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


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 skill-set. 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 towards 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. 

Related ReadingHow to Build an Inclusive Workplace Environment


How to Develop and Improve Intercultural Competence

A  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 cost millions and 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 our 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.  
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