and if it is hard to communicate when you share a native tongue, think how much more difficult it can be to communicate when one or both of you are not native speakers.

What’s more, populations are more diverse now than they have been at any point in our history. In the US, for example, 12.6% of the population are foreign-born immigrants. In the UK, around 14% of the population was born abroad, and around 10% were not British in 2021. Perhaps more importantly, the foreign-born population is concentrated in certain areas, especially London, where around 37% of the population was born abroad.

It is therefore essential that we learn to communicate effectively with each other if societies are to continue to function.

The concept of cultural competence arose first in healthcare, where effective communication between professionals and patients, and between professionals, is essential in providing good care. However, there is growing recognition that it matters in other organisations too.

Developing Cultural Competence

It follows that to develop cultural competence requires you to work and change across the four dimensions (awareness, attitudes, knowledge and skills).

  1. The first step is to become aware of your own cultural views, and your unconscious biases, and the beliefs that underlie them.

    Start by noticing how you react to other people, especially those who are different from you. Ask yourself why you have reacted in this way. What triggered your reaction? Is your reaction rational? What evidence do you have of that? How else could you have reacted that might have been more appropriate?

    Our page on Unconscious Biases explains more about how these can affect your thinking, and how you can address them.
  2. The second step is to expand your knowledge of other cultures.

    As an individual, you could research other cultures online—the internet, after all, is a vast resource, and at your fingertips. However, the other way to gain information, especially about the cultures and backgrounds of your co-workers, is to ask them. Take time to chat with them about their beliefs and views, and how these affect their behaviours—and share information about your own culture in return.

    Human resources departments and managers can also help to increase knowledge of other cultures by sharing information across teams and groups. They might also encourage celebrations of cultural or religious festivals.

  3. The third step is to change your behaviours.

    Most importantly, open your mind to new ideas, and embrace difference. See it as a way to learn, and not as a challenge to your culture. Cultural competence requires not just tolerance, but active respect for each other. Ultimately, you need to be thinking about ensuring that everyone has the rights and freedoms that you want for yourself, including being respected for the contribution that they make. An important part of developing this respect is to cultivate empathy, and ‘walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins’.

    One way for organisations to achieve this may be to try to develop a culture of learning. A growth mindset means constantly asking ‘How can I do better?’—and this can rapidly improve cultural competence. There are some ideas for how to do this in our guest post on creating a growth mindset as part of company culture.

    There is more about how to develop your cultural competence in our guest post on Enhancing Cross-Cultural Competence.

A Final Thought

Diversity continues to increase across workplaces and society more generally. Cultural competence is therefore increasingly important to ensure that we can all work together effectively, and that misunderstandings do not occur.

Organisations have some responsibility. Ultimately, however, we are all capable of expanding our knowledge about practices, behaviours and beliefs in other cultures—and we should all do so.