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.
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.
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.
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.
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.