Cultural Competence, Diversity, and Diversity Challenges
What is "cultural competence" and what does it have to do with my work? "Cultural competence" involves acquiring, integrating, and transforming knowledge about individuals, situations, circumstances, environments, events, and people in ways that produce congruent systems, standards, policies, practices, and attitudes in cross-cultural settings to achieve effective results.
Cultural competence is an ongoing process that involves a person doing the following:
1. Learning about cultural differences, distinctions, and realities;
2. Integrating that knowledge into his or her overall intelligence and skill base;
3. Transforming the knowledge into congruent attitudes, practices, policies, standards, and systems;
4. Applying the knowledge in appropriate cross-cultural settings; and
5. Achieving effective cross-cultural results.
Cultural competence and diversity are different, although related, realities. "Diversity" refers to all the ways that people are different, as well as the many different ways that we are similar. For instance, any visitor to another country will immediately recognize that the people of that country are different. That recognition involves appreciating diversity to some extent. However, appreciating diversity does not automatically make one competent to engage in cross-cultural interactions.
Cultural competence involves much more than realizing that people vary. It is possible to know that people are wondrously different and similar while being destructive, inept, blind, or uneasy in cross-cultural situations because we either fail to recognize or mishandle diversity challenges. A diversity challenge is grounded in the simple fact that in spite of our similarities, the differences matter. Therefore, any cross-cultural encounter may involve differences that matter to one party but not the other, resulting in a cultural disconnect.
Military, health care, education, and social services providers in the U.S. have the longest experience dealing with cultural competence and its implications. The U.S. Defense Department began formal consideration of the issue during the early Seventies with creation of the Defense Race Relations Institute—now the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI). A cursory Internet search using the term "cultural competence" or "cultural competency" will produce scores of articles by health care, education, and social services providers. Cultural competence is now an integral part of the professional and continuing learning process for many education, health care, and social services providers.
On the other hand, attention to cultural competence has yet to be included in the way people prepare to work in public policy, law, business, philanthropy and other non-profit work, and in religion. Recall, for example, the uproar produced after Pope Benedict quoted a controversial comment attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. And, according to an October 17, 2006 opinion editorial by Jeff Stein, a national security columnist for the New York Times, most of the U.S. leaders that Stein interviewed in the intelligence community, law enforcement, and even members of Congress with oversight responsibility for intelligence matters did not know the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
The response often heard when people find themselves in trouble after having engaged in some mis-step arising from a cross-cultural interaction or exchange is that the actor had good intentions, or did not have bad intentions. However, competency/proficiency is never determined by "intentions," be they good or bad. By definition, one cannot be competent, let alone proficient, at anything and also be ignorant, insensitive about that ignorance, or complacent about changing it. Saying "I meant no harm" does not transform the unskilled operator of a wrecked automobile into a competent driver, repair any injuries and damage resulting from the wreck, or give other motorists reason to trust the operator to drive safely in the future.
At Griffen Strategic Consulting, we understand that cross-cultural interactions are the rule, not exceptional experiences. Simply put, cultural incompetence is not an acceptable option in today's global marketplace, nor does it need to be. Wendell Griffen, Manny Brandt, and Dolores Fridge have devoted decades to helping leaders understand and apply this truth in practical and effective ways. Every GSC consultant is committed to delivering culturally competent service. If you would like to talk with us, please contact us for a complimentary initial discussion of your needs and our approach. Visit the GSC website at www.griffenstrategicconsulting.com to learn more about who we are and what we do. Wendell Griffen