With the increase in global connectivity, the ability to work and communicate effectively with people from diverse cultural backgrounds is seen as an important asset. What factors might help to build this asset? HKUST's Melody Chao explains.
Imagine that you need to build a project team to work on integrating artificial intelligence with business analytics. Suppose that you have all the resources that you need to attract the brightest minds from around the world to join your team. What might affect the overall effectiveness of this team? Presumably, everyone on the team would have the technical knowledge and competencies to perform and contribute as required. However, having the knowledge and competencies does not necessarily mean that individual team members would be able and willing to communicate effectively. What might influence work and communication effectiveness in the face of diversity? Research over the past decade has suggested that multicultural competence (sometimes known as cultural intelligence) is an important quality in enhancing effectiveness in a culturally diverse workforce.
What is multicultural competence? Why is it important?
Multicultural competence refers to the ability to adapt and function efficiently in a culturally diverse setting. It involves (a) having the intrinsic interest to acquire different cultural knowledge; (b) possessing knowledge about other cultures; (c) being aware of one’s own cultural values and beliefs, and their potential assumptions and biases; and (d) being able to respond in a culturally appropriate manner. In short, it encompasses motivation, knowledge, awareness, and skills.
Multicultural competence can influence important outcomes across different work domains. For example, it affects the effectiveness of expatriates and how well they adjust in international assignments. It influences the performance of culturally diverse teams and the success of cross-cultural negotiations. It also predicts the performance of salespersons who serve diverse customers. Interestingly, in the domain of health service provision, particularly mental health, it can influence the diagnostic accuracy of clinicians and their service delivery because cultural factors influence how clinical symptoms are experienced, detected, understood, and managed.
What might contribute to multicultural competence?
Multicultural competence is a learnable attribute. Therefore, business organizations and educational institutes have invested a significant amount of resources in training and education. Above all, they recognize that international experience and exposure to foreign cultures are important means in enhancing multicultural competence. However, individuals differ in their receptiveness towards cultural training and international experiences. Some might benefit from these experiences and training and improve their level of multicultural competence over time. Others might resist and react against it. Why would people react and respond differently? Our recent research revealed that “cultural mindset” matters.
Our work on “cultural mindset” grew out of the broader literature on “growth mindset.” It has shown that individuals’ beliefs about their ability can create a social reality for themselves, which then leads them to see and experience what they have expected. Research on growth mindset reveals that whereas some people believe that their ability is changeable, others believe it is fixed. Importantly, when facing challenges, people in the former group tend to persist more in the search for solutions than those in the latter group. They also tend to value opportunities to learn and to improve themselves. Eventually, their beliefs turn into a reality. They show improvement in their actual ability, outperforming those with a fixed mindset.
Our research on cultural mindset showed that a similar process influences the development of multicultural competence. In a longitudinal study, we found that sojourners who believe in changeable cultural attributes are more at ease in intercultural environments than those with a fixed cultural mindset. They experience less anxiety when interacting with people from another culture. They are also less inclined to anticipate social rejections, and are better adjusted in the host countries. These positive experiences then foster the development of multicultural competence.
In a series of lab studies, we also found that people holding malleable cultural beliefs are more able to build a trusting relationship with their foreign partners. This trust led to more cooperative behavior and better outcomes in negotiations. In short, our mindsets create a self-fulfilling cycle in which we live. Mindset matters. We do not only see what we believe, but we also become what we believe.
What can be done then?
Individuals are often selected for international exchanges, foreign assignments, or multicultural teamwork based on their technical competence. For some, they can leverage these opportunities to establish trusting relationships, expend their networks, and broaden their knowledge base. For others, such experiences can turn out to be aversive.
Arguably, there could be a self-selection process in which people with a malleable cultural mindset feel more comfortable with intercultural exchanges and, therefore, are more likely to take up the challenge and flourish. In contrast, people with a fixed cultural mindset tend to shy away from intercultural encounters in the first place; however, some might be motivated to take up these international opportunities because of their perceived instrumental value. In the increasingly diverse workplace, individuals should be mindful of the impact of their cultural mindset in shaping the development of their multicultural competence. Managers and educators should also consider ways to provide support and training.
Traditional cross-cultural training programs focus on enhancing multicultural competence by providing culture-specific knowledge. They often highlight differences in cultural practices and values, but an emphasis on differences may inadvertently reinforce a fixed cultural mindset. So, it is important for cross-cultural training program to go beyond emphasizing cultural differences. It would likely be more effective in promoting positive intercultural exchanges if it fosters an awareness of how cultural mindset can lead into a self-fulfilling cycle of competence, or incompetence.
What is Multicultural Competence?
- An intrinsic interest to acquire cultural knowledge
- Knowledge about other cultures
- Awareness of different cultural values and beliefs, and their potential biases
- The skills to respond in a culturally appropriate manner