Updated: Feb 23
The boundaries that once separated us are shrinking. We have to know how to communicate effectively with our global peers to succeed in business.
Working professionals in almost every industry share a need they may not be aware of, the need for cultural competence. Whether you work in an office or a factory, in today’s increasingly global workplace, it’s extremely helpful, sometimes imperative, to have some level of cultural competence — often more is definitely better.
Neal Goodman, President and Co-founder of international consulting firm Global Dynamics, and Etiquette Expert and Cultural Competence Consultant Heidi Dulebohn, gathered virtually to discuss why cultural competence is such an important skill for success and advancement in the modern workplace. What follows is an edited excerpt from their discussion.
Please define cultural competence.
Neal Goodman: The simple way to define it is, it’s understanding how to leverage the diverse rules of the game of life and business around the world for your competitive advantage. It’s learning what are the rules of business, the rules of life, and they’re intertwined.
To have cultural competence, you have to have the ability to see the same situation from multiple perspectives simultaneously. You could see it as an American or as a Chinese. You could try to see it as a person of color, a person who’s white, or of privilege, or without privilege. The point is to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, but by knowing something about their culture, not by guessing.
Heidi Dulebohn: This is a great definition. I love when you have the opportunity to interact with someone from a completely different culture, and you’ve got to do a little research. But sometimes that’s really hard. It can help to have guidance or a coach.
Why is cultural competence a critical skill for today’s professionals working in the global marketplace?
Neal: You need to have cultural competence because culture is hidden, cultures vary. People don’t know what’s going on in another culture, and it includes: how we make decisions, how we manage people, how we work with our subordinates at work and perhaps after work, how to establish trust, how to give a performance review, how to work on a global team, how we sell, how we market, how we protect our brands, when and how to speak up at a meeting, and thousands of other factors. If you’re not aware of that, at the end of the day, you’re gonna wind up with gridlock, frustration, loss of time, money, and all the rest.
Heidi: I completely concur. Cultural competence affects every aspect of your life or your business life that you can imagine. Let’s say you purchase a factory in a foreign place. In order to succeed the leaders have to be able to relate to the people, the workers in that place if they’re to run it effectively. I mean, every aspect, it’s crucial to be aware, to understand where they’re coming from, and then to have an appreciation. You don’t have to assimilate, but if you can appreciate where someone else is coming from, their behaviors and attitudes will make a lot more sense to you.
Is cultural competence a common skill? If not, why not?
Neal: We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s like the fish in the bowl thinks that water is the whole world — until it’s taken out. We’re the same way.
We can go into another country and think everything they’re doing is stupid because when things are done differently, we often put a negative interpretation on it. So, it’s not a common skill. It’s tied to a high degree of empathy, knowing that cultural differences are valid. To be aware of that allows you to be more successful.
Heidi: For me, it goes back to an insatiable curiosity. My whole life I’ve been exposed to other cultures. I find it fascinating, but as you said, Dr. Goodman, it’s not that common, unfortunately. But it’s so important in business today, even while we’re all quarantined at home.
You’re still meeting globally via Zoom or whatever you use, and sometimes people want to start off and get to know you a little bit. They’re asking about your family, things like that, and others can think, well, that’s a bit intrusive isn’t it? We’re here to do business, snap to it, time is money. Let’s go, go, go. You need to be aware of that, or you could be very unsuccessful in your endeavors.
Is cultural competence a hard skill to learn?
Neal: It’s not a hard skill to learn if people are open to it, willing to learn and not say, my culture is better or worse than somebody else’s. People tell me in my seminars that, “Oh, I wish my boss could be taking this.” I hear this all the time; and it’s because they’re the ones doing the interaction and the work, then they try to explain to their bosses.
Another common thing is headquarters myopia. At Global Dynamics we work with clients on four continents. It doesn’t matter where headquarters is, France, Japan, the U.S., Brazil. Every business thinks the way things are done at headquarters is the right way to do it: the right way to market, to advertise, to hold meetings, whatever. It’s very hard to break through that. So, it’s easy to learn. But are the right people learning it?
