Determining, developing and delivering effective cultural competence

Despite the best endeavors of despots, dictators and other determined empire builders over the centuries, cultural diversity is still present in today's society - and offers increasing challenges as technology improves and globalization progresses. Yet, as Alexander Pope counseled, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

Written by Mind Tools
Published 18 September 2014
Determining, developing and delivering effective cultural competence

People of different cultures share the same concepts but view them from different perspectives. This can prompt behavior that those of other backgrounds consider bizarre, irrational and, sometimes, offensive. Yet tried and tested traditions underpin this behavior.

As the cross-cultural guru Richard D. Lewis has stated: "A working knowledge of the basic traits of other cultures (as well as our own) will minimize unpleasant surprises (culture shock), give us insights in advance, and enable us to interact successfully with nationalities with whom we previously had difficulty." Nowhere does this approach promise higher dividends than in business and, especially, within the learning and development function.

Defining "culture"

The Dutch social psychologist Professor Geert Hofstede has defined culture - to which each of us has been subject, from birth - as "the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from another." Into this panoply of cultural diversity - encountered as a result of today's increasing geographical mobility as well as technology-enhanced globalization - comes the issue of "cultural competence." There's no single, accepted definition of cultural competence, but it can be seen as a person's ability to understand people from different cultures and engage with them effectively.

Five elements contribute to an organization's ability to become more culturally competent:

  • Valuing diversity
  • Having the capacity for cultural self-assessment
  • Being conscious of the dynamics inherent in cultural interaction
  • Having institutionalized culture knowledge
  • Adapting service delivery to reflect an understanding of cultural diversity.

These elements must be manifested in the organization's attitudes, structures, policies, and services at every level - via a set of values and principles that allow, and empower, all employees to demonstrate appropriate behaviors and attitudes.

Achieving cultural competence is a never-ending journey to reaching the level of knowledge-based skills required to produce effective co-operation from the entire workforce. At any time, individuals and organizations exhibit varying levels of awareness, knowledge and skills along the cultural competence continuum.

When seeking to measure something as intangible as cultural competence, Diversity Training University International suggests assessing against four criteria:

  • Awareness - Consciousness of one's reactions to people who are different to you
  • Attitude - The difference between training that increases awareness of cultural bias and beliefs in general, and training in which participants examine their own beliefs and values about cultural differences
  • Knowledge - Social science research suggests that our values and beliefs about equality may be inconsistent with our behaviors, and we may be unaware of this. Knowing this plays an important part in developing cultural competence
  • Skills - Practicing communication skills, including linguistic and the non-verbal communications skills that tend to vary from culture to culture.


For L&D professionals, there are two particular challenges and responsibilities. One is to ensure that their organizations are - and remain - culturally competent. The other - a subset of this - is to develop, deliver and assess the success of learning programs addressing this issue.

Nick Hindley's organization has offices in 46 countries that employs some 13,000 professionals worldwide. He says: "My starting point is the (rough) quote -from Aldous Huxley - 'the only part of the universe I know I can change is myself.' In cultural competence terms, it's best to begin by helping individuals and leaders improve their own self-awareness. Unless they understand this process, it's hard for them to 'be more aware' of others."

In Nick's toolbox is the Strength Deployment Inventory, although he agrees that other tools, such as MBTI, can work equally well. Both tools apply to all cultures in all parts of the world.

"Using SDI as a springboard, I encourage learners to evaluate every person they deal with as a single culture and to make any necessary changes to respond to this culture," he explains. "Everyone has a distinct, unique, personal culture. By assuming millions of cultures, there's less chance of making false assumptions. In leadership training, we aim to hone sensory acuity and, together with tools such as SDI, enable leaders to engage with anyone in any situation."

When it comes to ensuring the effectiveness of these learning programs, Nick believes in "evaluation, evaluation, evaluation."  He says: "We use all four levels of Kirkpatrick. We establish the results we want to see and what behaviors are required - and work backwards to develop the right exercises, role plays and scenarios to give the learners the understanding and skills they need."

These programs' success is assessed partly by the evaluation process Nick has in place and partly from the unsolicited feedback received from people after they've completed their training.

Katie Benson, HR business partner at the Royal Bank of Scotland, says: "'Competence' is absolute. A person is either competent or incompetent. So, for me, it's less about achieving 'competence' and more about a spectrum of cultural 'openness' to embracing difference. This can't be 'learned' entirely in a classroom. It's about embracing a new way of thinking; of accepting, and being more open-minded to, difference. This lies in people's behaviors and underlying beliefs -two of the biggest challenges for L&D professionals.

"RBS addresses 'culture' in three main ways: via a suite of diversity programs to get 'difference' discussed openly, challenging any 'unconscious bias' in the organization, and supporting colleagues working in a multicultural team/department/division.

"Our leaders are expected to set the tone within their teams, challenging behavior that contradicts the principles of acceptance and inclusion. Leadership development interventions focus on developing this approach and skill. Moreover, 'ways of working' information, 'culture champions' and open communication help in educating the workforce in cultural differences so our people can be accepting and open to cultural nuances."

To make learning interventions effective in this area, you must ensure people's attitudes and behaviors towards cultural differences improve and are sustained. Katie says: "This can only happen if the underlying organizational culture, values and behaviors are aligned to this way of thinking/being. The entire employee proposition must support the 'cultural competence' objective - be it in performance management, recruitment, reward, or employee relations to ensure any enhancements can be sustained."

How do you help people become culturally competent in your organization? Share your experiences, below.

About the author

Mind Tools

Mind Tools

Mind Tools was started in 1996 to offer practical online learning to people in the workplace.

By the time they joined Emerald in March 2019, they had grown into the one of the world’s most comprehensive learning resources, with millions of individual learners in 50 countries worldwide.

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