The Challenge of Global Diversity: Cross-Cultural Competence for a Rapidly Shrinking Planet

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The Challenge of Global Diversity: Cross-Cultural Competence for a Rapidly Shrinking Planet

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For every car GM sold in China in 2004, it sold 10 in the United States. By 2009, sales in China equaled those in the US. Rapid economic growth in Brazil, Indonesia, China, and India will add a billion new consumers clamoring for goods and services from around the world over the next decade. With increasing frequency, professionals from one country are interacting with customers and colleagues from other countries.

The Challenge

Grappling with different languages, cultural barriers, and legal-regulatory differences presents formidable challenges. There are more than 20,000 cultures and 3,000 languages on planet Earth, and learning about every one of them is simply impossible. The good news is that while learning foreign languages is helpful, it is not necessary to study hundreds of cultures or languages to work effectively in multicultural environments. Extensive international business experience and research provide a solid starting point for successfully navigating global change. Critical knowledge and skills required for effectively working across cultures include self-awareness, using a cultural-general approach to understand key cultural differences, and translating this knowledge and awareness into cross-cultural competence.

Recommended training from HRDQ-U

Communicating Across Cultures: What Leaders and Teams Need to Know to Succeed


Individuals can increase self-awareness by exploring their preferences in communication style, responses to conflict, decision-making style, and influencing behavior. Personality/behavioral preference inventories, feedback from others, and simply taking time to reflect on personal preferences can help individuals understand strengths, likes, and dislikes. A heightened understanding of preferences can also help individuals understand their reactions to others who are different. Finally, it can help individuals become more aware of how their preferred behaviors may impact others’ perceptions of and reactions to their behavior.

Learning about Culture

A “cultural general” approach focuses on understanding differences and similarities using key cultural dimensions. Cultures differ on how individuals interpret the “normal” range of acceptable behavior in a number of important areas: the individual’s relationship to authority figures, the relative importance of time and punctuality, the level of directness, the appropriate physical social distance, and the proper amount of emotional expressiveness.
Power distance, for example, is one dimension that can strongly impact communication. Individuals from higher power distance countries such as China or Brazil tend to defer to figures of authority much more frequently than individuals from lower power distance countries such as Sweden and the US. Swedes and US Americans expect high levels of equality in the workplace. To illustrate these differences, frustration mounted when a group of leaders from a low power distance country attributed the slow decision-making process of their counterparts from a high power distance country to a “deceitful bargaining strategy” or “indecisiveness” stemming from incompetence.
This created a negative emotional rift between the two teams. From the perspective of the high power distance individuals, bypassing their supervisors to make decisions without first informing and conferring with their leaders would be inappropriate and disrespectful. Had either party realized that the divide arose from cultural differences, they could have discussed and found ways to bridge those differences.
It is critical to understand one’s own culture in the context of these dimensions. This heightened self-awareness permits comparisons and contrasts with other cultures and, in turn, helps to dramatically shorten an individual’s cultural learning curve. However, understanding cultural differences such as the one described above is not sufficient. Applying the knowledge to respond effectively to frustrating, emotionally charged cultural situations is the greatest challenge.

Building Cross-Cultural Competence

The final step is to apply self-awareness and cultural knowledge when working with individuals from other cultures. Focusing on a developing the following can help build cross cultural competence, especially when differences arise.

  • Prepare in advance by investigating key cultural differences with your colleague for the dimensions mentioned above.
  • Stop talking and pay attention not only to the words being used but also to body language, pace, and tone.
  • Look at the individual, but avoid staring. There are instances where indirect eye contact may be appropriate. You should be able to get a handle on the appropriate amount of eye contact if you have attended to theLearning about Culturesection above.
  • Listen intently.
  • Pause and think. Before responding, reflect on what you heard and how it may have impacted you emotionally. A normal human tendency at this point is to interpret what was said and how it was said from the context of the receiver’s own culture. Attributions are made about the speaker’s intent based on the receiver’s culture. These culturally-based attributions are often wrong. This is an opportunity to integrate knowledge gained earlier from heightened self-awareness and understanding of cultural dimensions.
  • Respond (or defer responding).


While reading books on culture that magically transform their readers into effective intercultural communicators would be wonderful (like learning a language, dictionaries, and textbooks), they are no substitute for actual practice and real-world intercultural experience.

patricia hernandez
Patricia Hernández

Patricia Hernández is the CEO of Quality Learning International. Patricia spearheads their international work and co-facilitates leadership programs throughout Latin America. She has a degree in international relations and has worked with clients including Ricoh, Unilever, Oracle, Sun Nuclear, and the US Peace Corps. She is also a Certified Cultural Detective practitioner.

Connect with Patricia on LinkedIn.

Headshot of Curtis Curry
Curtis D. Curry

Curtis D. Curry is the President and COO of Quality Learning International. His past clients include Harris, Honeywell Aerospace, Roche do Brasil, Ricoh Latin America, and United Space Alliance, among many others. Curtis is a fellow at Florida Institute of Technology’s (FIT) Institute for Cultural, Collaboration, and Management. He served as director of training at the Center for Business Industry, Miami-Dade College, director of the World Trade Institute of the Americas and the World Trade Center Miami, and director of Entrena Honduras/Nicaragua.

Connect with Curtis on LinkedIn.

Recommended Training from HRDQ-U
Communicating Across Cultures: What Leaders and Teams Need to Know to Succeed

The inability to successfully navigate cultural differences is the most frequently cited reason for global team failure. Participants will gain critical information and strategies for effectively working across borders.

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