5 Stages to Intercultural Competence

5 Stages to Become Interculturally Competent

Becoming interculturally competent is a developmental process. No one is born interculturally competent and people don’t build this competence just because they live in a multicultural environment.

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) was first defined by Dr. Milton Bennet in the 1980s. One of his colleagues Dr. Mitch Hammer then created a psychometric assessment, the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), to enable people to assess their own level of intercultural sensitivity. As for most psychometrics, there is no ideal profile. It all depends where you want to be.

So what does it take to become interculturally competent? Mindfulness. And a clear understanding of why you want/need to be interculturally competent. Everybody doesn’t need to be interculturally competent, and that’s fine.

We naturally start from an ethnocentric mindset – where we perceive and judge the world through our own cultural lens – and then move to a more ethnorelative as we get more exposure and create new strategies to deal with these differences.

In order to illustrate the different stages of the continuum, I will use examples that I have witnessed in India. Not that Indians are any less interculturally competent than others but this is where I have spent my entire career and this is most complete reference I can share.

1. Denial

Denial is usually characterised by a lack of awareness, or even by a lack of interest, in other cultures. “My culture is my reality and I don’t really care/believe that their could be another way to experience the world”. Even though we live in the ‘global village’, everyone doesn’t yet feel like they belong to it and, more importantly, don’t really need to care. The remote Indian farmer probably has more urgent things to think about than trying to understand different mental models when his life experience is geographically limited to his village and the local market town.


Polarization is divided in two stages – Defense and Reversal – which are both characterised by an ‘us’ and ‘them’ vision of cultural differences.

When people start interacting with other cultures, they often can judge other mental models as less valuable than theirs. I have often heard in my years of experience of intercultural training in India that “Americans have no family values”. Americans, like everyone else, have strong family values but because they live these values differently than most Indians would, this kind of judgment is relatively common. In the same way, I have heard many Americans tell me that Indians are submissive because they accept arranged marriages. That is Defense.

Reversal is the opposite of Defense. This is when people perceiving their own culture as inferior to others. This was a common occurrence a few years ago in the Indian outsourcing industry. Ten years ago, I would regularly hear Indian managers say that “We Indians need to learn how to be professional like our American colleagues/partners/clients”. The mindset here was that Indians don’t know how to work ‘well’. ‘Well’ being the American definition of professionalism based on strong american values like individualism, task and result orientation.

3. Minimization

Minimization is when we level differences between different cultures. “We’re all human after all and things like respect and hard work mean the same thing for everybody, wherever they come from”. Minimization is a huge step from Polarization as it already shows the desire to move beyond judgement. Moreover, it is a very comfortable place to be for people working in a global environment and trying to create and/or implement global processes. However, it still negates the value of diversity and comes in the way of truly effective inclusion policies. A lot of expat HR managers I have met in India find it particularly hard to move on from Minimization. I remember coaching a Danish executive recently who was adamant about the fact that the values of his company, and the behaviours linked to them – as defined by headquarters – were universal need not be adapted to local cultures. I can still hear him telling me: “Respect is respect. Full stop.”

Minimization is probably one of the most important reasons why certain companies still resist intercultural training.

4. Acceptance

In Acceptance, people are aware of their own cultural identity and also accept that there are other valuable ways of perceiving the world. People see value in different mental models but don’t yet know how to adapt their behaviour when confronted with these differences. For example, a lot of Indian engineers I work with tell me that they see great value in a more direct communication style when interacting virtually with other colleagues but they don’t know how to do it without sounding rude. Acceptance is a very critical step of developmental process as without acceptance there can be no adaptation.

5. Adaptation

Adaptation is when I understand and see value in other mental models AND I can adapt my behaviour according the the situation I am in. A lot of the people I have worked with in India have no problem at all adapting their behaviour from a very conservative, indirect, relationship oriented culture at home to a very informal, direct, result oriented culture at work. With exposure and mindfulness this becomes unconscious for a lot of people. People who still have an ethnocentric mindset very often define Adaptation as cultural schizophrenia as they dont understand how others can genuinely adapt their behaviour without losing their identity.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no better stage on the continuum. It all depends where you need or want to be. However, for professionals working in global companies or NGOs, this is becoming one of the most important competencies to become a effective leader.

If this is something that is important to you, I strongly recommend using the IDI as a tool to assess where you stand on the DMIS and as a starting point for a coaching engagement that can enable you to become the leader you want to be.

Image | This entry was posted in Business, Collaboration, Culture, Learning and Development, Organizational Development and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 5 Stages to Intercultural Competence

  1. Holger Lindberg Joergensen says:

    So true, Guillaume.
    I am Danish teacher (not executive) now living and working in China (close to 5 years) and when I read about your coaching session with the Danish executive (3. Minimization) and his company with universal values I couldn’t help looking inside and thinking about where I was myself some years ago. I am happy to say that I think I have come quite a bit further than my countryman and his company.

    Actually, when I read it, I couldn’t help saying “Touché!” out loud and my lovely wife (who is Chinese) sitting at her computer next to me instantly looked up and said: “Darling, are you all right?. I just smiled and replied: “Never been better, darling. Never been better!”

    Thanks, Guillaume

  2. Hi Holger, Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate hearing other people’s experiences. Knowing that I made you smile is enough to make my day 🙂 . Thank you Holger

  3. Hi Guillaume,
    Great to discover your blog ` and thanks so much for signing on to mine.
    I read this article with great interest. The application of “mindfulness” in intercultural understanding is a fascinating exploration. How fluid are these concepts? How much do beliefs form barriers that undermine deep understanding? How much do different cultures reinforce certain mental, emotional and behavioral habits?
    I am particularly interested in Minimization. I wonder what role empathy (or lack of it) plays a role here?
    I’m looking forward to following your writings for more insights.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s