Monday, August 21, 2017

Cultural Competence – The Right Tool for Dealing with Diversity


Training in Cultural Competence is replacing Diversity Training at many American companies, and it’s long overdue. Diversity Training has been around for over two decades now, which gave researchers at Harvard ample data to conduct a meaningful in-depth study of their effectiveness.  An article on the findings of that report in the Harvard Business Review, titled Why Diversity Programs Fail, concluded that Diversity Training not only shows dismal results, but also makes conditions inside the company worse. For full details, the article is available on the internet (HBR, August 2016).

Like many other long-term, research-dense studies out of Harvard, the authors validate conclusions that are self-evident to people on the ground. Ask any parent of a five-year-old and they’ll tell you that children don’t like to be told what to do and will push back when you try to do it. The Harvard study documents the fact that this pushback is part of being human and doesn’t end at childhood.

Diversity Training focuses on awareness and inclusion, taking a didactic training approach that seeks to outline a rulebook for correct thinking and behavior.  Efforts have been mounted to improve DT’s track record of training that shows little difference in outcomes from its first emergence in the mid-60s, and flat results in schools and the workplace for promoting fair treatment and hiring. While the conclusions may seem obvious in hindsight, the study’s significance is that Harvard documented and detailed this dismal result across a twenty-year timeframe. Failure here is no fluke, nor a case of technique, but due to a fundamental flaw in the approach.

As a cultural analyst, I think this is a major achievement and a step in a positive direction. The Harvard study found that people don’t appreciate being told how to think about or how to treat others. 

What is wanting is a deeper education (as opposed to training) that informs everyone first, about their own cultural ways of thinking, and second, about the universe of other mindsets in which they need to live.  The desired outcome is a liberal studies plan for learning about others and how to understand, communicate, appreciate, and empathize with people of backgrounds other than one’s own. This will never be achieved by a forced ruleset about accepting everyone no matter who they are.  There is just not enough “why” included to satisfy our naturally self-biased minds.  We have a deep need to understand why we are learning and how this learning can or should be applied.

In fact, the cliché that learning about foreign cultures (like foreign language) makes it possible to understand one’s own cultural identity is quite on the mark.  Learning about your own culture as a conscious act then makes it possible to see where other cultures line up around yours.  Unfortunately, the ground-floor knowledge of where you yourself stand is tricky to find and recognize.    

Cultural Competence

Culture learning has multiple aspects that make it sophisticated and a lifelong undertaking. Raising your CQ is therefore a complex undertaking. Using the simplest working definition of Cultural Competence as the ability to relate and work effectively across cultures--to communicate effectively and appropriately with people of other backgrounds--bypasses the difficult work of figuring out the rules, norms, ideals, and expectations carried by every culture that explain the ways in which they perceive, think, feel, and act. 

However, this is not ever as easy as just asking people the simple question, “Who are you, and how should I deal with you?”  Because culture operates below the surface of conscious thinking, it requires a close reading of how culture is expressed – in language, food, music, governance, art, technology, business, and domestic life—to derive from the way groups dress, for example, their ideas about appropriate or ideal ways of life and relationships.  The connection isn’t clear, but it can, with some teasing out, be discerned. 

The idea is to get beyond conventions of greeting, introductions, and gift-giving to the values behind those conventions, for example, in the handling of business cards as differing between American and Japanese business people.  What are the rules of negotiation and verbal conflict that are observed?  Of paying attention, listening, interrupting, responding to new information, positive or negative?  What do these tell us about how issues are identified and resolved?

The Cultural Question

The cultural question is always this:  What are people in any culture trying to do, and to become, to themselves and each other?  Once you have hold of this core Value principle, it then becomes far easier to read and understand what people are doing and to relate your own behavior to theirs in effective and even productive ways.  And yes, it is far easier to understand what you yourself are doing, and how that comes across to others within and outside your own group, if you can discover what your own culture is about.  That’s never easy to do—it requires breakthrough insight that’s (in my experience) relatively rare.  We each see the world through our own cultural lens and think we understand it.  Only when that vision stops working is it clear that something is off in our ability to read and navigate the territory. 

For example: Muslim culture has for three or more decades been the focus of world attention in its contest with the West for world attention.  Cultural differences exist within as well as between cultures.  So despite the headlines of terrorism that make this contest look like East versus West, the violent upheavals are far more an expression of intra-Moslem faith feuds than they are outward-directed attacks.  The task of understanding these cross-Islamic conflicts is an arcane and arduous one, far beyond the grasp or ability of media journalists and reporters (or even well-versed scholars).  The East-West story is far easier to outline and populate with villains, and that’s what we get in the Western press.  So Cultural Competence could bring real intelligence to the global conflict between Islamic v. Christian (Enlightenment) values.

There are other differences to navigate as well: by Gender, Age, Class, and Context.  These cultural aspects are just as real as national / ethnic friction. Gender is the only biological factor that directly influences how we perceive the world around us. This is why males and females perceive stimuli with brains that are configured differently, influenced by different chemicals, and transmit information to different arrangements of receptors. The human age-stage development chart bristles with value changes that occur every four to five years in twenty-year cycles over a lifetime.  Class differences are the root of racial and ethnic prejudice.  And cultures are framed and nurtured--national, regional, and local--by climate, landscape, agriculture, industry, craft, and commerce.  Culture is an outgrowth of its physical and psychological ecology and the values engendered by desert, ocean, mountain, forest, or plains.  One reason America became its own culture was that its temperate character offered such ridiculously higher opportunity than Europe, where land had been divided up and locked-in for generations.  The US open-ended frontier offered the chance to think outside history, to value creativity and enterprise, and to focus on the future potential rather than on frameworks of the past.


Diversity Training has been conducted over the past several decades by schools and workplaces driven by the need for functional teams that include diversity in demographics, belief, and hierarchy, expressed as gender, ethnicity, age, religion, class, and power relations of role and rank.  The goal of this endeavor has been to foster regard for differences and to facilitate strategies targeted to better decision-making and group performance.  This objective has to take into account the nuances of style, assumptions, communication, and autonomy needs within social situations.  A very useful theory base for this work can be found in the positive psychology movement of Self-Determination Theory.

Here at The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, we’ve been studying culture for a quarter-century, always starting from the perspective of fundamental questions: What is culture for? Why does it exist? How do we use it? How does it shape our fundamental assumptions? How does it work? What are its assumptions based on?

And we have found answers to many of these questions. They are not unknowable. When we started our work we thought we would be explaining American culture to foreigners. It turned out that we spend our time explaining American culture to Americans because culture operates below our conscious horizon. We don’t think about it, we just have it.

Which leaves us with one basic conclusion: You can’t understand someone else’s culture unless you consciously understand the cultural assumptions on which your own thinking is based. So we wound up explaining our own culture to Americans. That’s the basis of cultural competence.

While groups made up of people who are homogenous find it easier to arrive at consensus, diverse groups typically come up with more ingenious solutions to problems.  The issue is that diversity is more challenging to manage, takes longer, and requires more tools and techniques.  There is a broader horizon beyond the usual diversity mandate.  What does it mean to be competent in culture?  Here the aim is applied: to answer how people of diverse backgrounds and values can work together as effective teams. What is needed are new forms of social intelligence for the way we relate to each other  Elite professionals practice this all the time in the arts, sciences, technology, and business; ways can be found of deriving what they do intuitively to determine how human differences can be a source of competence wealth rather than conflict.