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Navigating an increasingly intercultural workplace

Author: Marian van Bakel

Workplaces have become increasingly intercultural1, and more and more people need to be able to navigate this new reality – even when not living abroad themselves. Research shows that to be successful in intercultural contexts, people need intercultural competencies2. What is intercultural competence3 and how can you develop it?

What is intercultural competence?

In short, intercultural competence can be seen as the ability or capacity “to interact effectively and appropriately with members of different cultures”4. The emphasis here lies not only with to what extent you reach your goals (effectiveness) but also the way in which you do this (appropriateness). Studies also show that you need three components to be interculturally competent: knowledge, motivation, and skills5. While this gives some idea of what intercultural competence is, there is still a lot of discussion on what exactly constitutes intercultural competence with different streams of research feeding into it (from intercultural communication and international business to international education). The last word is not yet said about this topic.

How can you develop intercultural competence?

An obvious way to develop intercultural competence is through cross-cultural training, which has often been used to prepare expatriates for their international assignment. When designing such training, it is important to keep the experiential rigour in mind – the more participants are actively engaged with the material, the more they will learn6. Another important way to develop intercultural competence is to interact with people from other cultural backgrounds. For expatriates, this can be host country nationals, who can be an important source of information about the host culture. Such contacts might push you out of your comfort zone; this is all the better because that is when you learn the most.

Where to start?

An important starting point is the affective dimension of intercultural competence – also called attitude or motivation. Open-mindedness is defined as ‘an open and unprejudiced attitude towards outgroup members and towards different cultural norms and values’7 and this is very important when encountering people with a different cultural background. One exercise I would recommend is Attend to Judgment, which is an exercise from the Personal Leadership approach8, where for the space of 20 minutes you keep track of your (automatic) judgments towards yourself and others, both positive and negative. This simple exercise helps you to become aware of your judgments, which is the first step towards being able to act differently than you normally would. Examining our judgments can also be a great way to learn a lot about our own values. Try it out, and see what you learn from it!


  1. The United Nations International Migration Report (2017) estimates the number of immigrants worldwide at 259 million.
  2. E.g. Bird, A., Mendenhall, M., Stevens, M. J., & Oddou, G. (2010). Defining the content domain of intercultural competence for global leaders. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 25(8), 810-828 or Johnson, J. P., Lenartowicz, T., & Apud, S. (2006). Cross-cultural competence in international business: Toward a definition and a model. Journal of International Business Studies, 37(4), 525-543.  
  3. Many different terms are used to denote a similar ability to navigate intercultural situations, such as cultural intelligence, global mindset, and cross-cultural competence.
  4. Wiseman, R. (2002). Intercultural communication competence. In W. Gudykunst & B. Mody (Eds.), Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication (2nd ed., pp. 207-224). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, p. 208
  5. Spitzberg, B. H., & Changnon, G. (2009). Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence. In D. K. Deardorff (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (pp. 2-52). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, p. 35).
  6. Mendenhall, M., Osland, J. S., Bird, A., Oddou, G., Maznevski, M., Stevens, M., & Stahl, G. (2013). Global Leadership: Research, Practice, and Development (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
  7. Van der Zee, K. I., & Van Oudenhoven, J. P. (2000). The Multicultural Personality Questionnaire: A multidimensional instrument of multicultural effectiveness. European Journal of Personality, 14, p. 294
  8. Schaetti, B., Ramsey, S., & Watanabe, G. (2008). Personal Leadership: Making a World of Difference: A Methodology of Two Principles and Six Practices. FlyingKite Publications. https://www.plseminars.com/how-pl-works/