Diversity, Equity & Inclusion For Dummies
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Cultural competence, which is often used interchangeably with intercultural competence, is the ability to work effectively in a multicultural environment. In today’s increasingly global workforce, people are working together on teams with colleagues who are literally on the other side of the world, from very different cultures.

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But even if your work teams and customers are completely domestic, they’re increasingly diverse. Communities of color, the LGBTQ community, different faith communities, and communities based on ability each have different, but predictable, beliefs and behaviors that guide how they perceive the workplace and show up at work.

Cultural competence has three central components, each of which builds on the last:

  • Self-awareness around your own cultural background (the beliefs and behaviors that guide your perceptions and actions)
  • Knowledge of other cultures (especially those you interact with on a regular basis)
  • The ability to adapt, if necessary, to achieve harmony and maximum productivity in the workplace

Being aware of your own culture

Author David Foster Wallace tells a comic parable about fish that perfectly describes the invisible nature of culture. In it, two young fish are swimming in the ocean when they happen by an older fish. “Morning, boys,” the older fish says. “How’s the water?” Only after the older fish has swum away does one of the younger fish look to his companion and ask, “What the hell is water?”

People often think about their culture the way fish probably think about water. Though it’s omnipresent in their lives, it’s also very easy to take for granted. And they typically don’t have to think about it, because it’s always just there. But, just like a fish, people can become very aware of their culture when it’s taken away from them.

Therefore, being aware of your own culture takes a bit of work. Suppose you have a new client or customer who doesn’t make eye contact. Depending on your culture, you may draw very different conclusions about this client’s trustworthiness.

A wise leader frames this observation as an open question (“Should I trust this person?”) as opposed to a declarative statement (“This person can’t be trusted”). If you’re a leader from a Western culture (for example, the United States or Canada) you may believe that the person isn’t trustworthy without ever thinking about the data that led you to that decision (the lack of eye contact) or the belief that prompted your reaction (direct eye contact is both polite and sincere; those who avoid it have something to hide).

A self-aware leader responds to all interactions that strike them as wrong or bad and checks them against their own cultural background in a search for cultural misalignment.

Knowledge of other cultures

Although knowing about every culture in the world is practically impossible, a leader should be well versed in the cultures that they engage with on a regular basis. If you work in a country where Catholicism is the dominant religion, you’re probably already aware of major Catholic holidays and don’t question why many employees show up to work with ashes on their foreheads each year around February or March, for example.

However, if you’re about to welcome the first Muslim member of your team, you may not be aware of the holidays, traditions, and requirements of practicing Islam, and obtaining this information is your responsibility. The same holds true if you’re welcoming someone raised in another country, a person with a different race or ethnicity, a member of the LGBTQ community, or a person with a disability.

How you get the information doesn’t really matter as long as you don’t make your new employee responsible for everything you need to know. (Internet search engines can be very helpful, but make a real effort to look at reliable sites for your research.)

It will mean so much more to your new employee if their new leader has some basic knowledge about their culture on their first day. You should feel free, however, to let your new team member know that you’re open to new information they may choose to provide about their community or themselves in general.

Always remember that your new employee is both a member of a community as well as an individual and may not adhere to all traditions or taboos that are true for the culture at large.

The ability to adapt

Often, an unspoken rule dictates that members of minority cultures should assimilate to the larger culture they find themselves in — that is, to let the larger culture replace their own. Usually, this assimilation happens to at least a small extent. However, the leader who is a true champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) also strives to adapt their own behaviors when necessary.

For instance, if you have members on your team who were born and raised in India, they may be extremely uncomfortable disagreeing with you, their leader, in public. You may believe that dissent is a necessary part of innovation.

You can ask these employees directly to act in direct opposition to their culture, but a better course of action is to keep your own opinions to yourself in large team meetings so that your Indian employees can speak authentically without worrying about contradicting you, and to thank the entire team for its robust contributions.

What cultural competence isn’t

Understanding the aspects of cultural competence in the preceding sections is one thing. Know what cultural competence doesn’t include is equally important:

Learning everything about every culture

Cultures are fluid and changeable. And if cultural competence were defined as knowing everything about every culture on earth, no one could be considered competent. There’s simply too much to know.

Being able to unconsciously assimilate

As I noted earlier, assimilating to another culture means letting go of your own cultural identity so that another can replace it. Being culturally competent doesn’t require you to lose any part of who you are, but the goal is to adapt.

Being above or without culture

Even you could be above or without culture (which is impossible), you probably wouldn’t want to. Rather, you should experience cultural competence as a process, one that you must repeat at each interaction across difference.

Code switching

Code switching is often defined as freely moving between two languages or dialects, but the modern definition encompasses not only the words a person uses, but also the tone of voice, physicality, and other culturally based behaviors.

It sounds a lot like cultural competence, right? But the key difference is intention. Code switching usually isn’t performed by leaders, or people with power, with the goal of being more inclusive of others. Rather, the people without power code switch so they can fit in with the larger power structure.

What I’ve learned is that code switching is a survival technique, a tool to help you fit into different social and professional settings — particularly when you’re part of a marginalized community. As a woman of color and often the “only one” in the room with my male (mostly white) colleagues, I remember many occasions when I code switched to fit in.

I’d tone down my voice when offering ideas or giving feedback so that I wouldn’t be perceived as the aggressive or “angry Black woman.” I’d listen to all of the buzzwords they were using and inject them into my speech when I could even when I didn’t know what all of them meant; I pretended to know.

I dressed the way they did to fit in and went out to the bars after work with them, even though I don’t like that scene and didn’t drink. I had to pretend to like certain sports or other activities so that I’d be seen as “one of them.” The point is, I didn’t feel that I could be my true and authentic self and be accepted. The culture didn’t give me a sense of belonging or safety to be myself.

Truthfully, everyone code switches to a certain degree. Even people who belong to nearly every dominant group behave differently at work with their colleagues than they do on the weekend with friends. But unlike cultural competence, repeated and necessary code switching involves a denial of self and can take an emotional and psychological toll.

If you’re adapting to cultural norms to create a more inclusive environment for staff, that’s cultural competence. If you’re shielding your own culture from view because it’s unwelcome at work, that’s code switching — and a sign that your organizational culture needs work.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Shirley Davis, PhD, is a seasoned human resources and diversity and inclusion thought leader, a certified leadership coach, and veteran executive. She has been featured on NBC’s Today, USA Today, National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal, Essence magazine, Fast Company, the Washington Post, and more.

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