Knowing how to serve and properly engage with a variety of identities and cultures is critical for business owners—without it, a variety of issues (from missed financial opportunities to public relations disasters) can arise, potentially damaging your business or tarnishing your brand permanently.
This knowledge is sometimes referred to as "cultural competence," a term that emerged from academia in the 1980s and evolved into actionable rubrics and practices that can help ensure equity, access and efficacy for people and groups of diverse backgrounds. Cultural competency runs on a scale from unhealthy and destructive behaviors and beliefs to healthy and equitable practices.
Below is a description of that scale based on the Cultural Competency Continuum framework expanded upon by researchers Don Coleman and Terri Pelltteri:
This is the lowest level of cultural competency and can cause serious harm. Here an organization or individual believes their identity and/or the dominant culture is superior to other groups. They believe other groups should assimilate to be like their own and act out extreme biases against those who are different.
Organizations and individuals who reside here directly tell those who are different from them that they are not valued or welcomed, and only focus their services and products on the rights and privileges of the dominant culture.
Cultural incapacity is a step up from destructiveness but is still low on the cultural competency scale. At this stage an organization or individual may not be overtly expressing their biases, but is covertly operating from bias. (This can include disproportionately applying resources to benefit their own identity or culture group.)
Outside groups may experience direct messages that some cultures or identities are neither valued or welcomed and are at best tolerated.
This the middle ground: There isn’t intentional hostility toward differences, but differences aren’t acknowledged. The assumption is everyone is the same.
Organizations and individuals occupying this space are uncomfortable with recognizing differences and lack awareness about cultural strengths. They also deny that dimensions of diversity (e.g. race, gender and/or sexual orientation) are significant. There is still a focus of only meeting the needs of their own group/dominant culture.
At this level, an individual or organization explores cultural differences and assess the needs of different cultures. There’s a commitment to valuing diversity with no follow through or action plan, and an expectation that outside groups will assimilate to the dominant group’s culture (e.g. language, appearance, and beliefs).
At this level, an individual or organization not only explores cultural differences but continuously self-examines for their own biases and does not expect others to suppress their differences.
Opt to follow and learn from leaders and experts who do not look like you. The more you diversify your sources of information about other cultures, the more you’ll have a better and nuanced understanding of the world around you.
There is follow through, with equitable actions in their hiring practices, language usage and company policies and in how products and services are designed. They actively improve their cultural knowledge and skills to better serve outside groups and cultures different from their own.
At this level, an individual or organization has cultural competence deeply ingrained into belief, behavior and cultural practices. Diverse relationships are authentic and their products and services are built from a lens of inclusivity from the onset.
Improving Your Cultural Competency
Regardless of where your company may fall on this scale, there are six steps that can help you improve your cultural competency as a business owner today:
1. Assess your own identity.
Cultural competency starts with yourself. Understand your own unique personal upbringing and how that informs your beliefs and biases by asking yourself questions like:
- What are the primary ways I identify?
- What beliefs about these labels of identity did I learn growing up?
- What are the expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes I hold about people who do not have these same identities?
- How has that influenced what I have created in my work and company?
Write your answers to these questions down. Exploring your unique identity may make you more conscious of the types of services and products you provide as well as how your company’s culture is shaped.
2. Clarify your organizational values.
Once you’re clear on your own personal identity as a business owner, assess the values and principles of your organization. You can start this process by:
- Choosing at least five core values that are the most important to why your organization exists and how it operates.
- Writing down what behaviors and attitudes are encouraged and rewarded within your company related to the values you identified.
Once you're clear on what your core values are, assess if how you express these values in practice and policy make broad assumptions about groups and cultures outside of your own.
For example, let's say you're an organization that serves various global communities. You have a core value of being "detail oriented," but you don't assess how your product or service serves non-English speakers. You may be dealing with a gap between values and outcomes.
Clarifying your organization's values and how they currently operate will help you start closing cultural gaps and improve your cultural competence.
3. Audit your communications and services.
After you’re clear on your values, consider conducting an audit of your internal and external communications, services and products.
One approach can be to look at the language you are using for biases. There are many colloquialisms and everyday terms that have a history of bias against certain groups, such as the term "blind spot" (which is ableist) or tribe (which appropriates indigenous culture).
If you're unsure where to begin, consider reaching out to a diversity and inclusion consultant for guidance.
4. Expand your cultural knowledge.
Cultural knowledge comes from exposing yourself to books, movies, podcasts and other sources of education outside of your cultural scope.
Consider reading about social issues and the history of inequitable policies when it comes to visible identity like race and gender, or examining the historical, social and political practices in your country of residence as well as for the countries your company operates in.
Opt to follow and learn from leaders and experts from various backgrounds and cultures. The more you diversify your sources of information about other cultures, the better chance you’ll develop a deeper understanding of the world around you. It may help you to develop an understanding of the various ways identity and culture shows up for your community and consumers, and ultimately how to better serve a cross-cultural consumer base.
5. Improve your conflict resolution skills.
When differences arise, there will be moments of tension and misunderstanding. Try to avoid being defensive when handling conflict. Defense mechanisms are a natural response when we’re uncomfortable, but they cause a breakdown in communication and trust.
Begin by assessing what the person is trying to convey and clarify the issue without arguing for your intentions—missteps can cause issues that need to be resolved regardless of intentions. Also assess if your defenses and assumptions about the conflict have a cultural gap. If the issue brought to you is about insensitive language, an unfair policy that targets one group or another type of bias, take a step back, listen, learn and pivot.
Your resolution should answer what needs to change going forward for all parties to feel seen, heard and safe. The more you're able to manage and tolerate uncomfortable situations, the better you will be with navigating across cultures and creating more culturally competent business.
6. Create cultural competency best practices.
Finally, implement policies and practices that have cultural competence at the core of your business operations so that it’s not a last-minute addition or reactionary measure. This can include requiring all staff and employees to take inclusion and sensitivity training on a regular basis and creating a framework or checklist to assess the cultural competence of work.
A starting point for creating your own cultural competency checklist is to determine how often your communications, policies and products overrepresent one culture or identity. Creating a best-practices checklist will help you assess:
- visuals you use in branding and marketing (Are they representative? Do they endorse any damaging stereotypes?)
- product and services design (is there an overrepresentation of who is being served versus who is not by the design?)
Cultural competency is the foundation to becoming a successful business owner, both now and in the rapidly changing future. Now is the time to expand those skills, to dig deep and to do the work.
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