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Cultural Competence

When we talk about culture, we are not necessarily talking about the art of fine dining, going to the opera, or playing polo. We are focusing on culture that can appear in both macro- and microcosms. Cultures can be as small as your circle of friends or neighborhood, and as large as countries, religions, and ethnicities and every size in between like your community, school, or workplace  

Effectively moving between cultures requires the skills of flexibility, adaptability, observation, listening, communication, and learning. As you move up through the ranks of your company, switch organizations, move or travel to different locales, or work and live alongside other groups of people, your cultural awareness and the skills that accompany it will be critical to your confidence, success, and satisfaction.

Take Action:

See how confident you are in your cultural awareness right now so you can determine if there are any gaps where you might need to develop more cultural awareness. Answer the questions below and total your score.

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Score Totals:

If you scored 48 – 60:

Chances are that you are an observant person and/or have had some training in social graces. You are able to pick up information from your environment through watching or asking questions. You feel confident in most situations and can make yourself comfortable by engaging others in conversation and learning about what is important to them. You are typically curious and open and make accommodations for others who are different from you, whether it is background, beliefs, gender, or otherwise. With a score this high, you may feel confident enough to proceed. Still, check the observation checklist below to see how you could improve your cultural awareness even more for your future success.

If you scored 35 – 47:

It is likely that you find yourself feeling comfortable in many situations where there is some familiarity – whether with people you know or people who have similar backgrounds. There are situations that you handle easily and effectively, while others may feel a bit awkward. You may find it easier to talk with people you know or have a buddy join you when you approach a new group or social situation. You may want to practice stepping into these situations alone and preparing a few questions that will engage others in speaking about themselves so you can learn more about them and their ideas. This keeps the pressure off of you while you learn a good deal about those around you – what they think, what interests them, and what is important to them. Use the observation checklist below for ideas on the kind of questions you might ask, the conversations you could have and things to watch for.

If you scored below 35:

It can be tough finding yourself in new situations with people you do not know or who are different than you. You may have some comfort working with other genders, while not knowing how to act when in the presence of someone who is observing an ethnic or religious ritual. You may feel comfortable in a new group, while people with authority can be a little intimidating to you. You may be a savant when it comes to dressing in the most stylish fashion for an event, while that line up of forks next to your dinner plate has you stumped. You may be able to make a formal invitation that would make your mom proud, while being tongue tied as to what to say about yourself. Whichever describes you, it is clear from your score that you could use a bit of work to improve. Follow the observation checklist below to learn the ropes when joining a new team and sizing up new situations.

Observation Checklist for New Career Situations:

When you enter a new workplace or join a new team, there is much to learn about its customs and practices. In addition, many of the rules of engagement are unwritten or what you might call “tribal lore.”  Yet, often these rules are just as important for quickly acclimating to a group or team and avoiding missteps that may cost you important relationships or your reputation. Focused observation and well-placed questions to peers who are considered high-performers will help you learn the rules of the road quickly.

  • Who are the high performers you can emulate?
  • What time is “on time” for your team or organization?
  • What is the work ethic? Are your coworkers intensely focused from start to end of day or is there some social interaction or sense of play?
  • Does your team lunch together or alone at their desks?  Does lunch take an hour or 15 minutes?  If you go out to lunch, who pays?  Do you do separate checks or split the bill?
  • What is the observable dress code? Is it different in the office than at external work events?
  • How do your peers keep their workspace? Are workspaces decorated with pictures and personal items or strictly professional, organized and work oriented?
  • What is the expected level of interaction during group meetings?
  • How are new ideas or processes introduced? Is there a chain of command that is observed when making a suggestion for improvement?
  • How does your work group interact with the rest of the organization?
  • What information is openly shared and what is kept within the team?
  • Do people talk about their private lives, or is the conversation strictly about business?
  • What are the work preferences of your co-workers?  For example - which of your coworkers prefers all the data to make a decision and which prefers an overview of key factors?  Who prefers an email and who wants you to pick up the phone or walk over to their desk?
  • Does your team spend time together outside of work? When? In what setting? How often?
  • Does your team expect you to be reachable in non-work hours? When? By what means? How often?
  • How does your team manage conflict? Do they have direct and respectful communication? Do they fuel rumors? Who settles conflicts?
  • How does your boss interact with the team? Is there autonomy or is there considerable oversight?
  • Are there written rules? How are rules enforced? By whom? When?
  • How is performance feedback offered? Is it immediate or well after the fact? How do teammates get performance feedback when they need it?
  • If you have a family, religious, or personal obligations that occur regularly and/or interfere with work hours, how is that accommodated? With whom should you talk?
  • Who, in your peer group, has very different beliefs and practices than the rest of the team? How does the team react to or support them?