The Importance of Cultural Competency

Cultural competency is a concept I was introduced to while working in the mental health field. I learned the benefits of incorporating traditional healing methods into treatment. Different cultures can view the origins of mental health issues differently, and have strongly differing preferences on treatment modalities. Often times language is a barrier to effective treatment: clinical terms, even seemingly simple ones like "depression," may have radically different meanings when translated that affect screenings and the intake process. Understanding - and emphasizing - these cultural nuances makes sense when dealing with medical issues, as it really can be a matter of life and death.

But what about in the workplace? Most of us don't deal with grave issues on the daily. Yet I can't help remembering what I learned about cultural competency and applying the concept to work in any field.

The seminal work on cultural competency was published in 1989. It is continually revised, but the core concept is one of consciousness and self-reflection around the interaction of different cultures, and adjusting behaviors accordingly. This might seem simple enough, but I bet it has broad implications beyond what we think.

Remember the Great Bush Shoeing Incident of 2008? Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. I, at the time, thought it was humorous - a clever act of defiance. I didn't realize the shoe was much more than that. Al-Zaidi (who was beaten and tortured for his act) expressed his opposition in the way of his culture, and its significance was largely misunderstood by the West.

I guess what I'm asking is: do employees sometimes throw their metaphorical shoes, and if so, is the act ignored for the scream of desperation it really is?

Can management realistically expect employees to preform well if they aren't given tools they culturally need? That can range from an understanding of conversational styles and workplace preferences, to probably much bigger things I am missing. (It might be time to talk to an expert on this!)

With the trend of the "culture fit" gaining popularity as a critical component of hiring and retaining workers, it seems the burden to belong is placed on the employee. And the idea that if the culture makes someone unhappy that they can simply leave is an idea that reeks of privilege. While some people and their skillsets are in such a demand, the reality for most people is that you go to your job - and stay at your job - out of economic necessity. Wouldn't it be nice if your boss and colleagues were even slightly attuned to your needs?

I don't think this is necessarily the daunting task it may seem like, either. No one can ever develop a complete understanding of cultural specifics to guide every interaction. I think it is as simple as going back to some basics: caring and listening. And better listening makes you a better leader.

So instead of emphasizing the culture fit, it's time to talk about cultural competency.