Top tips for developing Cultural Competence

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Culture continues to be a major topic in 2018. And yet, it can also be overwhelming if you are new to the game. But don't despair: with consistent effort and the right approach, you can make big strides in the year ahead. Here are our top tips for getting started:


  1. Decide to do it. Whether you think in terms of goal or intention setting, you must resolve that this is a priority, or it will get lost in the frenzy of daily life.

  2. Be realistic. As the saying goes, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you engage across cultures, you're going to make mistakes. Better to make peace with that fact now.

  3. Be humble. The world is a remarkable and confounding place – and nobody knows everything. By admitting (and reminding yourself) of this, you can avoid ego creep and constantly scan for chances to be proven wrong or learn something new.

  4. Listen to learn. If you are doing it right, you will encounter opinions, ideas, and perspectives that seem wrong or offend you. As much as possible, consider moments of conflict as gifts: the opportunity to see the world through another person's eyes. Of course, there are exceptions, particularly if you are being threatened. But generally, the more you listen instead of explaining, justifying, or persuading, the more you will advance on your cultural competence journey.

  5. Be persistent. The more you explore the world's patterns and people, the more the puzzle pieces and overall picture will reveal themselves. But don't expect stretching your cultural comfort zone to be a linear process. You may have to revisit certain themes or try certain experiences or behaviors repeatedly before they really make sense, feel comfortable, and stick.


  1. Pick a useful, accessible starting place. Do you work with a team in India? Feel unsure about how to talk to people from a different generation or background? Want to raise your hand for a global assignment at your company's Germany office? If you begin in the place that is most relevant to you, you'll be more likely to stick with it and retain the information you learn. It will also thrust the topic to the foreground in a more coherent and meaningful way. (For example, if you focus on India, you will likely start to see books, movies, and reports on India everywhere).

  2. Read, listen, and watch well and widely. While focusing about 50% of your attention on the area you selected above, use the other 50% to learn new vocabulary, familiarize yourself with geography, stay on top of trends, and develop articulate, educated perspectives on general cultural issues. Look for quality, expert, reputable materials that introduce key concepts, link them together, and provide analysis about why they matter or how they could impact you.

  3. Seek ways to get uncomfortable. If you come from the majority culture, you can live most of your life in an environment that is comfortable, consistent and makes sense. This can be a big disadvantage when it comes to building the internal muscles you need for self-management in tricky, ambiguous, cultural situations. However, when you try new things that are a little bit scary (but not totally overwhelming), they put you in the just-right space for learning. These don't necessarily have to be cultural; the point is to acquaint yourself with what it feels like to not-know and be awkward, because this is what you'll need to manage in cultural situations.

  4. Find a coach or cultural insider. These are very useful in helping you develop cultural competence. A mentor should be supportive and willing to work with you where you are without judgement, and give you nudges and important insights to help you grow. An insider comes from another culture and is willing to answer your questions. Be cautious – not everyone wants to play this part, particularly if they are the only one from a cultural background in your office. However, if you find them, they can help you quickly unlock the cultural code, which will save you the time and frustration of having to figure every part out the hard way.

  5. Keep a journal. Journaling is a powerful way to document and make sense of your cultural encounters. Moreover, in the act of doing it, you may find your frustrations about a situation evaporate and leave a new clarity in their place. This doesn't always happen, but by putting your thoughts on paper, you can get them out of your system, consider them in a new light, and use them as a starting place for growth (like sharing them with your coach or cultural insider). And it's not only for challenges. It can be very empowering to write down your victories, too.

  6. Become a leader. If you are in a leadership position, sharing your commitment to cultural competence will send a powerful message. It will tell your team that you think global skills matter and that it's a worthwhile effort. Yet even if you're outside the spotlight, you can make a difference by sharing articles about culture in the workplace with your coworkers, inviting them to lunch at a culture-specific restaurant, or recommending a movie about another country on Netflix. These seemingly small things can slowly but steadily promote openness, interest, and curiosity about cultural competence. They are also a good way to meet others who are interested in developing this skill and can share new information and perspectives with you.


Mastering cultural competence is like learning to play chess: it takes a lifetime. But the more we build our skills and library of knowledge, and the more we learn to manage ourselves and keep our bearings when we encounter differences, the easier time we'll have navigating this fast-paced, global world.

Are you interested in learning more about how to adapt this advice to your situation? Let's talk!