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Understanding Intercultural Competence


Employers must help their organizations succeed and thrive by deriving maximum value from an ever-increasing range and depth of cultural difference. This influences the skills and competencies we need, the policies and systems we design, and the ways we develop employees and leaders. Organizations must adapt and develop so that key decision-makers, managers and leaders start making truly inclusive decisions in all aspects of people management. Intercultural competence, as defined and explored in this toolkit, is a key enabler of this professional and organizational development. Tools exist to apply these concepts in practical ways at the individual, team and organization levels.

Research and experience show that we all think we are better than we actually are at communicating and working with people from different cultural backgrounds. Most people believe that our common humanity is most relevant to achieving a common understanding and thus underestimate the actual effect of cultural difference. The Golden Rule states, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." The core operating assumption is that everyone else values, believes and wants the same things as we do. Believing this, it seems natural that if we all just act as we normally do, then we will be able to understand each other. This inaccurate assumption prevents the deeper understanding needed to ensure successful outcomes. Overcoming this assumption enables an organization to build a truly inclusive workplace that harnesses its diversity to drive productivity, innovation and creativity.

The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) program was initiated in in the early 1990s to study how culture is related to societal, organizational and leader effectiveness. This research is considered the most comprehensive in understanding the relationship between culture and leadership in organizations.

Intercultural sensitivity is about appreciating the deeper impact of cultural difference on how we interact with other people and the effect this has on one's own perceptions of other people.

Intercultural competence is a measure of one's effectiveness in such interactions with other people.

These concepts apply equally to individuals, teams and entire organizations.

The relevance of intercultural sensitivity to interactions with people from different parts of the world tends to be clear to many people. The relevance to working effectively with people down the hall from your office may be less clear. See 10 Ways to Learn More about Other Cultures.

Cultural difference stems from any aspect of diversity—not just national origin. Hofstede1, 2 and the GLOBE study,3 for example, have shown that people from a particular country tend to share cultural norms that are distinct from other countries. Groups and individuals within a country have their own variations from the cultural norms. These other differences make intercultural competence relevant even for small organizations located entirely within one geographic area.

Relevance to an Organization's Business Results

Consider a hypothetical U.S.-based team or group composed of a mix of individuals originally from Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon. The team includes members who are Asian-American, Black, Latino and white. Two members are second-generation immigrants, from Thailand and the Dominican Republic. Add a mix of spiritual beliefs, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and organizational functions. The team is culturally very diverse. Team members may be unaware of the full scope of their diversity. They likely have different life experiences, communication styles and work habits. Moreover, individual preferences and assumptions regarding recognition, organizational hierarchy and dealing with uncertainty vary. These differences may either hinder or boost productivity and innovation.

To operate and succeed, the above hypothetical team and any organization must carry out the following functions effectively:

  • Leading and following.
  • Working together.
  • Assigning and managing tasks.
  • Analyzing issues.
  • Making decisions.
  • Developing and implementing plans.

Communication is at the core of all these functions. Productivity and innovation require that people communicate well and use work methods that actively draw on everyone's unique perspectives and input.

Realizing the benefits of this hypothetical team's diversity calls for teammates to acquire the knowledge and develop the interpersonal skills needed to work well together. This will enable them to create new ways to work together so that each member may fully contribute and the team's results will build on everyone's input. As the team develops its intercultural sensitivity and competence, it will identify new ways to become even more inclusive, productive and innovative. See How to Bridge Cultural Divides.

Achieving Effective Communication in a Diverse Team or Organization

The above hypothetical team illustrates some of the many ways in which people may be similar to or different from each other. The definition of diversity can include many dimensions, such as:

  • Age.
  • Caregiver status.
  • Class.
  • Communication styles.
  • Educational background.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Family status.
  • Gender.
  • Gender identity or expression.
  • Geographic location.
  • Group identity.
  • Income.
  • Job classification and job function.
  • Language.
  • Marital status.
  • Military experience
  • Organizational background.
  • Organizational level.
  • Parental status.
  • Physical abilities and qualities.
  • Race.
  • Relationships and group affiliations.
  • Religious beliefs.
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Socioeconomic status.
  • Thinking styles.
  • Work experience.

Each person is a blend of many dimensions with an "answer" to his or her view of self for each dimension. The more alike two people are, the more answers they have in common and vice-versa. Working with these dimensions can help people gain a deeper understanding of their own and other peoples' cultural identity and the effect of these identities in the workplace. Consider to what extent one is similar to and different from people with whom one works. In our complex workplace and society, this question applies to fellow employees, suppliers, business partners, outsourcing companies, regulators and customers.

