Understanding Culture and Cultural Competence from an Intergroup Perspective

11 May 2023
Associate Professor Melody Chao of the HKUST Business School, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), who specializes in Social and Organizational Psychology was a guest speaker on the topic “Understanding Culture and Cultural Competence from an Intergroup Perspective,” on April 5, at Sasin’s Research Seminar held at Sasin School of Management. Cultural competence, sometimes known as cultural intelligence, has gained increasing attention as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies have become mandatory in many workplaces and educational institutions. Professor Chao suggested that in addition to learning about cultural differences, diversity training should also consider how to motivate and engage people to apply their cultural knowledge in the workplace actively. Professor Chao stated, “By bringing people from different backgrounds together, they can contribute different knowledge and perspectives to foster creative synthesis.” However, finding ways for people with diverging values and beliefs to work together as a team can be challenging. Thus, diversity training is often implemented in workplaces to cultivate cultural competence in employees. Cultural competence refers to the extent to which an individual has embodied the knowledge necessary to function in a particular group (Chao et al., 2011). Cultural competence consists of three main factors: awareness, paying attention to cultural assumptions; knowledge, understanding different cultural worldviews; and skills, applying appropriate strategies to dealing with cultures (Sue, 1988). Another component crucial to cultural competence that was sometimes assumed is motivation, directing effort to understand and adapt to different cultures (see Ang et al., 2007; Thomas et al., 2015). To be culturally competent, individuals need to have the different cultural knowledge available (e.g., through exposure to multiple cultures and acquiring their knowledge systems) and accessible (e.g., able to recall the acquired knowledge). Importantly, they also need to appraise the fit of knowledge to determine whether the knowledge is applicable to a given intercultural situation (see Higgins, 1996). Diversity training at work and in schools has focused on increasing individuals’ awareness, knowledge, and skills about different cultural groups to enhance cultural competence. This training can help to make different cultural knowledge available and accessible. However, possessing different cultural knowledge does not mean individuals would be motivated to apply the knowledge in a culturally diverse environment. What are the factors that influence the motivational aspect of cultural competence? What would lead one to go against competencies of any sort (Sue, 1998)? Drawing from the literature on mindsets (Dweck, 2017), Professor Chao noted that individuals’ cultural beliefs (i.e., mindsets about culture) could affect how they interpret their multicultural world and, thus, have implications for how they respond to diversity. Implicit cultural beliefs refer to beliefs in fixedness or malleability of cultural attributes. Compared with individuals with malleable cultural beliefs, those with fixed beliefs tend to see cultural groups as having rigid boundaries and little overlapping attributes. These beliefs influence how individuals perceive their environment and shape their reactions in intercultural contexts. For example, compared with those with malleable cultural beliefs, bicultural individuals with fixed cultural beliefs are more likely to show heightened physiological arousal when discussing their intercultural experiences (Chao et al., 2007). International exchange students with fixed cultural beliefs tend to experience poorer adjustment when studying overseas due to their heightened anxious anticipation of being rejected by the host nationals. Ironically, instead of enhancing their cultural competence, the international exchange experiences undermine it (Chao et al., 2017). Other studies suggest that malleable cultural beliefs are more conducive to trust-building and collaboration in intercultural workgroups (Kung et al., 2018). Professor Chao also noted that, traditionally, organizations try to address the challenges of inclusion and diversity with one of two approaches, multiculturalism or colorblindness. Whereas the multicultural approach focuses on respecting, acknowledging, and emphasizing cultural differences, the colorblind approach aims to achieve equity by deemphasizing and ignoring group differences. Although the multicultural approach has gained prominence, its impact has been mixed. Studies have shown that instead of promoting support for diversity and inclusion, organizations that advocate for a multicultural approach might inadvertently undermine the support they try to gain from their stakeholders by inducing ethnocentrism, particularly among those endorsing fixed cultural beliefs (Kung et al., 2022). What is important to note is that these findings do not imply that there are “good” or “bad” beliefs. They suggest that in environments that require individuals from diverse backgrounds to work together collaboratively, individuals with malleable cultural beliefs tend to feel less anxious and are more ready and motivated to work with different others, benefitting more from such intercultural exchanges. Regarding diversity training, Professor Chao noted that increasing individuals’ awareness, knowledge, and skills about different cultural groups might only be a small part of the picture. This is because possessing different cultural knowledge does not mean that individuals would feel comfortable or confident in applying the knowledge that they have as research on implicit cultural beliefs has suggested. Individuals might benefit from diversity training that goes beyond emphasizing cultural differences and considers ways to address the emotional needs of the employees (e.g., reducing anxious concerns about intercultural exchanges, promoting a safe environment to facilitate trust building in teams).  
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