Cultural Competence


“The importance of Cultural Competence in business or operational effectiveness increases proportionally as an organization evolves into a global enterprise. Developing Cultural Competence can be accomplished in four phases.”

According to the International Trade Association, more than 70 percent of the world’s purchasing power is located outside the United States. Small and medium-sized firms are increasingly looking overseas to increase their revenue and improve profitability. For more than 30 years, according to The Economist, larger American companies have been merging with foreign firms or acquiring them, creating global enterprises as well as cross-cultural challenges. The trend is accelerating. On the global security side of things, enduring coalitions have formed to deal with every hot spot. Every officer, sergeant, and private has to navigate myriad multicultural scenarios daily. Nobody understands this more than the global Special Operations community.

The importance of Cultural Competence in business or operational effectiveness increases proportionally as an organization evolves into a global enterprise. Whether you are a domestic enterprise venturing for the first time into the world of international business or an established global enterprise, understanding culture plays a huge role in your chances for success.
Culture can be defined as the dominant set of beliefs, values, thinking patterns, and behaviors learned while growing and developing within a social group. Culture determines how we perceive the world around us, how we view ourselves and others, and how we behave. Cultural orientations can be divided into 10 key variables: environment, time, action, communication, space, power, individualism, competitiveness, structure, and thinking.

  • Environment refers to the spectrum of beliefs and attitudes concerning a person’s relationship to the environment from having control over the environment, to existing in harmony with the environment, to the individual being constrained by the environment.
  • Time concerns the use of time and the nature of time. Do people tend to concentrate on one task at a time with a commitment to schedules, or do they emphasize multitasking with a high concentrating on relationships rather than schedules. How about appointments and deadlines? Is punctuality defined precisely, or is timeliness a loosely defined concept. Do people focus on the past, with an emphasis on tradition? Do they focus on the here and now, with a short-term focus on quick results? Are they future-oriented, with a willingness to trade short-term gains for long-term results? The action variable describes whether people are more concerned “being” or with “doing.” In being cultures, the emphasis is on the moment, relationships, inner peace, and growth as a person. In doing cultures, people focus on action, accomplishments, achieving goals, and improving standards of living. This blog post won’t take time to explore all the variables, but let’s take some time to explore an extremely important variable that is the root of much cross-cultural conflict.
  • Communication is a complex variable, with many layers. A culture’s orientation to communication is often very subtle. Differences in communication preferences can cause a multitude of problems in sales, negotiations and management. How important is Contest. In a low-context bias, little background information about and individual is needed before business is transacted. Business tends to be impersonal. Communication of information is primarily in words, and meaning is expressed explicitly. In a high-context bias, a lot of background information about and individual is needed before business can be transacted. Relationships are critical. Information is transmitted not just in words, but through body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, speech patterns, use of silence, etc. Meaning of spoken words is more implicit. Communication can be “expressive”, with an emphasis on emotional content and relationship, or it can be “instrumental” focused on pragmatic problem solving and impersonal transmission of information. Formal communication places high importance on customs and protocol. An informal orientation to communication dispenses with ceremony and prefers to conduct business in a relaxed manner. Communication can be direct or indirect. In a direct bias, conflict is handled most often by unmediated and face-to-face confrontation. In an indirect bias, uses mix of conflict avoidance For example, in Japanese the phase “Maemuki ni kentou shimasu” literally means, “In a forward-facing manner we will consider [it].” However, it is actually a non-confrontational way of saying “No” to a proposal. Westerners, especially Americans, tend to be direct. We put the bottom line up front. We are quick to assign credit or blame. We tend to believe that we can speak to a problem without offending the person. We tend to separate the person from the problem, the person from the action, or the person from the idea. However, two-thirds of the people in the word come from cultures that value indirectness.

Developing Cultural Competence can be accomplished in four phases. First, begin with an open mind. Understand that you have a bias that your way of seeing the world is the best way, if not the only way. Accept that other cultural orientations are as valid as your own. Allow yourself to be curious, and become excited about working with people from other cultural. Unless you willing to forego a whole world of opportunities, you must take this important first step. Second, increase your awareness of yourself and others. Intentional examine the dominant beliefs, values, thinking patterns, and behaviors of the social group in which you were raised. Observe how people from other social groups interact with the world around them, while withholding judgement. Just be aware of the differences. Third, ensure your understanding is well grounded in knowledge of other cultures. Study about them. Read books, watch documentaries, see their films, visit cultural enclaves near your home, eat their food, learn their languages, travel and experience their cultural on as many levels as possible. Learning the language opens so many doors, I cannot over emphasize its importance. You cannot truly understand a people until you learn to think in their language. Language is encoded culture, which is why I’m not a big fan of machine translation technologies. In the final phase you become able to detect, analyze, and consider the points of view of other people and recognize how your own actions may be interpreted. The highest expression of cultural competence is Cultural Adaptability, demonstrated as you gather and interpret information about people and surroundings and adjust your behavior in order to interact effectively with others; you integrate well into situations in which people have different beliefs, values, and customs and develop positive rapport by showing respect for the culture; and you understand the implications of your actions and adjusts approach to maintain appropriate relationships.

Absent the time and inclination to learn a new language and to dive deeply into a countries culture, the international business executive and the global special operations warrior alike must rely on carefully vetted, high-skilled interpreters and cultural advisor. While the variables discussed above can be used to understand the cultures of groups both large and small. An individual’s cultural profile are also shape by factors such as family, region, neighborhood, education, profession, social class, gender, race, religion, corporate culture, heroes, and exposure to other cultures. As you move deeper into cross-cultural relationships, it is as important to become familiar with the personal history of those you work with as it is to understand general cultural factors.