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DEI buzzwords are nothing without intercultural competence

In today’s professional landscape, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusive culture) buzzwords are everywhere. These terms are linked with training and development programs that aim to foster a workforce that embodies each of these three themes. While the intention behind these initiatives is great, the efforts often fall short, as they tend to miss the crucial piece of the puzzle, intercultural competence.

Before we get too far ahead, let’s first establish which buzzwords are used and what they mean:

What is DEI? – It is an abbreviation for diversity, equity and inclusive culture(s). The idea behind DEI is to create a diverse, fair and inclusive environment. It aims to recognise and value everyone as their authentic selves while addressing both inequalities and bias. More about DEI, including the benefits of sustained diversity, can be read here.

What is diversity? – Diversity is the condition of having or being composed of differing elements. In this sense, diversity includes but is not limited to, quantifiers such as gender, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, professional orientation, education level, neurodivergence, nationality and people with health conditions or ailments

What is equity? – Equity is the quality and promotion of fairness, impartiality and justice. Some of you might ask: what is the difference between equity and equality? Equality suggests that everyone gets the same, while equity involves fairness based on the unique needs of each person involved. 

What is inclusion? – Inclusion is the act, or practice, of including everyone. 

What is culture? – Culture is the learned and shared patterns of behaviours, symbols, rituals, beliefs and values, held by a group, or groups, of interacting people. To be clear, culture is not limited to only national culture. As with diversity it can come in many shapes and sizes; families, sport teams and religious groups, for example, can all have their own culture.

What is an inclusive culture? – An inclusive culture is the patterns of behaviour, symbols, rituals, beliefs and values which allows for equitable inclusion of everyone. It is created when feelings of fairness and respect are built upon by feeling valued and having a sense of belonging, all of which helps earn trust. This in turn also creates, for everyone, the opportunity to be themselves and to contribute to the success of the company as their authentic selves. Furthermore, such a culture is one in which employee engagement is earned. Participation and collaboration are common, and stakeholders are given opportunities for growth and development. An truly inclusive culture must be unique to each group, and cannot be achieved with a checklist.

What is unconscious bias? – This refers to bias or prejudice that happens without awareness or conscious action. There has recently been an increase in training courses that target unconscious bias, as organisations are recognising the threat it poses to diversity, equity and inclusive cultures. It is another area where well intentioned efforts fall short as they’re missing the right piece.

What is psychological safety? – The perception or belief that one can express their thoughts, beliefs, ideas and concerns without fearing negative consequences. Establishing psychological safety is a key goal of an inclusive culture

As with an inclusive culture, psychological safety doesn’t always have the same meaning. For example, some people might need to establish a structure for feedback to feel psychologically safe, while others might have a need for autonomy.

What is emotional intelligence (EQ)? – Also known as emotional quotient. Being emotionally intelligent means that one can perceive, use, understand and manage their emotions. Forbes also defines it as the ability to be aware of our emotional state and the emotional states of others and incorporate that awareness into our actions and decisions.

What is intercultural communication? – Communication between two or more people, from different cultures. More information, including the difference between inter- and intracultural communication as well as multi- and cross-cultural communication can be found here.

The missing piece:

All of these seem like good, important aspects of company culture, right? Of course they are, but as we mentioned before, you need the right foundation to make it all work. Each and every piece we just mentioned will be unsustainable without the establishment of Intercultural Competence:

Also known as cultural intelligence (CQ), it is made up of a range of skills, behaviours and attitudes which allow people to function effectively in intercultural settings. Further it is the ability to develop and engage in appropriate communication, behaviour and attitudes with varying cultural backgrounds and language levels. 

Intercultural competence is a necessity in today’s globalised world. Even if your team all has the same background, it is very unlikely that external parties you engage with will be different. That said, if you’re a part of a non-diverse team, consider trying to change that. Doing so allows for more perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking. It can also lead to significant benefits, which we’ll cover a bit further on.

What are the benefits of intercultural competence?

Without understanding and patience for each other’s wants, needs and perspectives, there will be strong limitations to success and growth. Miscommunications and tension builds, creating an unproductive and unwelcoming atmosphere. Why would someone want to stay in an organisation where they’re not understood; or an organisation in which their differences are seen as a problem, rather than a strength?

When intercultural competence is developed, there are strong, measurable benefits that can be earned, which positively impact individuals, teams and entire organisations. Also, our differences can then be appreciated and leveraged, to everyone’s benefit.

For example, one study of companies in North & South America, as well as the UK, found that those organisations which had industry high levels of ethnic diversity reported an average of 35% higher financial gains. Other benefits include increases in innovation, collaboration, productivity and both satisfaction and retention of employees as well as clients.

How do you develop intercultural competence?

Wrapping up, intercultural competence is the vital link that elevates DEI efforts from mere buzzwords to transformative and sustainable practices. By supporting the development of intercultural competence within your organisation, you not only promote DEI, but also earn a range of benefits that drive success and growth in today’s diverse, globalised world. 

Reach out to us for a free 30-minute consultation or explore our proven intercultural competence training courses to determine the best fit for your team’s needs. Our dedicated experience in the field of communication skills and intercultural competence has allowed us to target specific areas of focus which, when developed, help people create a positive impact in multicultural environments. Together, we can build a brighter, more inclusive future.

Intercultural competence offers important benefits, but its also important to recognise the need for equitable access to language. You can learn more about how this in our Fluency Gap whitepaper. If you’re ready to work on your, or your team’s language & communication skills, take a look at our offers!

Paul Van Zanten
Paul is an American intercultural communications professional living in the Netherlands and connecting with his Dutch roots. With a passion for travel, as well as gaining new perspectives and experiences, Paul aims to further his growth, as well as that of others at Language Partners.

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