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Cultural Competence: Why It Matters

Cultural Competency: Why it Matters

Post Series: culture

This post is the second in a three-part series.   For Part 1, click here.

In the first part of this series, we discussed the basics of culture.  This installment will explain why cultural competency matters to organizations.  In short, it matters because every organization creates its own culture.  As it does so, it must be mindful of the need to create and nurture a culture that reflects its values of equity, diversity and inclusivity.

Why Organizational Culture Matters

An organization’s culture is its defining characteristic.  It’s no accident that when famous business and sports leaders are discussed, people often comment on their ability to create a “culture of success” or a “culture of failure.”  Similarly, an organization’s culture is how it will become known to its employees, customers, clients, and the public.

The role organizational culture plays cannot be ignored.  The Harvard Business Journal reported that organizational culture is so strong that it sometimes overcomes national culture.   The article noted that a long-term, American-born Honda employee’s work style is like that of Honda employees in Japan.  By contrast, it has little resemblance to Americans who work for other firms.

According to Forbes magazine, employees know that organizational culture matters and want leaders to work harder to develop it.  Leaders would do well to follow their employees’ advice in this regard.  The McKinsey research firm found that organizations with healthy cultures perform better, are more adaptable, and have an edge over their competitors.  Conversely, those with unhealthy cultures have unhappy, unproductive employees.  So, culture matters.  We’ll discuss the relevance of organizational culture to cultural competency a bit later.

What is Cultural Competency?

Though every organization has a culture, cultural competency refers to an organization’s ability to successfully integrate the many individual cultures that exist within it.  If an organization has been actively working toward equity, diversity, and inclusivity, many different cultures and backgrounds should be represented at every level of the organization.  Cultural competency ensures that employees of various perspectives are heard on a regular basis.

Cultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and adapt one’s behavior to cultural similarities and differences.   Simply put, it means recognizing that you have a culture and that this culture impacts your worldview.  After this realization, you must learn to see events from the perspective of those that are different than you.   In short, to become culturally competent, you must let go of the idea that the way you’ve learned to see the world is “the right way” and become open to the idea that the same event, story, or problem can be viewed in multiple, valid ways

While this may seem simple on the surface, cultural competence cannot be developed without a clear understanding of the way that culture works.  As discussed in part one of this series, every society has a dominant culture.  In America, the dominant culture is white, male, straight, and Christian.  While there is nothing wrong with being any of those things, there is something wrong when a culture acts as if the white, straight, Christian male viewpoint is the only one worth supporting.  Culturally competent leaders know that every employee has a unique perspective that deserves to be heard.

Why Cultural Competency Matters to Organizations

Diversity brings many benefits to organizations.  However, without equity and inclusion, diversity efforts will fail.  Making diverse hires is not enough.  Organizations must create environments where diverse employees can excel without feeling that they must hide their unique viewpoints.  Without cultural competency, even the most diverse organization will fail.  Cultural competency helps organizations create spaces that are inclusive.  Moreover, over time, cultural competency can help them create more equitable practices.  But without cultural competency, an organization will never achieve inclusion or equity.  As a result, they will continue to make diverse hires because they never put the effort into keeping them.

We began this piece with a discussion of organizational culture because you must evaluate your organization’s culture to become culturally competent.  Again, you must look at the culture with different eyes and a different perspective to see what you may have missed.  (This is particularly true for leaders from the dominant culture.)  As you review written and unwritten office policies with a new mindset, you may see that some policies unintentionally create barriers for diverse employees.

Let’s use the fictitious XYZ Corporation as an example of cultural competency in action.   The company doesn’t have set hours for salaried workers, but employees know that they are expected to work 70 hours each week.  Moreover, the company has an optional happy hour on its rooftop each Friday night.  No employee with a child under age seven has been promoted for as long as anyone can remember.  The 70-hour workweek puts pressure on new parents, particularly working mothers.  The after-work social events increase that pressure.  Promoting childfree employees over those with children or other family responsibilities reinforces the idea that the company does not value working parents.  Though there may be written policies to the contrary, reviewing the unwritten policies with new eyes reveals a different perspective.

But we need not limit our examination to hypotheticals.  Real world events over the past year illustrate the importance of creating a healthy, unbiased organizational culture.   Last year, the #MeToo movement revealed that many powerful men in entertainment had used their positions to abuse and harass their coworkers.  While these men were clearly wrong, many of the women were silent because they thought no one would believe them.  The men got away with their behavior for so long because they worked in offices where the culture allowed them to mistreat women without consequences.  In a healthy organizational culture, every employee is heard and valued.

As each organization develops or refines its culture, it must make sure that the culture is one that respects everyone.  To learn more about culture and cultural competency, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses.  The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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