We must be able to effectively communicate with an increasingly diverse set of people. This is true regardless of where an organization is located, its size, whether its customers are consumers or other organizations, and where its customers and business partners are located. The need is universal.

Stella Ting-Toomey4 has shown that greater cultural similarity between people tends to create relatedness, commonality and ease of understanding. This typically facilitates easier communication.

Ting-Toomey has also shown that greater cultural difference between people tends to highlight variances such as language, terminology, respect for authority, group identity, directness of communication and reaction to ambiguity. This difference frequently causes misunderstandings such as difficulty understanding someone or conveying a meaning to someone, or receiving unanticipated negative reactions to a comment. See This Hand Gesture Is Not Always 'OK.' It Depends on Intent, Culture.

Ting-Toomey and others have also demonstrated the opportunity available from cultural difference between people, namely the potential for greater innovation and creativity in the team's or organization's output. This potential stems from the wider range of perspectives and approaches to an issue that can lead to more creative problem-solving and more effective solutions to business issues.

The challenge becomes clear: We should develop competence communicating and working with people from different cultural backgrounds. Ideally, we should become as comfortable and effective interacting with people from different backgrounds as we already are with people from our own culture. This is a good working definition of being interculturally competent. See How to Manage Intergenerational Conflict in the Workplace.

A Developmental Continuum for Intercultural Sensitivity and Competence

A person's experience of cultural difference both informs and constrains how the individual interacts with other people. Moving beyond these person-specific constraints requires the development of intercultural competence.

Dr. Milton Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)5, 6 defines a path for developing intercultural competence. DMIS identifies a developmental continuum of six worldviews stating how a person tends to think and feel or experience cultural difference. Each stage distinctly defines a manner of experiencing cultural difference based on one's current level of awareness.

The first three DMIS stages represent less developed intercultural sensitivity. These stages are ethnocentric given that for stage-specific reasons, one's own cultural background is primary to how one thinks and feels about cultural difference. The second three stages are ethnorelative since one now experiences one's own and other cultures at a deeper level and sees one's own culture as one among many, with all being equally valid.

Briefly, the six stages of the DMIS from least developed to most developed are:

  • Denial. This most ethnocentric stage is characterized by an assumption that there are no differences between people. It appears as some combination of disinterest and avoidance of cultural difference.
  • Defense/reversal. At the defense stage, there is recognition of cultural difference and a strong attachment to one's own identity, accompanied by a tendency to consider cultural difference with suspicion and a threat to one's own self-esteem and identity. Reversal, the opposite of defense, is putting down one's own culture as inferior to some other culture. It may occur when a person experiences deep immersion in another culture.
  • Minimization. The least ethnocentric stage, minimization is also a significant transition toward the ethnorelative stages. At this stage, a person is aware of cultural difference, although his or her focus is on peoples' common humanity. Cultural difference is considered superficial, and its importance and effect on interpersonal relations are minimized. Minimization is characterized by a tolerance of others, sometimes stated informally as "live and let live." The focus on common humanity essentially denies the importance and relevance of cultural difference. This denial projects one's own beliefs and values onto others, which is why minimization is still ethnocentric.
  • Acceptance. The first ethnorelative stage, acceptance is characterized by a deeper understanding of one's own and others' cultural identities. The effects on peoples' behavior, beliefs and values are understood. A person values all cultures as equally full and valid, and appreciates the real value derived from different cultural perspectives.
  • Adaptation. Building on acceptance perspectives, adaptation is characterized by the skill of temporarily shifting one's thoughts or behavior to actively experience a situation from another cultural perspective. This does not involve stereotyping or giving up one's own cultural values and beliefs. Cognitive shifting applies deep understanding of another culture and cultural perspective to see a situation from that perspective. Behavioral shifting applies the same deep understanding to intuitively adapt one's behavior (e.g., body language, demeanor, use of language, and personal space and rituals) to be more effective in a different cultural situation.
  • Integration. The most developed ethnorelative stage, integration is the point at which a person's worldview and sense of identity are marked by pluralism. A person will have deep understanding of more than one culture and have integrated these cultures into his or her identity. In a sense, the person will be at the margins of several cultures and continually (re)constructing his or her own cultural identity.

Rather than being six discrete stages, each stage has its own subcontinuum. Each person is at a particular place developmentally on this continuum based on many factors, including the individual's self-awareness, receptivity to difference and life experiences.

Importantly for HR professionals, research and experience show what may seem obvious—we all overestimate our intercultural competence and perceive that we are further developed than is the case. This overestimation has developmental implications for organizations both in terms of receptivity to intercultural competence and the need for developing it.

