What Is Intercultural Competence?

As companies expand globally and diversify their workforces, intercultural competence becomes a must-have for employees.

Written by Leyinska Soto
What Is Intercultural Competence?
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Matthew Urwin | Dec 14, 2023

Intercultural competence is a measure of one’s efficacy at communicating and interacting with people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and identities.

No matter how small or large an organization is, intercultural competence is essential to creating an environment where talent from all backgrounds can thrive. This is especially true for companies with a global workforce. A person’s experience of cultural differences both informs and constrains how the individual interacts with others. Moving beyond these person-specific constraints requires the development of intercultural competence.

Strategies for Developing Intercultural Competence in the Workplace

  • Gain deeper self-awareness and a better understanding of your behavior.
  • Learn about others’ cultural influences to better engage them from the start.
  • Observe how others respond to your intercultural communication preferences.
  • Adapt your approach to succeed in hybrid intercultural communication contexts.

Related Reading From Built In Experts4 Ways to Create an Inclusive Employee Experience


What Is Intercultural Competence?

Intercultural competence is the ability to effectively communicate with people of various cultures. To achieve this, one must not only be open to learning about other cultures, but must also be willing to look at their own culture from an outside perspective. This allows them to understand how to adapt to unfamiliar situations and find common ground with those of different backgrounds. 

Within international businesses, employees may find themselves working regularly with people from different backgrounds. As a result, two branches within the same global company may have distinct organizational cultures. Keeping an open mind and remaining flexible are just a few ways to navigate these diverse workplaces.


Five Elements of Intercultural Competence

  • Attitudes: Respect, openness and curiosity are attitudes that lead one to venture outside their comfort zone while placing an equal value on their culture and other cultures.   
  • Knowledge: Being aware of one’s culture and being willing to learn about other cultures both cultivate one’s ability to see the world through different perspectives.  
  • Skills: Observing, listening, evaluating, analyzing, interpreting and relating are skills necessary for acquiring new knowledge from other cultures.  
  • Internal outcomes: With the right attitudes, knowledge and skills, one can develop a more flexible mindset and relate to different perspectives.   
  • External outcomes: The combination of attitudes, knowledge, skills and internal outcomes allows one to demonstrate proper behavior in intercultural scenarios.  


Why Is Intercultural Competence Important?

Research reflects that employees often overestimate their own intercultural competence. This overestimation has developmental implications for organizations in terms of employee receptivity to intercultural competence training and demonstrates the need for ongoing development.

As our workplaces grow more diverse and global in nature (and employers continue to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion programs), intercultural competence will continue to be a crucial and desirable skillset. Possessing intercultural competence and having a commitment to continue to learn, grow and evolve in this space will enable teams to work more collaboratively, effectively and efficiently together toward a company’s goals.

What Is Intercultural Competence? | Video: IntercultureTV


Intercultural Competence in the Workplace

Intercultural competence is the knowledge, attitudes and skills we need to communicate effectively in intercultural situations. It is vital for effective engagement, productivity, positive employee experience and performance in the hybrid workplace. 

Lack of intercultural sensitivity in business dealings can offend prospective or current clients, alienate marginalized or underrepresented employees and have a negative effect on a company’s bottom line. 

One major contributing factor is insufficient focus on the behavioral aspects of how people communicate and work together in our increasingly diverse and complex workplace. A disciplined approach to building intercultural competence is one important element of growing your organization and achieving your key business objectives through full inclusion

The more individuals adjust and adapt with cultural sensitivity and intelligence to the needs of the environment, the more companies will find exactly what they’re looking for — a culturally competent and sought-after business professional. 

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How to Develop and Improve Intercultural Competence

2012 British Council found “employers are under strong pressure to find employees who are not only technically proficient, but also culturally astute and able to thrive in a global work environment.” Since that study, more workplaces have permanently adopted remote and hybrid work options so it’s vital for employers, leaders and employees alike to develop and improve intercultural competence. Poor intercultural competence within the organization can undermine your workplace culture. 

According to research published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, it is possible to learn intercultural competence and develop skills to communicate effectively in intercultural situations. This can be accomplished by: 

  • Gaining deeper self-awareness and a better understanding of your behavior. Becoming conscious of the unconscious biases and stereotypes you hold helps you recognize when they are actively influencing your intercultural interactions. 
  • Learning about others’ cultural influences to better engage them from the start. Find ways to learn about common preferences and practices of the cultural groups you communicate with at work. Prepare for interactions by researching, reading and talking to other people from similar groups, or to those who have experience working with them. Be mindful of biases to avoid forming stereotypes and rigid expectations about their behavior. 
  • Observing how others respond to your intercultural communication preferences. Try to communicate your messages and meaning more explicitly. Invite people to share their thoughts with open-ended questions such as, “I would like to hear what you think about this.” 
  • Adapting your approach to succeed in hybrid intercultural communication contexts. We tend to trust those who are like us, so find ways to communicate that demonstrate respect for others’ behavior and preferences. Practice adapting your preferred communication style. This may mean learning how to find the right level of directness in your messages and becoming more (or less) flexible about time and structure. Remain aware of culturally sensitive topics to avoid.  


Frequently Asked Questions

Intercultural competence refers to the ability to communicate and work well with those of various backgrounds and cultures. This requires cultural self-awareness and a willingness to learn about other cultures, enabling one to consider the world from different perspectives.

The five elements of intercultural competence are attitudes, knowledge, skills, internal outcomes and external outcomes.

An example of intercultural competence is an employee visiting a company branch in a different country. While the employee is used to shaking hands with colleagues at their local branch, they have the knowledge to bow as a respectful greeting to those at the international branch.

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