What is Cultural Competence and How Can It Transform Your Leadership?

cultural competency leadership

Cultural competency in leadership is a crucial tool in today’s diverse workplaces. Recognizing its importance can bridge the gap in understanding and communication. But why do some leaders effortlessly connect with their teams, while others struggle?

It’s not just about personal rapport or shared goals. One major stumbling block can be cultural misunderstandings. Deep-rooted cultural norms influence our interactions and reactions, often subconsciously.

Misreading these cues can lead to misconceptions, perceived threats, or disruptions in communication, hindering effective leadership.

Reasons Why People Shut Down:

  • Being fundamentally misunderstood on a cultural level
  • Interpreting cultural differences as disruptions or threats
  • Lack of awareness regarding cultural norms

cultural competency leadership

A leader who possesses listening skills, yet lacks cultural competence, might be unaware when cultural differences are getting in the way of their listening. They might mistake an employee’s cultural differences for defiance, and seek to remedy the situation by firing that person.

Developing cultural competence — the ability to effectively work with others from varying cultural backgrounds — will help you transcend these interpretations and accomplish your goals with fewer barriers.

Developing Cultural Competence Begins by Understanding its Potential

Every person has a unique perspective, molded by the intricacies of their cultural upbringing. Often, these deeply embedded cultural norms go unrecognized by the individual but are apparent to outsiders.

To foster genuine connections and collaborative environments, it’s imperative to acknowledge and appreciate these cultural nuances. Embracing cultural competence is the key. It means recognizing these differences not as challenges, but as invaluable assets.

By harnessing the strengths that come from diverse backgrounds, organizations can unlock a wealth of potential. Achieving this requires a humble approach, a willingness to learn, and the astute diplomacy to interact across cultural divides.

GlobalCognition.com highlights the role of a diplomatic mindsets in developing cultural competence:

“A diplomatic mindset starts with a focus on what you are trying to accomplish. And recognizing that you need to work with diverse others to meet your goals. It means being aware of your own world view, and realizing that your own background shapes how you see things. Doing so helps you understand how you are viewed by the person you are interacting with. It also helps you manage your own attitudes toward the other person’s culture. Making it easier to find ways to get the job done in spite of your differences.”

cultural competency leadership

Benefits of Developing Cultural Competence:

  • Unlocking the potential of your best employees
  • Enhancing understanding and diplomacy skills
  • Fostering a diplomatic mindset
  • Improved cross-cultural interaction
  • Better business outcomes in a global market

Some People Naturally Develop Cultural Competence

There are those who seem to inherently possess a deep understanding of diverse cultures. Often, their nuanced cultural insights have been shaped by a life filled with diverse experiences, travel, and interactions with people from various backgrounds.

Traveling, whether for work or leisure, can be a profound tool for developing cultural competence. When you’re in a different country or community, you aren’t just observing; you’re actively engaging, adapting, and assimilating new cultural norms and practices.

For those who may not be inclined to travel, the digital age offers vast resources to explore cultures virtually. Yet, true cultural competence transcends academic knowledge.

It’s about genuinely internalizing and respecting differences, which means being willing to ask, listen, and learn without judgment.

In the book Culture Crossing, Michael Landers aims to help businesses decrease the risk of sending the wrong signals while interacting with other cultures.

This book isn’t a strategy guide with a list of do’s and do not’s. It helps readers create the space for effective cross-cultural interaction by becoming aware of their own programming first.

cultural competency leadership

With Cultural Competency, Anything is Possible

Richard Branson’s global empire is a shining example of what’s possible when cultural competence becomes the pillar of your leadership efforts.

Branson, an international entrepreneur with over 400 companies, didn’t achieve success by following any standard rules of leadership, or reading books on cultural norms. He used his interpersonal skills to carve his own path. Though he often provides leadership advice when interviewed, his interpersonal skills are his leadership skills, and cultural competence is his core.

Branson doesn’t follow the rules because he’s a rebel. He understands that rules are only a surface analysis of someone else’s success. Branson is committed to doing things differently, and often tells his interviewers that his company culture has always been “don’t sweat it: rules were meant to be broken.”

On the surface, the leadership skills Branson advocates appear as though they can be turned into a winning strategy anyone can follow. Beneath the surface, however, his strategies are powered by his cultural competence.

cultural competency leadership

Cultural Competency Leadership vs. Traditional Leadership

Understanding the differences between cultural competency focused leadership and traditional leadership is vital in today’s global market. The table below highlights these differences and demonstrates the advantages of embracing a culturally competent approach.

AttributeCulturally Competent LeadershipTraditional Leadership
Understanding of Diverse TeamsDeep and holisticSurface-level
Approach to Problem-solvingCollaborative and inclusiveDirective
Reaction to Cultural DifferencesCurious and adaptiveResistant or dismissive
ListeningWhole being, beyond wordsOnly to words
Strategy ApplicationDynamic, based on diverse needsFixed, one-size-fits-all
Outcome in Global MarketsSuccessful and adaptiveRisk of misinterpretation

cultural competency leadership

Develop Cultural Competence to Meet Your Business Goals

In global business, cultural competence in leadership isn’t just a desirable trait—it’s essential. When you truly develop this competence, you elevate the act of listening to an art form.

It becomes about more than just hearing words—it’s about understanding nuances, grasping emotions, and discerning the underlying cultural contexts. Such deep listening fosters a richer understanding of varied perspectives, creating inclusive environments where everyone feels seen and heard.

As businesses aim to thrive in global markets, harnessing the power of cultural diversity becomes crucial.

A culturally competent organization not only resonates better with diverse clientele but also draws upon the collective strengths of a diverse workforce to drive innovation and success.

Photo via Shutterstock

Larry Alton Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.