Cultural Competence

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Leading in a multicultural world requires all individuals, regardless of their position within the organization, to be culturally competent. Yet, with so much diversity, what is cultural competence and what does it take to be a culturally competent leader and follower?

To understand cultural competence, it is helpful to examine some definitions of culture. Organizational development scholar Edgar Schein, in Organizational Culture and Leadership (2017), suggested that defining culture is difficult due to the multiple lenses from which it is viewed. Culture may be seen at either a macro level, where the observer experiences it from a national or organizational perspective, or as Schein suggests, through a micro lens, examining the subcultures of a nation or organization. Business scholars Richard Steers and Joyce Osland, in their book Management Across Cultures: Challenges, Strategies and Skills, stated “culture is the fabric of meaning, in terms of which people interpret their experience and guide their actions” (2020, p. 55). They further suggested that culture has three characteristics that are important regardless of the definition one chooses:

  • Culture has shared meanings that permeate throughout the group.
  • Culture has the ability to affect the attitudes and behaviors of the group.
  • Culture is learned through social behaviors from those who hold membership in the group.

Understanding culture allows one to better comprehend cultural competence. Similar to culture, cultural competence also has many definitions. The most basic definition of cultural competence is the ability to interact with those who are different from you yet emphasize or understand their point of view. Derald Wing Sue, a major scholar in the area of cultural competence, diversity, and inclusion, suggested a multidimensional model for developing cultural competence. The three dimensions include race- and culture-specific attributes of cultural competence, components of cultural competence, and foci of cultural competence. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate Sue’s multidimensional model of developing cultural competence.

A figure shows a solid shape resembling an elongated Rubik’s cube: tiny cuboids making up a bigger cuboid. Dimension 1 is indicated along the length of the big cuboid, and it reads as follows: Race- and Culture-Specific Attributes Of Cultural Competence. Along each small cuboid, the following are mentioned: European American, Native American, Latino American, Asian American, and African American. Dimension 2 is indicated along the breadth of the cuboid, and it reads as follows: Components of Cultural Competence. Three have been listed in the first row of small cuboids, and they are as follows: Awareness of attitude/beliefs, knowledge, and skills. Dimension 3 is indicated along the height of the big cuboid, and it reads as follows: Foci of Cultural Competence. Four have been listed: Societal, Organizational, Professional, and Individual.

Figure 1. A Multidimensional Model for Developing Cultural Competence

A figure shows the multidimensional facets of cultural competence by Derald Wing Sue.

Source: Sue (2001).

Each block in the model above represents areas of cultural competence (or dimensions) that we may encounter on a daily basis. For example, Dimension 1 includes the areas we would most likely experience in multicultural encounters, such as race and ethnicity, related to a specific culture. Dimension 2 includes the components of cultural competence. Regardless of the culture, there will be a level of awareness of attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, and skills. In this dimension, there is an understanding of self, which allows one to relate more fully to others. Knowledge is our ability to gain information through experiences and interactions, as well as reading. Skills illustrate the competency of action: the behaviors and actions we display when interacting in various cultural context. Finally, Dimension 3 examines cultural competence at multiple levels. Often cultural competence is generalized. To be effective, it must be viewed from the individual, professional, organizational, and societal level. We begin understanding ourselves, that is, the individual level. Professional cultural competency takes place within different groups. For example, an individual who may display cultural competency in their own self-awareness may demonstrate a lack of cultural competence if they are the minority person at a Black MBA Professionals meeting. Organizational cultural competence examines how the entire company comes together to gain an understanding of the differences (and similarities) that exist within the company and how they can reduce internal conflict. Finally, at the societal level, we gauge our cultural competence on how we interact with world.

The figure shows three concentric circles. The innermost one has Individual Level: Uniqueness at the top. Below this, there is a list which has the following points: Generic endowment and Nonshared experiences. The second circle is called Group Level: Similarities and Differences. Eleven items have been equally spaced out along the circumference of the circle. From the top right side, the list is in the following order: Race, Sexual orientation, Marital status, Religious preference, Culture, Disability, Ethnicity, Geographic location, Age, Socioeconomic status, and Gender. The outermost circle is called Universal Level: Homo Sapiens. The following four points are listed: Common life experiences (top right side), Biological and physical similarities (bottom right corner), Self-awareness (bottom left corner), and Ability to use symbols (top left corner).

Figure 2. Tripartite Framework of Personal Identity

A figure shows the multidimensional facets of cultural competence by Derald Wing Sue.

Source: Sue (2001).

The circles above represent our personal identity. The universal level of our identity indicates there are similarities to some degree with all other individuals. The group level of identity can be related to our social belonging and group membership, reflecting our beliefs, values, and social practices. The individual level of identity is our uniqueness or the things that make us different.

The first model provides us with a broad perspective of the components that can make up or influence our cultural competence. In the above model, you can connect specific demographics to the professional and organizational levels, such as ethnicity, religion, gender, and age. Again, the model shows that self-awareness is important and influences our ability and willingness to connect and relate to others regardless of the context.

As a leader, understanding these two models will assist you in building relationships with those who are different from you and valuing their contributions to the organization. As a leader, it is important to respect the uniqueness of your followers and peers as well as find similarities that will build strength as a team. In this Skill, we will look at the various levels of cultural competence, understanding self, and how understanding self impacts one’s ability to successfully interact with others.

Scholar Patricia Overall, in her article, “Cultural Competence: A Conceptual Framework for Library Information Science Professionals” (2009), provided the following definition of cultural competence which connects to both an understanding of one’s own identity and the diverse cultures and identities around the world (p. 189):

Cultural competence is the ability to recognize the significance of culture in one’s own life and in the lives of others; and to come to know and respect diverse cultural backgrounds and characteristics through interaction with individuals from diverse linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic groups; and to fully integrate the culture of diverse groups into service work and institutions in order to enhance the lives of both those being serviced by the library profession and those engaged in service.

Adversely, Michael Davis in “The ‘Culture’ in Cultural Competence” simply stated, “cultural competence is a journey and a pathway towards becoming competent in working with, and between, diverse cultural situations and contexts” (2020, p. 15). Regardless of how cultural competence is defined, today’s leaders must recognize that the complexity of a multicultural workforce means learning about and knowing how to ensure organizational inclusivity.

Further Reading

Blackburn, F. (2020). Cultural competence: Toward a more robust conceptualisation. Public Library Quarterly, 39(3), 229245.
Davis, M. (2020). The “culture” in cultural competence. In J. Frawley, G. Russell, & J. Sherwood (Eds.), Cultural competence and the higher education sector: Australian perspectives, policies and practice (pp. 1529). Springer.
Goodman, N. (2012). Training for cultural competence. Industrial and Commercial Training, 44(1), 4750.
Ridley, C. R., Baker, D. M., & Hill, C. L. (2001). Critical issues concerning cultural competence. The Counseling Psychologist, 29(6), 822832.
Schein, E. H., & Schein, P. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership (
5th ed.
). Wiley Publishing.
Steers, R. M., & Osland, J. S. (2020). Management across cultures: Challenges, strategies, and skills (
4th ed.
). Cambridge University Press.
Sue, D. W. (2001). Multidimensional facets of cultural competence. The Counseling Psychologist, 29(6), 790821.