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Cultural Competency: What Organizations Need To Know

Cultural Competency: What Organizations Need to Know

Post Series: culture

“Cultural Competency” is a common phrase in diversity training.  Yet, the importance seems to elude many leaders and organizations.  This three-part series will help leaders and stakeholders gain a better understanding of culture to improve their cultural competence.  Part one of the series will discuss the concept of culture.  The next parts will discuss the importance of cultural competency and how organizations can become culturally competent.

What Is Culture?

According to cultural anthropologists Florence and Clyde Kluckhohn, culture is the shared values, beliefs, symbols, attitudes, languages, products, artifacts, aesthetic standards, and styles of communication that have been created and transmitted by a group over time.  In America, an emphasis on individual freedom, effort, and success could be considered cultural values.  Symbols such as the American flag, artifacts like the statue of liberty, and foods such as apple pie would also be considered part of American culture. 

Note, however, that culture does not become “culture” overnight.  Per the definition, culture is both created and transmitted.  In the creation process, those with power decide which symbols, languages, and standards are valued.  Over time, these ideas are transmitted to the other members of the group.  With more time, the values are internalized by each passing generation.  Values that are created, transmitted, and internalized become part of the dominant culture.

While cultural icons such as statues, flags, and food are important, cultural values are not easily observable.  According to experts, cultural markers like holidays, dress, and language are known as “big C” culture, while the less obvious elements are called “little c” culture.  Experts generally use an iceberg to explain the difference.  Only the tip of an iceberg is visible above the waterline; the vast majority of the ice is concealed underwater.  Similarly, when we view other cultures, we must be careful to note that the “big C” culture we can easily observe is not the same as “little c” culture that lies under the surface.


cultural competency

For instance, in North America, physical contact between strangers is generally limited to a brief handshake during greetings and goodbyes.  Moreover, it is considered rude to stare at a person for too long.  Gesticulating with one’s hands is considered unprofessional.  These elements of “little c” culture are not obvious to outsiders but are important cultural practices nonetheless.

Is Culture Static?

Absolutely not.  As society changes, culture changes as well.  Some of these changes occur over years, decades, or centuries.  One hundred years ago, most American states denied women the right to vote.  Seventy-five years ago, most women were discouraged from working outside of the home.  And just fifty years ago, most American women still needed a husband’s permission to open a bank account or secure a line of credit.  As women asserted their power, they changed the cultural norms and values.

Moreover, as the make-up of a society changes, its culture will change as well.  Currently, America is entering an era where its demographics are shifting.  By 2030, older Americans will outnumber their younger counterparts.   By 2045, Americans of color will outnumber whites.  The number of Americans who regularly speak Spanish at home has doubled since 1990.   As America changes, what Americans value will likely change as well.

Is There Only One Type of Culture?

In any setting, there are at least two cultures.  The dominant culture, or macroculture, is the one that has been created and approved by the dominant class.  However, most countries or organizations of size also have at least one microculture.  Microcultures are subsets within a  macroculture.  Microcultures have unique characteristics, customs, traditions, and practices.  Microcultures are created based on race, religion, or other culturally significant traits.

In America, the dominant macroculture has been created and primarily transmitted by white, Christian males.  Cultures that differ from this norm are microcultures.  So, in America, Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian practices would constitute separate microcultures.  By the same logic, Latinx, African-American, and Asian-American cultures are also microcultures.  Given the many types of people, places, and practices in America, there are many different microcultures.

Let’s use Thanksgiving as an example of how these cultures work together. According to the dominant culture, the traditional Thanksgiving meal is turkey, stuffing, a vegetable, and pumpkin pie for dessert.  In the African American microculture, the menu includes a much longer list of acceptable food items.  Macaroni and cheese, black eyed peas, collard greens, and even spaghetti might appear on the table(s).  While the dominant culture prefers pumpkins, African Americans eat sweet potato pie.  Similarly, Latinx families might prepare tamales, rice and beans, and pumpkin flan for their Thanksgiving celebrations.  Some Native American families skip Thanksgiving altogether to respect their ancestors; others use the day to connect with family.  In short, microcultures provide a window into how groups within a culture interpret the dominant culture on their own terms. 

Why Do I Need to Understand Culture?

There are at least three reasons why leaders and organizations should develop their cultural competency.  First, understanding how culture is created and transmitted provides a better understanding of power dynamics in a society.  (This concept will be addressed further in our second installment.)  Second, leaders must be culturally competent to succeed.  As our economy becomes more global, understanding the nuances of culture can be the difference between business success and business failure.  Finally, like a nation, every organization has its own culture. Understanding how culture works will help leaders know what works in their culture and what needs to be changed.  To learn more about culture, 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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