Developing Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence (IC) is crucial in today’s work environment. When there is a culture of expectation that only the newcomers to an organization must make changes in order to fit in, there is a danger of propagating the idea of assimilation. When we expect assimilation in the workplace, we perceive our culture as the benchmark standard and expect newcomers to give up their ways and adopt ours. We also ignore the need for reciprocal changes that are imperative to the more inclusive environment of integration. When there is a culture of integration, both the newcomers and the current members of the organization, are expected to make the necessary changes that are required for a harmonious working relationship. Integration helps make the workplace more equitable and inclusive. Establishing an inclusive workplace culture through the development of intercultural competence at all levels in an organization can help:

  • foster a climate of respect and acceptance
  • reduce workplace conflict
  • increase the overall productivity of employees
  • facilitate the acceptance and the retention of ITIs.


Culture can be defined as, “a learned meaning system that consists of patterns of traditions, beliefs, values, norms, meanings, and symbols that are passed on from one generation to the next and are shared to varying degrees by interacting members of a community.”*

There are three levels of culture, and some levels of culture are more visible than others.* They are:

  • Surface-level culture
  • Intermediate-level culture
  • Deep-level culture

The three levels of culture have an impact on cross-cultural adjustments for both the ITIs and the other employees. The aspects of surface-level culture are obvious and are easier to adjust to. However, the intermediate-level and the deep-level cultures are the blind-spot areas because they contain the less obvious and unspoken norms and values of a culture. As a consequence, it is these two areas that can have the most serious repercussions on workplace interactions, thereby potentially resulting in:

  • workplace conflict
  • absenteeism
  • high turnover and poor retention.

* Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2012

The iceberg analogy below is often used to illustrate this:

Figure 1. Illustration of the iceberg analogy of the three levels of culture

Difference Between Stereotypes and Generalizations

Both stereotypes and generalizations are broad descriptive statements and are often used when talking about cultures. Stereotypes are interpretations of a group that are very limited in perspective. They are negative statements that put all individuals of a culture into the same mold. On the other hand, generalizations are based on facts and studies and provide us with a framework that we can use to talk about a culture in general terms. Individual variations to the norm always exist within cultures, but generalizations refer to a culture’s propensity towards a particular value, belief, or a behavioural norm.

Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence (IC) is a learned skill and is acquired over an extended period of time. It comprises three essential elements:

  • Attitudes (valuing other cultures, being open to and curious about differences, and being comfortable with differences)
  • Knowledge (includes both knowledge of other cultures and knowledge of one’s own culture)
  • Skills (listening, observing, and using critical-thinking skills to evaluate)

According to Deardorff (2006), having the necessary attitudes, knowledge, and skills leads to an internal shift in perspective. This shift in internal perspective then enables one to communicate and behave appropriately and effectively when dealing with people from other cultures.

Developing Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence is developed in stages. According to Hammer (2009b), the stages one goes through during intercultural development are:

Monocultural Perspective

(My culture is the standard.)

Transitional Perspective

(My culture is the standard, but I recognize and value our similarities)

Intercultural Perspective

(My culture is relative to other cultures.)

Denial Polarization
Acceptance Adaptation


Individuals at this stage:

  • feel disinterested in other cultures
  • avoid interactions with people from other cultures
  • have stereotypical notions of other cultures

Effect on workplace environment:

  • When there is a culture of denial in a workplace, employees from non-dominant cultures feel ignored.


This perspective can exhibit in two different ways:


Individuals are judgemental about other cultures and view other cultures as inferior to their own. They are not comfortable with their environment being diverse.


Individuals devalue their own culture and glorify the other culture.

Effect on workplace environment:

  • When there is a culture of polarization in a workplace, employees from non-dominant cultures feel unsettled and ill-at-ease.


Individuals at this stage of intercultural development still have a predominately ethnocentric perspective, but they seek out similarities in cultural and universal values.

Individuals of the dominant culture most likely take this perspective when they do not have enough awareness of their own culture and other cultures.

Individuals from non-dominant cultures might use this as a strategy to be accepted by members of the dominant culture.

Effect on workplace environment:

  • When there is a culture of minimization in a workplace, employees from non-dominant cultures feel that some of their needs are recognized.


Individuals at this stage:

  • have made an internal cognitive shift in their perspective
  • have a deeper understanding of other cultures
  • recognize and value both similarities and differences
  • are curious and want to learn about other cultures
  • have an awareness of their own cultural orientation
  • are able to reflect on their own feelings and interactions with other cultures
  • do not have the necessary skills to deal appropriately and effectively with differences.

Effect on workplace environment:

  • When there is a culture of acceptance in a workplace, employees from non-dominant cultures feel that their needs are recognized and acknowledged.


Individuals at this stage:

  • successfully leverage the internal cognitive shift they made at the acceptance stage to demonstrate an external change in behaviour
  • behave effectively and appropriately in intercultural contexts
  • have a deep understanding of other cultural frameworks
  • may show low tolerance to people at the other developmental stages.

Effect on workplace environment:

  • When there is a culture of adaptation in a workplace, employees from non-dominant cultures feel secure in the inclusive environment where diversity is actively valued and diverse individuals are engaged and involved.

Adapted visualization of M.R. Hammer's Intercultural Development Continuum

Developing IC is crucial to building an inclusive workplace environment. The stage of development that an individual, or a group of employees, is in clearly provides insight into their perspective and their ability to interact appropriately and effectively in an intercultural workplace context.

To learn more about intercultural development and where you and your employees are on the intercultural development continuum, take the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). Learn more at:

Bow Valley College has IDI Qualified Administrators who can interpret and provide feedback on individual and group IDI profiles of intercultural competence. Bow Valley College can also offer customized training for your employees. For more information, contact: 403.410.3413.

Copyright © 2016 Bow Valley College