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Cultural Competence and the Ability to Adapt


Working across cultures means adapting to differences.

Those unwilling, or unable to, usually find that things can get tough.

The result is usually the same – confusion, mistrust, weak relationships and lower outputs at work.

On the other hand, the ability to adapt and blend in, leads to more positive outcomes.

So, in this blog we’re going to focus on the importance of cultural adaptability and the benefits it offers.


First, what do we mean by ‘Cultural Competence’.

Although many people are culturally aware, culturally competent business professionals take things one step further by:

• Understanding the key characteristics of their own culture and appreciating that these characteristics may differ to the cultures of the people they interact with.

• Being interested in other cultures and willing to understand and respect potential cultural differences.

Although understanding and respecting cultural difference is important, it doesn’t go far enough for business professionals working in international roles.

Cultural Adaptability

To maximise their interactions, it’s important that they use this understanding to consider and adapt their approach.

What do we mean by adaptation?

The interculturalist Milton J. Bennett, Ph.D., described it as the expression of an ‘alternative cultural experience in culturally appropriate feelings and behaviour’.

When working interculturally, this means that culturally competent business professionals are able to use their understanding of other cultural frameworks to establish the best possible approach.

This doesn’t mean they ignore their own culture or that they throw their own preferences to one side, however. Instead, these alternative approaches are like tools that can be added to their cultural toolbox.

The culturally competent professional can choose when and if to use these tools.

To explore this further, let’s look at the following business case study set in Saudi Arabia.

3 Culturally Diverse Businesswomen

Cultural Competence doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and it takes experience.

Read about 3 Simple Steps to Cultural Competence everyone can take.

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Adapting to Saudi Culture: A Business Case Study

Joe, a North American business professional, has flown to Saudi Arabia to present an overview of a newly developed app for the Saudi market to a group of Saudi colleagues.

Joe has years of experience working across cultures. He understands the importance of culture in his interactions and he took the time to consider the US / Saudi cultural dynamic when preparing his presentation and approach.

Input from his Saudi colleagues is essential to the success of the app. As such, Joe adapts his approach to ensure his time with his colleagues is productive and that he gets the feedback he needs.

Unlike the USA, where meeting attendees tend to engage in a little small talk upfront before moving quickly to business, Joe knows that his approach won’t work in Saudi.

Relationships are an incredibly important part of Saudi culture and they generally prefer to build a relationship with counterparts before opening up and moving to business.

Since Joe doesn’t know all his colleagues, he plans for the first meeting to be primarily small talk and coffee. He has no intention of getting down to business in this first meeting. He knows that to do so, would be to suggest that he sees the app as more important than his colleagues.

Man walking in Jeddah

Cultural Competence requires the ability to address the fact that we see 'others' in particular ways. Read more about Stereotypes & Bias in Cultural Competence Training.

Photo by Adrian Dascal on Unsplash

Joe has also asked someone in the office to arrange lunch to enable a further opportunity for relationships building. Again – he avoids any talk of business during lunch.

He has arranged a further meeting the following day to discuss the app. Having spent time building relationships with his colleagues, Joe feels it’s now an acceptable time to discuss the app.

Adaptation doesn’t stop here though. He continues to adapt his approach throughout the meeting.

‘Face’ or reputation is an important part of Saudi culture.

The value placed on Face means that his colleagues are unlikely to tell him directly in a meeting if they don’t like elements of the app to protect Joe’s face.

With this in mind, Joe adapts his questions so that they are presented in a more roundabout way, such as ‘If we were to change the image in the home screen, then what image do you think would work better?’

Joe knows that if he asks direct questions, as he would back in the USA, he will not get him the answers he needs.

‘Does this image work for you?’ is likely to get a ‘yes’ from Saudis in an attempt to protect face – even if they don’t like it. Disagreement or dislike would then be communicated using non-verbal means.

It’s fair to say from reading this scenario, that Joe is culturally competent.

He is culturally aware and understands that the way he does things may be different to the way his colleagues do things elsewhere in the company.

Not only does he understand this, but he also respects these differences. Taking this one step further, Joe then uses his understanding to adapt his approach to getting the best out of his interactions.

These approaches are all part of his ‘cultural toolbox’; tools to be drawn upon as needed.

Clearly, when he returns to the USA, he will probably revert to the everyday approach which has been shaped by the culture in which he has been raised.

Why is Cultural Adaptability Essential for Business Success?

So, to summarise, adaptation is an essential part of cultural competence. Cultural competence cannot stop at recognition and respect only.

It has to be taken one step further and acted upon.

It is not a case of replacing one’s own approach, but instead, increasing the repertoire of options that can be drawn upon to create successful outcomes.

Take an eLearning Course on Cultural Competence

Online Cultural Competence Learning

If you would like to learn more about cultural competence in the workplace, then check out our fantastic Cultural Competence eLearning course!

It’s been designed for business professionals and is packed full of rich, practical information to help you understand how to navigate cultural differences.

It consistently gets 9/10 from business learners. Here’s what one had to say about it!

"I genuinely learnt quite a lot from this course. I usually don't like e-learning and have a bit of a 'roll-eye' feeling towards them, but this one actually taught me quite a lot and had me thinking about my own interactions with others as well as the interactions of others towards me, where I felt offended or degraded, but that... in hindsight, perhaps that person didn't mean it in the way it came across to me.”

Blog photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash


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