Monday, July 28, 2014

The Importance Of Cross-Cultural Competence

By Dawn Siler-Nixon

Cultural competency is the ability to adapt, work, and manage successfully in new and unfamiliar cultural settings. Culturally competent people can "grasp, reason, and behave effectively" when faced with culturally diverse situations where assumptions, values, and traditions differ from those to which they are accustomed. They recognize that culture may impact the way people from different backgrounds perceive the same facts. When several competing interpretations of a situation may be valid, they can place apparent contradictions in cultural contexts and deal with the ambiguity.

Being culturally competent does not mean fully understanding the cultural norms and dynamics of every person with whom a lawyer interacts. It also isn’t about adopting a particular set of beliefs or learning a language. Rather, cultural competence is a way of approaching any new and different cultural situation. People who are culturally competent are aware of their own cultural backgrounds; they also recognize that culture influences behaviors, thoughts, ways of communicating, values, traditions, and institutions. Culturally competent professionals know that the choices people make are powerfully affected by culture and that every person is subject to many cultural influences.

American diversity programming deals with cultural differences, but the focus is on diversity within the context of American culture. Cultural competence places diversity in a global framework. It involves the ability to function in settings where American values and norms do not prevail, and it refers to the ability to navigate through a strange environment when you are the cultural outsider.

Improving cultural competence is one key to greater profitability. In a survey of 450 managers in multinational companies, effective management of cultural diversity in a global setting was highly correlated with financial success as measured by profit per employee. In companies with proficient cross-cultural management, the survey found that foreign office profits increased through higher productivity, more cross-selling, client expansion, work referrals from other offices, and leveraging of global resources.

Given the increasing global focus of our legal profession to meet the increasing needs and demands of our clients, focusing on cultural competency is critical. It will be important to understanding not only how our own culture impacts on our interactions but how we can utilize our knowledge of another’s culture to influence business outcomes, i.e., negotiations, depositions, trials, etc.

An initial step toward cultural competence involves what Vernā Myers, principal of Vernā Myers Consulting Group, LLC, a nationally recognized expert, calls learning the B-A-S-I-C-S. Do not assume you understand an individual’s culture or withdraw from racial and ethnic differences or try to avoid them because you are unsure what is expected.  Instead, “B – Breathe: Suspend all judgments; A – Assumptions: Question your assumptions; S – Self-Awareness: Stay self-aware about what you are bringing to the dynamic; I – Information: Get information before making conclusions or deciding next steps; C – Culture: Accept that all cultures are equally valid; S – Steps: Take steps toward the person or interaction rather than away from the situation.”  Cultural competence is a journey, not a destination. I hope you join me on that path.