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Becoming Culturally Competent: Best Practices For Leaders

Becoming Culturally Competent: Best Practices for Leaders

Post Series: culture

This post is the third in a three-part series.   For Part 1, click here.  For Part 2, click here.


The first two parts of this series discussed the basics and importance of culture.  Now that you understand the concept, this final entry will help you put it into practice.   These tools will help leaders become more culturally competent. 


To be Culturally Competent, Just A.S.K!

As mentioned in the second installment, cultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and adapt one’s behavior to cultural similarities and differences.   If this concept seems daunting, a simple practice can help you remember the essentials of cultural competence. 

For decades, the field of psychology has recognized the importance of training its practitioners to be culturally competent.  Therapists are advised to consider their multicultural awareness, skills, and knowledge.  These steps can be remembered as the acronym ASK. (The terms are sometimes written as M-ASK for multicultural awareness, skills, and knowledge or C-ASK for cultural awareness, skills, and knowledge.)   Though these principles originated in the mental health field, they are now accepted and used across a wide variety of industries and organizations. 


The Steps toward Cultural Competence

Ideally, the ASK steps should be taken in the following order.

The first step is awareness.  To become culturally competent, a person should take stock of the culture, values, and biases she has and how they shape her view of others.  Evaluating your prejudices and preconceptions is an essential first step toward cultural competency. 

Second, a person must seek knowledge.  Knowledge is the key to becoming competent at anything, including cross-cultural interaction.  Once you have evaluated your prejudices, you must learn about those who are different than you.   Without knowledge, even a person with the best of intentions will offend others on a regular basis. 

Finally, a person must develop skills.  A person with total self-awareness and a veritable library of knowledge is not culturally competent without skills.  Skills translate knowledge into action.  A skilled person uses her knowledge to develop strategies that allow her to interact successfully with different cultures. 


What a Culturally Competent Leader Looks Like

For an organization to become culturally competent, its leaders must take on the task first.  So, leaders (and others who desire to interact effectively with others) must cultivate their cultural awareness, knowledge, and skills.  But with so many cultures and so many differences, it may be difficult to know where to begin.   So, let’s start by describing the features of a culturally competent person.  

A culturally competent person will have a deep understanding of his cultural biases (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.).  He will commit to countering those biases at every turn.  He will know how he is different from others and be comfortable with those differences.  Moreover, he will respect the differences he sees in others and seek to learn from them. But knowing about differences is not enough.  He will also understand the historical and current events that cause others to see the world differently.  He will be aware of the past and present institutional barriers faced by others.   With this knowledge, he will display skills such as successfully communicating (verbally and non-verbally) with others and quickly defusing misunderstandings and tense situations.  While this is not an exhaustive list, these are some key goals to work toward as you seek cultural competence.


Becoming a Culturally Competent Leader

Though the goals above may seem daunting, they are within your reach!  There are many ways to develop these traits, but here are a few ways to begin:


  •  Self-Assess.   Think about what you’ve been taught to believe about those who are different.  Were you taught that “those people” were not to be trusted?  Also, honestly evaluate how much you interact – or do not interact – with people from other cultures.  How many friends do you have (in social media networks or in real life) who are different from you?  How often do you see them?  Does everyone in your neighborhood share your culture?  If you have children, do they have toys, books, and friends from other backgrounds?  Having an honest conversation with yourself is the first step toward cultural competence.


  • Learn.  Read as much as you can about other cultures.  Reading will increase both your knowledge of and comfort level with other cultures.  While non-fiction writing is an excellent choice, memoirs and works of fiction by those with a different perspective will also provide you with great insights. (NOTE: Do not assume that everyone you meet in real life will behave or believe the same as the people in the accounts you read.) 


  • Interact.  The best way to learn about others is to talk to them.  There is no substitute for talking to actual people.  Ask them about their culture from a place of deep respect and true curiosity.  (That is, there is a difference between “Why do you wear that weird head thingy?” and “I’ve been curious – does your headgear have any cultural or religious significance?”)  The more you interact with others, the better you will become at it.  (NOTE:  Avoid questions that put a person in the place of explaining or defending their entire group, such as “Why do you guys always . . .?”)


  • Communicate Culturally.  Be mindful of how you communicate with others.  Learning the language spoken by people you work with is the most obvious example.  Using the most up-do-date terms for groups (e.g., hearing impaired versus deaf) is also important.  But communication has other aspects as well.   In some countries, hand gestures that are standard in America are offensive.  Moreover, your body language, eye contact, and even how close you stand to a person can be interpreted differently by a person from a different background.  Communicating respectfully is a core skill for cultural competence.


  • Listen.  Nearly every family sitcom has a scene where the wife is talking to her husband, but the husband is only pretending to listen.  What works in sitcoms does not work for culturally competent leaders!  Cultural competence requires deep listening.  Deep listening focuses on understanding the other person’s perspective rather than listening for an opportunity to defend yourself.  For instance, in America, many people of color feel that conversations about race get derailed because white listeners turn the conversation back to their feelings and beliefs.   True cultural competence requires listening with an open mind.   It also requires considering the possibility that you might be wrong.  At a minimum, it requires treating every conversation as a valuable learning opportunity.  Listening is perhaps the most valuable tool for cultural competence.


Hopefully, this three-part series has given you new insight into what culture is, the importance of culture, and how you can become culturally competent.  If you’ve enjoyed this series and want to learn more about becoming culturally competent, please enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses.  The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.


DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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