What we know and don’t know about intercultural competence

competenceIntercultural competence is one of the salient topics in the field of global mobility, with ongoing interest in both academic and applied settings. For example, implications of intercultural competence can’t be overseen when speaking about global workforce mobility, multicultural team management, cross-cultural collaborations in both business and education domains, immigration, and the current refugee crisis. Given the high relevance and importance of intercultural competence across a broad range of contexts, it also comes as no surprise that there is high diversity in understandings and approaches towards the concept.

Aiming for more clarity and consensus, a recent article (Leung, Ang and Tan, 2014) reviews the current state-of-the-art in the intercultural competence literature within organizational context, revealing important trends and posing good directions for future research. Below, I highlight some of the main findings.

What do we know about intercultural competence?

According to the authors, there seems to be a consensus that ‘intercultural competence refers to an individual’s ability to function effectively across cultures’. Such general consensus leaves however plenty of room for diversity in defining more specific content of intercultural competence. Indeed, the review identified more than 300 different characteristics of intercultural competence, which the authors propose to classify under three main dimensions: traits, attitudes and worldviews, and capabilities.

Intercultural traits are defined as ‘enduring personal characteristics that determine an individual’s typical behaviors in intercultural situations’. For example, previous research has looked into such intercultural traits as open-mindedness, emotional stability, tolerance of ambiguity and quest for adventure. As brought up in one of my previous blog posts, much of the personality research on expatriation is linked to the Big Five personality traits, reporting that ‘expatriates who are emotionally stable, who are outgoing and agreeable, and who are high in openness to experience seem to function better than others’.

Apart from more stable personality characteristics, the concept of intercultural competence also involves the more malleable domain of attitudes and worldviews. Previous research suggests that higher intercultural competence entails positive attitudes towards intercultural contact. Moreover, people with higher intercultural competence would also have more sophisticated, rather than simplistic or ethnocentric, understanding of differences and similarities across cultures.

Finally, intercultural capabilities define ‘what a person can do to be effective in intercultural interactions’. As the term capabilities implies, this domain of intercultural competence can be learned and developed, as in the case of culture-specific knowledge, language skills or communication skills. For example, the cultural intelligence model is one of the most prominent models of intercultural capabilities, and something that I have previously wrote about in my blog as well.

According to different models, intercultural competence is expected to predict intercultural effectiveness, which is yet another broad concept. Previous research aimed to clarify the concept by categorizing the measure of intercultural effectiveness into three types of outcomes: psychological (e.g., cultural adjustment), behavioral (e.g., intercultural cooperation and interactions), and performance outcomes (e.g., job performance, leadership effectiveness). Currently the general framework suggests focusing on job performance as the ultimate measure of intercultural effectiveness, and seeing psychological and behavioral outcomes as intermediate variables in the relationship between intercultural competence and job performance. In my own research I have similarly aimed to clarify expats’ adjustment, viewing it as a critical psychological factor that influences the performance of global professionals. Such an assumption also seems to underlie practical efforts of organizations to facilitate employees’ adjustment and behavioral competencies, for instance by cross-cultural training.

What don’t we know about intercultural competence?

Although there is some consensus on the definition, domains and outcomes of intercultural competence, there are still several unanswered questions.

First of all, future research should examine the structural relationships between trait-, attitude/worldview-, and capability-based competence, as well as the three outcome measures. In other words, it is still unclear which dimensions of intercultural competence affect which aspects of intercultural effectiveness and in which contexts.

Echoing this notion of lacking specificity, the authors also speak about in situ intercultural competencies. As the scholars put it, ‘we know a lot about the personal characteristics of people with high intercultural competence’, but ‘we know much less about what interculturally competent people actually do in specific intercultural job contexts’. Hence, there is an important distinction between generalized knowledge and context-specific action. For example, communication skills might be part of general intercultural competence, while culture- and context-specific communication style would be an example of in situ intercultural competence. The authors define in situ intercultural competencies as ‘demonstrated sets of coordinated behaviors that are instrumental for achieving desired results or outcomes in specific intercultural contexts’. Moreover, according to their proposed model, the scholars argue that general intercultural competence develops into in situ competencies through training and direct experiences. In situ competencies are in turn causally and proximally related to intercultural job performance.

Although the authors call for future research to identify in situ intercultural competencies for specific jobs and roles in specific contexts and countries, I would also suggest immediate applied opportunities. As noted in my blog post about the complexities of cross-cultural differences, expats themselves can be a great source of such knowledge, hence helping to identify specific behaviors for specific cultural and organizational contexts. In other words, organizations might not only continue actively sending (prepared) employees abroad, as direct experience translates general intercultural competence into in situ competencies, but also draw on the cohort of global professionals for developing the scope and nature of in situ competencies.

Further reading: Leung, K., Ang, S., & Tan, M. L. (2014). Intercultural Competence. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1, 1, 489-519.

2 thoughts on “What we know and don’t know about intercultural competence

  1. Last year’s Copa Libertadores (soccer competition between south american clubs) had the team Atlético Mineiro failing to see a cultural mexican concept and almost lost an otherwise easy game.

    The Brazilian team Atlético Mineiro faced Mexican team Tijuana. During the brazilian team campaign, the fans started a saying: “Caiu no Horto, tá Morto” (means: Caught at Horto – the stadium -, Dead!) – since Atlético had a home winning record of over 15 games in a row.

    To illustrate how screwed visitors were when facing Atletico at Horto’s Stadium, the fans, for the match against Tijuana, prepared thousands of masks (it was a mask from the movie Scream)

    The brazilian fans thought they would generate a little panic or fear on the mexican adversaries.

    Now, if you’re mexican you’re pretty much used to see skeletons and death masks since it is culturally common for the mexican to cellebrate the ‘dia de los muertos’ (day of the dead) with festivites.

    Altetico Mineiro almost lost that game and the masks did nothing but to make the mexicans feel more at home.

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