The Importance of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace

Vicki Mann

Posted 24/01/2022
by Vicki Mann

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The Importance of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace

The business landscape is becoming increasingly intercultural, global, and diverse - particularly in terms of co-workers and associates that people will come interact with at any point in their career. In this increasingly intercultural working world, it is more important than ever that employees and employers alike have a social and professional understanding of different cultures, traditions, people, and working styles. On top of this, they must know how best to navigate any intercultural communication in a professional setting and hold any unfounded assumptions aside. The organisations that take this learning to heart and integrate these ideas into the society and culture of their business will be more likely to thrive in the long term.

In 2013, the British Council and IPSOS published a study that exemplified the importance of employees and employers focusing on building their intercultural skills. The report stated that 91% of UK employees had frequent interactions with colleagues of overseas cultures and 61% of UK employees had frequent interactions with customers of overseas cultures. With statistics like these, it is increasingly important that team members have the skills to communicate effectively between cultures and languages in order to accomplish goals and tasks and become an effective, intercultural team.

What are intercultural skills?

Intercultural skills are an umbrella term for any skills that are required of people and teams from different cultures, traditions, and ethnic groups in order to come together, understand each other, and work effectively towards a common goal.

Oftentimes, these skills are about adapting to different cross-cultural views, beliefs, social situations, traditions, languages, or cultural expectations, and being able to approach them with understanding and competence. This is in order to produce positive and, by extension, effective teamwork and results.

Some examples of these cultural skills are:

  • intercultural communication
  • having respect for all cultures and people
  • cultural and racial empathy and sensitivity
  • foreign language skills
  • knowledge of different belief structures and traditions

... and anything else that could be considered advantageous if one was faced with tasks or situations that they must navigate which are of an international, global, or intercultural nature.

Why are intercultural skills important?

Having people with cultural understanding and sensitivity in a business environment can enhance employees' day-to-day teamwork interactions, meaning that when people in a work environment are conscious and aware of the culture and perspectives of their co-workers and associates, accomplishing the goals that everyone has been tasked with achieving becomes a much smoother process.

Some of the most important things for a team member to have in any successful organisation are effective teamwork, communication, and social skills. These abilities allow team members to approach tasks and situations collaboratively in order to have a clear direction and view of what needs to be achieved.

Even being aware of differences in business practices between the north and south regions of England could be beneficial for the success of a company; intercultural competence is not just about language, but also being respectful and aware of cultural values and cultural norms of all places. From Japan to Mexico, India to New York, or Devon to Cumbria, being aware and understanding of how people from specific places and regions approach business interactions and tasks is essential to being successful in the modern business age.

How can intercultural skills benefit careers?

According to the British Council study, half of UK employers believe that intercultural understanding and skills "build trust and relationships with clients." Employees who have the ability to communicate effectively with people from different cultures are increasingly sought after as the need for international and intercultural business relations increases, and these people are often strong performers when it comes to teamwork and navigating different kinds of social situations. 

Employees who have experience working or studying internationally are often the preferred candidate in competitive interviews, as cultural awareness points to skills such as communication, teamwork, leadership, empathy, and motivation in a candidate - showing that they would be an essential part of an effective team. One-third of employers see "miscommunication and conflict" as one of the biggest threats to their organisation's growth, and therefore being a team member who understands cultural diversity and can interact with those from other cultures effectively, decreases the risk of business interactions turning sour because of a lack of cultural sensitivity from a team member, co-worker, or partner. 

How to prioritise intercultural skills on a personal level

Something potential team members can do to strengthen their knowledge of culture, society, traditions, beliefs, and communication is by taking steps to learn a different language. Having a grasp of a different language shows employers that you are committed to cultural understanding, learning, and intercultural communication. 

Another thing that shows organisations that a potential team member is interculturally adept and aware is an interest in other cultures, perhaps from university days or previous work experiences. Potential hires would benefit from highlighting any of this on their CVs and in job interviews for organisations that have goals to increase their intercultural communication and dealings, as this demonstrates that they would be a great addition to an effective team within the company. 

An additional step towards being an excellent intercultural communicator is facing up to unconscious biases and stereotypes that one may come into contact with. In teamwork and business settings, learning to overcome personal unconscious bias and stereotyping towards different cultures or ethnicities is extremely important to both the team environment and the organisational culture. These traits are something that employers value when looking for a great intercultural communicator.

How can intercultural skills benefit organisations?

Placing an emphasis on cultural communication skills in a workplace is important for a number of reasons. Primarily, it increases the likelihood of staff from different cultures and ethnic groups feeling welcome in their workplace. Having staff feel welcomed and cared for is essential for improving retention and increasing staff satisfaction.

Intercultural understanding skills are also important for effective communication within an organisation. Placing emphasis on cross-cultural communication skills in an organisation opens up opportunities to work with a greater variety of new clients or partners in the future, and increases team building and teamwork skills between staff.

Having an awareness of different cultures, cultural experiences, in a workplace is different from being aware of one's company culture, however, both do often go hand in hand. One way to improve company culture is by having everyone in the organisation be aware of and adept at navigating different cultures, languages, or norms. This creates high-performing team members that understand and value each other's contributions and working styles, even if they are culturally different from each other. Read our blog post for more on why company culture is vital to your organisation.

How to prioritise intercultural skills within an organisation

The easiest way to positively influence your workplace's intercultural awareness is through the hiring process. Most employers agree that intercultural communication skills are important to a business. Despite this, most countries (with the exception of India, the UAE, and Jordan) do not typically screen for cultural competence when finding new hires. Experience to look for when team building could be cultural studies classes from undergraduate or postgraduate educations, foreign language proficiency, work or study abroad, or an interest or background in cultural diversity and understanding. Prioritising team members that have intercultural skills is imperative for achieving your business' future objectives and goals and will help your company remain competitive in today's business landscape. 

Intercultural skills are an essential part of any effective team. At Skillsarena, we help organisations create their own pre-employment tests in order to find the right candidates for roles. When developing an interview and screening process, consider using a tailor-made pre-employment test that has a situational judgement section focusing on intercultural sensitivities and skills. Learning about culture, diversity, and intercultural communication and being conscious of hiring people who are sensitive to cultural differences is a surefire way to ensure your organisation is set up for success. 

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