Why Intercultural Competence is Essential — and How Schools and Businesses Are Helping People Develop It

By Lorna Collier

When human resources expert Kendal Callison visited her U.S.-based company’s office in Italy for the first time 14 years ago, she set up hour-long meetings with every employee and began each conversation by asking what they thought about their jobs and what could be done better. At lunchtime, a manager took her aside and gently explained that in Italy, things are done differently. Family and personal time are valued, and personal relationships must be established before work issues can be broached, he told her. At least 45 minutes of a one-hour initial meeting would usually be spent on this kind of non-work talk, whether you were dealing with a client or a colleague.

“That was amazingly enlightening for me,” says Callison, “because here I’d been a bull in a china shop jumping into business content without warming up and developing that personal connection.” She quickly switched her approach, resulting in colleagues opening up to her and “sharing more meaningful information about what was going well and not well.”

The experience taught Callison, now a Seattle-based senior human resources executive for Auth0, the importance of intercultural competence, which refers to a person’s ability to adapt or perform effectively within and across cultural contexts.

Intercultural, or cross-cultural, competence is a crucial skill-set in today’s global workplace, where employees are more likely to interact with co-workers, vendors or customers from different cultures and countries, and need to work productively with people who have been shaped by different values, beliefs and experiences.

Immigration and demographic changes have made the United States more diverse. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 50 percent of children under 5 today are part of a minority race or ethnic group, and it’s expected that by about midcentury, the U.S. population will be majority-minority. The number of foreign-born workers increased to 16.5 percent in 2014 from almost 15 percent in 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These and other changes in the fabric of American society make intercultural competence more valuable than ever before. It is increasingly being viewed as a necessary skill not only in business but in the military, K–12 schools and colleges.

What does it mean to be interculturally competent?

ETS researchers have been studying how to assess intercultural competence, which requires defining and understanding the construct, including identifying the types of evidence that would indicate that someone is interculturally competent and the process through which people can develop those skills. One research partner is the U.S. Army.

LisaRe Babin, a research psychologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute’s field office at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has worked with ETS to develop assessments of intercultural competence for soldier training. Babin defines this competency as the knowledge, skills and abilities that help someone successfully engage with people from another culture. It’s an essential skill for soldiers who deploy to other countries and work in close-knit units with others from diverse backgrounds.

“Coming to the Army can be very tumultuous for folks if they’re not used to being around different types of people from all over the world,” says Babin. Within units, other soldiers may be immigrants or come from widely different cultures, which can lead to frictions and tension.

Some characteristics appear to help people approach others in an interculturally competent way. Babin said these include “perspective-taking” — trying to see things through another’s eyes — and enjoying being in challenging, diverse environments.

Upbringing could play a part as well.

People who come from bilingual households, for example, “are already kind of conditioned and experienced in having to think about the world in two different ways,” Babin says. “When they deploy to a completely foreign environment, they may already have the listening skills, observation skills or motivation to interact with [another person in a way] that makes their cross-cultural experience more positive, versus someone who is more rigid in their understanding of cultural differences.”

Jennifer Klafehn, an associate research scientist in ETS’s Academic to Career Center, says intercultural competence is more a process reflected in what one “does” than a static set of skills and abilities that one “has.” People who are cross-culturally competent are continually acquiring and evaluating new cultural information and then using that information to revise their beliefs as necessary.

Klafehn says someone who has a “relatively open mindset” may have an easier time achieving cultural competence, because they are likely to be more accepting of new information and perspectives. On the other hand, people with more closed mindsets may take longer to learn how to bridge differences and work together.

“A lot of what we attribute to intercultural competence comes down to motivation and openness,” Klafehn says. “Individuals who are motivated to engage with other cultures and are open to new or different ideas are going to be more likely to seek out and make use of information that helps them adapt to new environments.”

Workforce training in intercultural competence

Carol Olsby, a global and domestic human relations consultant who heads the Global HR Consortium, says companies are on the lookout for employees with intercultural skills and experience — and often have trouble finding it.

In a 2016 survey of more than 2,700 HR execs conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, 15 percent of respondents reported that they had encountered shortages in job applicants’ diversity skills, such as “the ability to work well with a diverse workforce and customer base.”

