Cultural Competence

Establishing a Knowledge Structure

Establishing a Knowledge Structure


Companies like Hewlett-Packard, Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare and IBM consider cultural competence an important (important enough to hold managers accountable with financial incentives) management requirement. Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare's Vice- President of Diversity Barbara Stern, explains, "Cultural competence should be a part of everyone's strategy. We need to be good at working with people of all walks of life." R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., founder of The Institute for Managing Diversity and well known author asserts, "Companies that want to compete successfully must hold managers accountable for underutilizing people who are not like them." He adds, "This has nothing to do with prejudice or guilt. Managers must perform their role or be removed to another area where they can be effective. Understanding differences helps individuals learn how to get along." In essence, cultural competence and strong diversity management will help companies effectively draw upon talent, intellectual capital, and motivate more employees.

What Does Cultural Competence Look Like?: Alan Richter, partner at QED Consulting and creator of The Global Diversity Game, explains, "One dimension of cultural competence is the ability to deal with ambiguity. The more you deal with it the more effective you can be -- it's adaptive. Dealing with complexity is another skill. From a cultural perspective, it might the ability to switch between cultural paradigms." Deborah Dagit, Silicon Graphic's director of diversity adds: "Cultural competence is knowing what I don't know and learning to understand what other's expectations are. You have to ask questions to be on the same page." Sybil Evans, author of Resolving Conflict in a Diverse Workplace and conflict management expert, adds, "a critical skill is the ability to see issues from another person's perspective. Although it is a mistake to claim total identification with someone of a different culture, one can empathize with the person's feelings and communicate recognition, respect, and caring. Enhancing questions, listening and responding skills is essential to demonstrate this understanding."

At Ford Motor Company, leadership behaviors have been identified as they have integrated leadership assessment into performance management. Among the behaviors management are assessed on are: integrity, courage, durability, people development, teamwork, communications, drive for results, systemic thinking, and business acumen. Culture is integrated into these behaviors. For example, people development involves the valuing and confidently promoting a diversity of new ideas and workforce. For communication, managers are encouraged to demonstrate sensitivity to language and cultural communication requirements.

Conflict Management for Creative Tension: A Critical Competence: Cross-cultural encounters are bound to lead to conflict. According to Evans, three areas of miscommunication are likely to lead to this conflict: values, perceptions, and assumptions. She explains, "Managing conflict constructively requires checking assumptions, finding common ground, and generating solutions." Frank J. Quevedo, vice-president, Southern California Edison, adds, "We have tremendous opportunity to provide managers with basic conflict resolution skills. This is their reality, they need tools to manage across those differences effectively." When conflict can be thought of as an opportunity for creative tension, we begin to see a basis for better decision-making, more creative ideas, solutions to problems, and improved communication and interpersonal relationships.

Success was evidenced for Mercedes-Benz at their plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Americans found that their styles for addressing issues differed from Germans and vice versa. Debra Nelson, administrator of external affairs at Mercedes-Benz U.S. International says, "We knew we would be engaging Alabamians, Germans, and people throughout North America as well as the 'Big Three.'" She adds, "It has taken a lot of work, including cross-cultural understanding and awareness, to help us be productive. The work has paid off. We learned communication was the key. Through communication we discovered our commonalities."

Developing cultural competence takes work and education, but is well worth the investment. Sondra Theiederman, author of Bridging Cultural Barriers for Corporate Success writes that learning about cross-cultural management is important because it will "allow you to maximize the chances that your multicultural workplace will be productive, efficient, and harmonious. It will also enable you to attract and retain high-quality workers of diverse ethnic or cultural backgrounds." Specifically, she notes, it will allow:

Moreover, cross-cultural management minimizes:

Sometimes culture-specific training is necessary, but there is also culture-general training which can be valuable and particularly useful for developing cross-cultural competence.

Culture-Specific and Cultural-General Training:

A book entitled Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries is an excellent resource for understanding culture-specific issues. This resource is the basis for many corporate training programs, especially as they pertain to expatriates who are being trained to go abroad. Authors of the book, Morrison, Conaway, and Borden, explain that for each of the sixty countries identified in their book, there is a "cultural orientation" that includes:

  1. Locus of Decision-making
  2. Sources of Anxiety Reduction
  3. Issues of Equality/Inequality10

These cultural orientations help us understand in a business context how people may vary in their perspectives and ways of doing things based upon their cultural orientation. Again, we are reminded by Morrison, et. al., who caution individuals using their book, "Remember that you deal with individuals, and there are always exceptions to every rule."

Drawing upon cultural orientations and cultural archetypes, American Express Financial Advisors has also developed a very successful form of culture-specific training. Through training and participation in Learning Labs, American Express Financial Advisors is actually increasing the understanding, and the valuing, of their diverse constituencies. This method has had phenomenal success in tapping into the African-American, Hispanic, and Gay and Lesbian markets. Richard S. Gaskins, vice-president, diversity resource center at American Express Financial Advisors concludes from his experience: "In order for people to be effective in diverse client acquisition, certain things must be in place. They must have a knowledge base of cultural patterns of the segments they are working in. The organization must also support this kind of environment. And, senior management must support and appreciate the fact that people are different. We teach people to effectively communicate and work with people who are different from themselves."

Culture General: A Taxonomy for Understanding World View

Culture is complex, but it "embodies a way of living, of seeing the world," says Arredondo. "When viewed this way, we can begin to connect as individuals and as groups." Research by Arredondo and others such as Nancy Adler, Geert Hofstede, Edward Hall, Fons Trompennars, Warner Burke, Taylor Cox, and Kluckhon and Strodtbeck, among others provide us with valuable insight into understanding culture and cross-cultural differences. Anna Duran, based upon the work of Kluckholn and Strodbeck, and Farah Ibrahim, Ph.D., professor at the University of Connecticut and developer of the Scale to Assess World View, explains that each of us maintains our own "World View" around five key areas:

Human Nature: What is the character of human nature?
Relationships: How do people establish relationships?
Nature: What is the relationship of people to nature?
Time: Where is the temporal focus of life?
Activity: How do people live their lives?

As an example, our world view on "human nature" might manifest itself in the workplace in a variety of ways. One kind of conflict that occurs within this value category, according to Duran, is how much to trust people or not. She explains, "These conflicts manifest themselves in terms of how much of our work we share with other people, how much we trust co-workers or subordinates to carry through with a project; and how much we allow a group to empower themselves to develop policies and procedures for the organization or allow people to make decisions for themselves."

Griggs Productions has also provided a similar example of common challenges people face across differences in the workplace (See Exhibit 2 - Next Page).  We see readily how contrasts around time, language, communication, and relationship can have significant consequences in the workplace.