Cultural Competency: Skills that can make you a global star | 10/8/2008, 7 p.m.

 Linda S. Wallace

Show a photo of a person standing in front of a group to Asian business executives, and they are likely to believe that the man or woman is an “outcast.”  In Asian cultures, community is widely viewed as the key to success. Show the same photo to Americans, and the assumptions are likely to differ.  Executives in the United States are far more likely to think that the individual standing alone is the leader. American society sees the individual as key to achievement.

Michael W. Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership Management at Columbia University Business School, uses this illustration to explain cultural shades, which are the lenses we use to make sense of the world. Individuals rely upon cultural values, beliefs, customs and mindsets when called upon to interpret facts. They explain why groups look at the same set of facts yet reach differing conclusions. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, two-thirds of African-Americans said that the government’s response would have been faster if most of the storm’s victims had been white. More than three-quarters of whites (77 percent) believed race would not have made a difference.

So which cultural lens is right? Well, we can’t tell unless we do additional detective work. Most of us, however, never get around to digging for truth. Since we aren’t even aware that other cultural filters exist, we assume that our view of the world is right. Our cultural blind spots interfere with communication, work relationships and consensus building.

Many colleges and universities and employers are addressing these issues by developing cultural competencies – skills which give individuals tools to help manage cultural differences and work as collaborators. Cultural shades, much like sunglasses, may make it harder for individuals to clearly see barriers right in front of them – especially when they are in unfamiliar places.

Cultural shades can produce blind spots. Unfortunately, these keep people from confronting hidden biases and developing the cultural skills that expand cultural insights and reduce cultural collisions.

Over the last 10 years, I have interviewed hundreds of people; worker bees, CEOs, community bridge builders, and academic leaders. I’ve used their insights to develop a list of cultural skills that are required to succeed in offices and boardrooms today:

Characteristics of a culturally competent worker:

• Emotionally aware: Recognizes that cultural situations, events and words will sometimes distort her or his judgment or view. Culture operates much like transition lenses, which darken the wearer’s view whenever he or she encounters the right trigger. A culturally competent person learns to manage these lenses.

• Emotionally controlled:  Makes an effort to control and monitor her or his emotions in tense situations.

• Reflective: Applies learned techniques and strategies to assess and improve effectiveness.

• Self-sufficient: Easily identifies the special skills needed to interact effectively with other cultures.

• Culturally agile: Willing to view situations through the cultural lenses of other peoples and nations. He or she uses this expanded view to gather facts and determine strategy. Cultural insights are used to help build and maintain effective working relationships.

• Empathetic: Senses and responds to the emotions of colleagues.

• Patient: Willing to understand those who are slow or resistant learners.

• Culturally literate: Seeks knowledge and information about a diversity of cultures and special populations.

• Tolerant of ambiguity: Recognizes and accepts that ambiguity exists. It is possible that a culture that loves freedom may enslave other people.

• Able to admit and share mistakes: He or she understands that mistakes provide opportunities for learning and skill development; demonstrates the courage to share her or his weaknesses.