Measuring and Developing Intercultural Competence

The need to develop intercultural competence applies to all organizations. Diversity is omnipresent. Diversity and cultural difference are relevant factors for an organization regardless of whether it is located entirely within one small geographic location or in 180 countries around the world. Effective communication, teamwork and leadership to drive organizational results depend on people of different backgrounds communicating and working well with each other. Success requires intercultural competence.

This realization brings to the fore the need to measure and develop intercultural competence. The DMIS provides a basis for this work. Regardless of where one is on the continuum, he or she may undertake stage-appropriate work to further develop intercultural competence. Individuals and groups currently at one of the ethnocentric stages typically require facilitated development. At the ethnorelative stages, individuals and groups benefit from facilitated development, self-based learning or both.

Many assessment instruments are available for measuring various aspects of interpersonal effectiveness. Douglas Stuart7 designed an excellent survey of instruments with an emphasis on the global workforce.

One instrument directly measures intercultural sensitivity and competence and is based on the DMIS. The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI),8 developed by Dr. Mitchell Hammer and Dr. Milton Bennett, is a 50-item statistically reliable, cross-culturally valid measure of an individual's or group's intercultural sensitivity and competence.

IDI reports present two measures of intercultural sensitivity and competence. Reports are available for an individual (based on one person's responses) or a group (based on all group members' responses). The reports show both self-perceived and actual stage of development. Self-perception will always be further developed than actual reality. Individuals always overestimate their effectiveness. Graphs present a detailed view of the responses. A certified IDI administrator can interpret the reports and facilitate constructive developmental conversations.

IDI-based measurements are useful in many common applications encountered by HR professionals:

  • Develop skills for a new assignment
  • Corrective coaching
  • Position a team for ever-expanding business growth challenges
Organization wide
  • Perform a diagnostic assessment to guide an intervention


Each is briefly described below using examples to highlight the range of approaches and solutions available to HR professionals.

New assignment. An experienced line-organization leader took on the role of leading an organization's diversity work. IDI assessment and the related learning about DMIS and how the executive experienced cultural difference helped in several ways. Deeper self-awareness was crucial in the new role. The executive had to be aware of how she saw other people and how she affected them. Learning about cultural difference and the DMIS provided a solid theory-based framework from which to analyze interactions across the organization. The same approach benefits someone taking on leadership of a newly formed diverse domestic or global team.

Corrective coaching. A marketing executive had made negative remarks about other employees that suggested race- and gender-based stereotypes. Individual coaching and training were needed. IDI analysis showed that the individual was solidly in the minimization stage, with no "trailing" developmental issues in denial or defense. This showed that the individual had blind spots as to the effect of the remarks rather than a more ethnocentric polarizing or avoidance perspective. This measurement helped identify the most effective targeted developmental feedback and learning for the executive.

Positioning for business growth challenges. A senior executive team was leading a highly successful Fortune 500 firm. The company's business plans focused on new high-growth market segments in the United States and parts of Latin America and Europe. Additionally, there was international merger and joint venture activity. The senior executive team wanted to further develop its intercultural competence. IDI individual and group reports highlighted exactly how each member and the overall team tended to experience cultural difference. This enabled the design of a high-impact group developmental session focused on the team's specific interests and needs, followed by individual coaching and developmental feedback. The tailored approach minimized the needed time and maximized the benefit to the senior executive team. The same approach benefits newly formed or existing teams that seek to make better use of their diverse backgrounds and to communicate and work together more effectively.

Organizationwide diagnostic assessment. Assume an organization was seeking diversity training for part or all of an organization—either entirely for developmental purposes or to address an issue that had surfaced in the workplace. IDI would be administered to the organization. A group IDI report would indicate exactly how the organization tended to consider cultural difference in its work. Separate group reports could provide this insight for parts of the organization—for example, nonsupervisory employees, managers and leaders. The insights would enable matching the design of the training to the organization's readiness to deal with cultural difference, thus helping ensure a more constructive outcome.


Most organizational leaders say they want to create a more inclusive workplace to truly leverage their diverse workforce in building productivity and innovation. Relatively few organizations truly achieve this. 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 the organization and achieving its key business objectives through full inclusion.

Available in the SHRM Store:
The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business

Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals

Transformational Diversity: Why and How Intercultural Competencies Can Help Organizations to Survive and Thrive


1 Hofstede, G., & Hofstede, G. J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Professional.

2 Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

3 House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Program, Javidan, M., & Dorfman, P. (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

4 Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating across cultures. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

5 Bennett, M. J. (1986). A developmental approach to training for intercultural sensitivity. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10(2), 179-95.

6 Bennett, M. J. (1993). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the intercultural experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

7 Stuart, D. (2007). Assessment instruments for a global workforce [SHRM White paper]. Retrieved from

8 International Journal of Intercultural Relations (2003, July). Special Issue on Intercultural Development, 27(4).