Intercultural vs. International

As I was preparing to deliver a recent workshop on unconscious bias for an international school, my client mentioned that there may be some pushback from staff who felt that there were no issues with bias because of the school’s diversity. Another client, who works for a global non-governmental organization with staff from more than 189 countries, often struggles to convey the need for intercultural training. These examples demonstrate the misconception many people have that living and working in a multicultural environment naturally endows us with cultural competence.

While having an international experience is certainly a pre-requisite to working effectively in the intercultural field, it’s important to debunk the myth that being a globetrotter automatically translates into being an interculturalist—or having the necessary skills to effectively teach others how to navigate work in a global workforce. To be an effective intercultural practitioner, it’s important to leverage international experience by cultivating sufficient self-awareness of how culture develops our identities and why we ultimately think and behave the way we do.

I have witnessed many a client’s shock when they receive their results from the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), a tool that assesses one’s intercultural competence. More often than not there is a disconnect between their perceived level of high competence and the reality that they may find themselves at a lower stage of development.

Part of the allure that draws people into an international career is the opportunity to travel the world, learn about a new culture and potentially a new language. However, to truly become an interculturalist one needs to go further—to be able to synthesize those observations and personal experiences with a deeper reflection of how behaviors are influenced by inherent cultural factors. While many clients want to know the basic do’s and don’ts about working in a new culture, I gently remind them that a perfunctory explanation of behaviors isn’t the antidote to resolving the complex challenges they encounter in their daily global work. Instead it’s critical to cultivate awareness of their background and the impact it has on values, beliefs, and assumptions and to recognize how they influence communication patterns, ways of building trust and work styles.

Yet awareness is merely the first phase. After examining all the cultural influences that have shaped our identities, we need to transfer this knowledge into learning about other cultures and people by considering similar factors. The next step is to develop comprehensive skills that can be applied in any cross-cultural interaction. Our training and consulting work apply the principles of the three “Ps”—pausing, probing and progressing.

  • Pausing encourages us to step back and reflect on all the cultural factors that have shaped who we are and to become mindful of how they influence our behaviors. It’s about exploring not only our national culture but also our ethnic, gender, generational, religious, organizational, socio-economic and other cultures. Pausing also creates the space to tune into our emotional triggers in challenging interactions with others and to consider what cultural factors may be contributing.
  • Probing stresses the need to ask questions in a way that demonstrates a desire to learn and to actively listen to the response without assuming we already know the answer. When we acknowledge that differences in thinking, behaving and being exist, we begin to seek how to better understand another’s worldview. Going further it allows us to appreciate how the differences can help us be more effective as a team.
  • Progressing emphasizes a proactive approach to goal setting, problem-solving and creating solutions that are mutually beneficial and promote inclusive collaboration. When we willingly integrate different ideas and practices instead of assuming that our way is the right way, we set the stage for much more inclusive collaboration and team members who feel valued. Indeed, research on high performing teams indicate that multicultural teams that embrace differences out-perform mono-cultural teams 9 out of 10 times.

As our global work environment becomes ever more complex and fast-paced, moving beyond the international experience into the realm of conscious collaboration may increase not only efficiencies but also foster a more motivated, engaged, committed and productive workforce.

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Intercultural Alliances, LLC