Practicing Inclusion through Intercultural Competence

Published: Tues., Oct.20, 2020

As globalization and diversity efforts continue to influence and enrich the cultural landscape of organizations across disciplines, the importance of developing your intercultural competence in order to effectively and appropriately engage and value cultural differences as much as commonalities increases. Intercultural competence includes a range of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills that are pivotal for cross-cultural communication and collaboration. More importantly, developing one’s intercultural competence provides the skills needed to practice meaningful inclusion in an environment where diversity is not only present but also regarded as an integral aspect of inclusive excellence. To better understand the role intercultural competence plays in supporting an inclusive environment, it’s necessary to review what defines culture.

Defining Culture

Culture as a term is likely familiar as its often used in relation to activities, experiences, holidays, and many other collective interests enjoyed by any group of people who share a particular interest especially if it’s shared in a way that creates connection among that group of people. As the concept is traditionally defined, culture is an applicable term for groups including but not limited to ethnicity, gender, disability, education, religion, nationality, age, sexual orientation, and even organizations. However, it’s important to remember that culture is not a monolith. Variations and the interconnected nature of social identities, otherwise called intersectionality, within each group can produce subcultures that are not wholly like or unlike the culture from which it stems. Culture is a dynamic concept that relies on more than a single variable such as ethnicity or religion; it is a multifaceted phenomenon with intricacies that steer the perception of oneself and others.

cultural iceberg
"Cultural Iceberg" in AACU Report "Methods for Preparing and Assessing Intercultural Competence in Study Abroad"

For example, imagine observing culture as a metaphorical iceberg. You’d soon notice that one part is visible above water and the other is less visible—possibly even hidden— beneath the surface. Keeping with the metaphor, the visible half above the surface symbolizes the aspects of culture we’re likely to see or engage most frequently: art, music, food, holidays, language, etc. Beneath the surface, the hidden half would symbolize the aspects of culture we’re less likely to see or engage: beliefs, social expectations, behaviors, values, etc. This differentiation between objective culture and subjective culture, respectively, is important to make because intercultural competence development relies on our attitudes toward subjective culture. Psychometric assessments such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) gauge an individual’s mindset toward subjective cultural difference and provide individualized development plans to move toward an intercultural mindset.

Supporting Inclusion

Understanding yourself as a multicultural person in terms of your identity, which is influenced by cultures that intersect and layer to create who you are, what you value, and how you engage others is a critical step in developing intercultural competence. Research in organizational dynamics has shown that multicultural teams with leaders who ignore and suppress cultural differences lag significantly in performance when compared to multicultural teams with leaders who acknowledge and support cultural differences. Cultural differences become an asset rather than an obstacle to performance when leaders not only embrace cultural differences but also build organizations that support the diversity within multicultural teams. From Distefano and Maznevski’s research, it’s important to note that monocultural teams—or teams that are homogenous—experience mediocre performance because cultural differences are not leveraged for innovation that support performance.

Ultimately, an environment that values differences as equally as commonalities is better practicing inclusion than one that values one more than the other. Too much focus on commonalities may lead to conformity, which has the potential to suppress diverse experiences whereas too much focus on differences can lead to fragmentation, which can cause conflict for team members. Commonalities across a multicultural team may look like goals, needs, and interests while differences may look like ideas, values, and practices. Having balanced value for both sets of qualities within a team encourages the focus and innovation needed to lead the organization toward improved performance overall.

Graduate students interested in taking the IDI and learning more about intercultural competence development should contact the assistant director of graduate enrollment for diversity and inclusion, Ruth Oliver, at