Yet, such diversity and intercultural understanding provide a competitive advantage. Research from McKinsey shows that companies with more diverse staff make more money. Businesses that understand this advantage try to develop intercultural competence in their employees through training, mentoring sessions, one-on-one coaching and other means, Olsby says.

The military starts developing soldiers’ lessons in basic training, Babin says. Soldiers who will deploy to foreign countries often first “deploy” to simulated villages where actors play residents the soldiers may encounter. This gives them an opportunity to practice interactions and become familiar with operating in a culturally unfamiliar environment.

Diversity and intercultural training in education

The U.S. Department of Education has issued a framework for developing global and cultural competencies that starts with early learning and continues through elementary, secondary and postsecondary education. Goals for the curriculum include developing empathy, cultural understanding and other collaborative skills.

A variety of organizations offer training to teachers and/or students in global and intercultural competencies. Often, this overlaps with training in diversity.

The National Education Association offers a diversity toolkit aimed at developing culturally responsive teaching. Teaching Tolerance, a Southern Poverty Law Center program, provides free classroom and professional development resources to help reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations and support equitable education. And NAFSA: Association of International Educators (formerly the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers) encourages intercultural competence as part of a “broader sort of global preparedness,” says Kevin Hovland, deputy executive director.

Lisa Adams, a consultant in the human rights department at the California Teachers Association, leads three-day professional development workshops that focus on equity in education. She covers topics like implicit bias, cultural competence, and the impacts of stereotyping, societal power and privilege.

A modified version of the training program she periodically delivers to high school students is designed to help widen their perspectives so they understand that the “lens through which you view the world is just your lens — not everyone’s lens,” she says.

At Skokie School District 68 near Chicago, which includes three elementary schools and one middle school, students speak more than 60 languages. After English, the most prominent is Urdu, followed by Assyrian, Arabic and Spanish, says Barbara Marler, director of English Learners for the district.

“We have immigrants and refugees of all stripes,” she says, noting that a district that was predominantly Jewish 40 years ago is now about one-third Jewish, one-third Muslim and one-third Christian.

The district shows the high value it places on intercultural competence by integrating it into the core curriculum and celebrating diversity through regular multicultural nights honoring different cultures, says Marler.

“Our immigrant and refugee students need to develop bicultural facility now that they are in a new country, so we work on that,” she says. “We also want our existing students to develop greater cultural proficiency because that’s an economic asset they can use in their adult life.”

Colleges and universities also emphasize global competencies that can better prepare their students for the workplace.

Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., provides an undergraduate Global Connections certificate that includes community service related to diversity. To promote inclusion, faculty and students participate in workshops about unconscious bias, and staff are trained to incorporate global content, cultures and languages into existing courses. The university also encourages students to study abroad, and about 25 percent do, roughly double the national average.

Assessing intercultural competence at the collegiate level is increasingly important to meet the demand for graduates who can work productively with a diverse team. To help their fellow colleagues in the field, researchers from ETS partnered with experts at The Institute for Cross Cultural Management at the Florida Institute of Technology to publish a framework that institutions can use when making decisions about adopting an assessment or planning their own assessment development. The framework provides an innovative definition of intercultural competence, a comprehensive overview of existing assessments and guidance for next generation assessment design. Using that same framework, ETS has designed a new assessment of intercultural competence and diversity as part of its HEIghten® Outcomes Assessment Suite. It will be available for institutions to purchase in early 2018.

Measuring and training intercultural competence using games

In the future, businesses, schools and other organizations may be able to teach and assess intercultural competence using computer games as well. Game designers Mike Treanor and Joshua McCoy, both assistant professors of computer science at American University in Washington, D.C., are working with ETS researchers to develop these kinds of assessment environments.

Treanor’s and McCoy’s “social simulation” games feature fictional cultures that require players to learn unwritten societal rules to achieve objectives. Players interact with artificially intelligent characters, created to respond in countless ways. These interactions force players to adjust behavior based on feedback from others — a key component of intercultural competence.

At present, these games are being used for research purposes only. But they represent a possible future for developing skills that will be increasingly needed as society and the workplace grow ever more diverse.

Lorna Collier is a writer specializing in education, technology and business. She writes frequently for the National Council of Teachers of English and the Center for Digital Education.