Heidi: That’s a sad statement that bosses aren’t getting cultural competence training. But I agree. You have to have the desire, and in a lot of cases that’s fed by a business need.
For instance, you’re working with people from other cultures, and you’ve got to get along to meet the goals. Perhaps there have been communication or project deadline challenges. Therefore, you’ve got to reach out and find some common ground once you have an understanding of these differences to avoid conflict and maximize your time and resources. Then you can be successful, but it’s impossible if you don’t first try to gain an understanding of cultural differences.
When you do that after the fact, things are more difficult. It’s certainly not impossible, but it takes longer to recover and establish or create the connections, the collaboration that modern, global business requires. That’s never a good thing because as crass as it may sound, time is money.
Wasted time may mean your competitors go to market first. Or, you lose critical opportunities to interact with customers, or to build alliances and relationships that will produce new and innovative products or solutions.
How can cultural competence advance your career?
Neal: There’s a lot of talk about upskilling now. I’ve done a number of programs on how cultural competence can improve your career and your workplace. You see more opportunities because you’re exposing yourself to different perspectives. It’s not just your career that changes but your whole self.
All of a sudden you see the world as a brand new buffet of opportunities. It’s like saying, I’m going to only eat one type of cuisine the rest of my life. Then suddenly you’re shown all the different cuisines you could possibly be exposed to. It makes life so much richer.
Heidi: Oh, I love that. I completely believe in and try to live like that. I think we should all keep growing, improving, and be as well rounded as you can be. You need to reach out. It’s a big world, but a small world, even in quarantine.
How can a lack of cultural competence potentially derail or stall your career?
Neal: Very simply, whatever makes you a successful leader in the United States will probably cause you to fail in most of Asia. You need to understand what the rules of the game are, how you talk to people, how you give a performance review, how much to trust your subordinates.
In some cultures to take initiative without the boss’s direction is the height of insubordination. In the US, we generally think good managers empower their subordinates. But in many cultures good managers micromanage their employees. So, it can derail your career very quickly if you don’t know how the other culture’s thinking, how they’re acting.
Heidi: Exactly, you can be a really big hit here, but you’re not going to do so great in Japan. Sometimes it helps to know some of another language to know their culture. In some languages, there are pronouns for the levels of how you speak to people. It’s fascinating.
You could have such an opinion of how great you are at home, and it might not play well on the world stage without cultural competence. I’ve worked with too many leaders who missed out because they didn’t have the right global skills to maximize their opportunities. They were unable to crack those social codes that exist in other cultures, and the people in positions to promote or advance their careers took notice.
Final thoughts about the value of cultural competence in a career context?
Neal: If you’re happily ensconced somewhere in the neighborhood, the country etc., and you don’t know about others, and you don’t care, that’s where you’re going to be stuck. Learning about new settings is going to change you and your career.
The other thought I had is, the combination of the coronavirus and the enhanced amount of political nationalism all over the world is a major danger zone for humanity. While it’s great to be able to meet each other through Zoom, using primarily virtual communication means you’re even less likely to know the underpinnings of what’s going on in another’s culture, what their values are, how they make decisions. So, what happens once the call is over?
Because of the virus we’re not going to be traveling as much. There’ll be less student exchange, less employee exchange, fewer in person global meetings. Corporations have been at the forefront of bringing humanity together through globalization. I’m concerned that we’re all going to fall behind.
Heidi: I share your concerns. Until a few months ago my big concern was climate change. I thought, we have all got to come together. Thomas Friedman’s right you know, it’s crowded, it’s flat, it’s hot, and the demographics for the population explosion are huge for the year 2025, and so on. You read things from publications asking, how are we going to feed all these people? How are we going to grow enough food and keep people healthy?
But you’re right. Many people just don’t feel the urge to get to know other cultures and understand them. We’ve got to be able to communicate, but that sense of nationalism you’re referring to, it’s scary. It’s counterintuitive that you wouldn’t want to reach out, work together, and not be in these silos. Cultural competence could be such a great advantage in helping us come together to fix some of these problems.