Intercultural Competence: The missing link in diversity and inclusion initiatives

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#MeToo. Generational divides. Political differences. Workplace trust. Virtually every major issue confronting us in the work world today is rooted in challenges around lines of difference.

In the not-for-profit sector, we are not immune from the effects of these challenges. On the contrary, our objects often require us to work with a diverse range of people — and to do so with limited time, energy, and other resources. Today’s 21st-century not-for-profit organizations must work effectively across lines of difference to fulfill their mandates.

Working with difference

In any sector, being able to work effectively with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives is important. Our differences may stem from:

  • Ability or disability
  • Age or generation
  • Educational background
  • Ethnicity
  • Family background
  • Gender
  • Geographic roots
  • Nationality
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Work experience
  • Other cultural factors

As not-for-profit leaders, we may already be striving to do better. We may want to engage more diversity on our boards, in our staff, and in our volunteer positions. We may want to cultivate a greater sense of inclusion. We may want fewer messy, unproductive conflicts. We may be looking for more authentic connections with the members or clients we serve. We may be trying to build a stronger team that can use difference to better advance our mission.

For most of us, the challenge is not about being well-intentioned; it is about knowing where to start.

Diversity: A mix of differences

“Diversity” refers to the mix of individual differences that can affect how our group or organization performs or how our members interact. For some, diversity is a matter of mission-fulfillment and service quality. For others, it is a simpler matter of being a good social citizen. Either way, many not-for-profit groups and organizations are aiming to improve diversity. Diversity is, in large measure, a question of numbers: how many people in our group or organization represent what differences and at what levels?

Inclusion: Valuing and engaging difference

While diversity focuses on the mix of people, “inclusion” is about making the mix work effectively. To see positive results from diversity, people must feel safe and encouraged to take part and share — without minimizing or surrendering the “different” aspects of their identity. Not-for-profit groups or organizations gain from diversity when people can truly draw on their diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Intercultural competence: The missing link

We often hear reference to “diversity and inclusion” initiatives. The key element missing from this phrase is “intercultural competence.” Intercultural competence refers to the ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people of varied backgrounds and experiences.

Intercultural competence — when reflected on our teams, in our organizations, and in key positions — benefits diversity and inclusion initiatives in many ways. An interculturally-competent organization is better set up to:

  • Acknowledge and support cultural differences;
  • Support meaningful diversity initiatives;
  • Attract a diverse talent pool;
  • Value and engage difference to achieve a more inclusive environment;
  • Bridge differences and values, expectations, beliefs, and practices;
  • Experience improved communication;
  • Achieve improved decision-making, problem-solving, and performance; and
  • Target high-return educational and policy initiatives.

Intercultural competence is the bridge between diversity and inclusion. Without intercultural competence, striving for meaningful diversity and inclusion can be an uphill battle. With it, cultural differences become an asset to performance.

Developing intercultural competence

People are at different points on their intercultural development journeys. The key to optimal learning and growth is to target opportunities that fit our specific stage of development. Otherwise, the development activities we engage in could be useless (or, worse, stunting).

If someone wants to be a better runner, should you hand them a training plan that has them run 5 km tomorrow? If someone wants to improve at math, should you give them a series of algebra problems? Maybe… but maybe not. These interventions may be useful, but only if they are appropriate for the learner’s current stage of development.

To foster meaningful intercultural development, a group or individual needs to first recognize where they are in their own intercultural development journeys.

Assessing intercultural competence

The reality is, most of us overestimate our intercultural competence. There are, however, defensible tools that can help us identify where we are in our intercultural development. By learning where we are — individually or as a group or organization — we can identify the specific learning opportunities we need to develop in this critical area. Taking the next step is easier thank you think. Click here to register for the Assessing Intercultural Competence webinar.

Authors’ note: A discussion of intercultural competence would be incomplete without recognition of our own cultural context. The co-authors of this blog post identify, respectively, as (1) a female, cisgender heterosexual, Gen X, white, Canadian, lawyer/educator/executive [she/her/hers]; and (2) a Latin American, Canadian, male, cisgender, heterosexual, Millennial, male association executive/project manager [he/him/his]. We are both on our own journeys of intercultural development.

Jennifer Flynn is the CEO of Principia Assessments Ltd., which focuses on independent competency assessment and consultation for the legal sector. Daniel García is the COO of Principia Assessments Ltd. Both Jennifer and Dan are qualified administrators of the Intercultural Development Inventory®.

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