Establishing Cultural Agility & Intercultural Competence

Part 1
11th Feb, 2019

Marit Imeland Gjesme, Founder of CultureCatch Consultancy, guides us to successfully optimise cross-cultural teams and business meetings.

HQ: Can you share some tips on building cultural agility, and how can we build cross-cultural support and intercultural competence?  How can we manage cooperation or changes involving several and diverse cultures?  MIG: Wow, that’s a huge and broad topic which raises a range of questions, so let’s try to sort out step by step and start with reflecting on what culture is and what cultural agility means!

MIG: Wow, that’s a huge and broad topic which raises a range of questions, so let’s try to sort out step by step and start with reflecting on what culture is and what cultural agility means. Then it will be easier to understand how it impacts us workwise – and what to do about it.

So, what is culture!

A lot of things, of course – like food, music, art, clothing, handicrafts - but in a work-, business- and cooperation context we mean the invisible things, “how we do things around here”, how we naturally and “by default” behave, lead or solve problems. What drives and motivates us, what may become surprises and obstacles when people have contradicting “defaults”? There are so many things we never think of, we just “do them” and take for granted that they will be equally normal everywhere. But our habits and preferences may act like little icebergs sinking the Titanic!

Think about it, here are a few examples: Our values - do you, for instance, prioritise Honesty or Loyalty?

This is a very common value conflict all over the world!

  • The ways we communicate - are you brutally direct or carefully diplomatic?
  • Do you use a lot of words and need to fill the silence, or do you use a few, precise words and feel fine with silence?
  • What do we listen for or develop trust from - do you want facts & figures, or creativity, charisma and entertainment? How do we use space and how does that make others feel - do you walk and stand close to or far from the other, do you touch or act reserved?
  • How do we relate to time -are you punctual or flexible, and what do you expect from others?
  • Our mindset - do we think individualistic and “what’s in it for me” or more from a group-oriented point of view? How do you relate to seniority, titles and age?

All these things and many more are deeply rooted in our various cultures, causing huge misunderstandings and disagreements even when everyone means well and out of best intentions really do their best. It is not about being right or wrong, good or bad, superior or inferior – it’s about being different. Common sense isn’t common anywhere, and what counts as respectful and trustworthy behaviour in your own culture, may well be seen as disrespectful and not worthy of trust among the people you want to influence and work with from other cultures.

Think of culture as a pair of glasses you wear all the time, but without knowing it!

They act like a filter you see and interpret the world and other people’s actions and behaviour through! But when different cultures meet, we need to look outside that, we need the right “mental software” to build successful cooperation. We think we have the answer book to what’s right or wrong, efficient or inefficient – but there is no such book of general validity, - what works best differs everywhere.

The clue that will get you ahead of competitors is to “adapt” to the cultures to work with or in. Think about it - How come we don’t attribute the same awareness to adapting our thinking and behaviour when travelling, as we do to remembering our phones and laptop adaptors? Both are about securing the ability to communicate and “be on the right wavelength”, after all. Why are people better at understanding the need for hardware adaptation than “mental software” adaptation? What we need is to create an attitude of being ready and prepared with “mental adapters” for our target cultures! I like to put it this way; You may well be successful in working globally and across cultures – OR you can insist on doing business YOUR way!

And that’s exactly what cultural agility is about – being flexible, adapting your mental software, and behave in a way that is seen as respectful and efficient in the eyes of your target culture(s)!

To succeed, we must read and understand the signs and signals from the cultures we need to work with or influence, be familiar with sensitive taboos, avoid them (never make fun of them!) and be able to adapt our communication and behaviour – of course without violating our own values or compromising to the extreme. You are culturally competent when you possess the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures.  When you know where and when it’s important for you to make the locally tailored and right moves, when you can navigate around hidden obstacles in unknown waters, then you are culturally agile. Being culturally agile, means you are “ready” to communicate, negotiate and build trust in other cultures and increase your chances of success!

But how can we develop this kind of competence?

We usually talk about a ladder of stages in building cultural competence, starting with the crucial awareness.

Being aware of your own world view, how you may come forward in the eyes of others, your individual biases and reactions to those who do things differently from yourself and emphasize other priorities than the ones you find important. Then moving from awareness into a more open and conscious attitude – developing positive attitudes towards differences, being curious and wanting to understand! With a curious and positive attitude, the road lies open for willingly learning the values, patterns and ways of others – building up the knowledge stage. Because a positive attitude and “guessing” is far from enough, deliberate learning is needed. And from knowing, there is only one useful way forward: Act!

Use our knowledge into adapting your own behaviour, participate, test out and use skills – in communication, leadership, negotiations or team participation. Of course, we will never be “perfect” as anyone else than ourselves, but It is always noticed (usually in silence) and appreciated and seen as a sign of respect!

In practice, this means that if you need to manage changes, or maybe just succeed in “normal cooperation” involving several cultures, it’s highly important to prepare yourself and your teams as much as you can in understanding and concrete knowledge about the specific cultures involved. It will help you prevent failure and make quantum leaps forward in making the progress and success which gains everybody.

Building intercultural competence and agility is simply part of doing your job well, which is something we all want to do!

What skills do you need to optimise success in multicultural projects?

We know for a fact that cultural diversity in projects often causes misunderstandings, conflicts and errors that break the success and efficiency instead of making it. Cooperation, speed, quality, accountability and innovation suffer despite the brilliant qualifications of people, and in high-risk industries, safety bleeds. Intentions get twisted and logic and emotions collide. And it is especially under stress and time constraints, that our emotions and instincts overrule logic. But we also know that multicultural projects have the potential to reach far greater results than homogeneous groups, so the challenges are well worth conquering! This is tested out and measured, and we have pinned down what the project managers of the low and high performing teams do differently. The low performing teams had project leaders that neglected cultural factors and only focussed on tasks, which caused their teams to underperform and split.

The project leaders of the highest performing teams took deliberate measures to increase performance level, and their secret to success was rather simple: MAP, BRIDGE and INTEGRATE the people involved, from the start and through the process. What we roughly map, is what geographical cultural category people come from (the high level we consider three diametrically opposed ones in the world, basically coded in colours red, blue and yellow (see The Lewis Model and World Map below).  Further mapping includes more precise country-specific values and ultimately each individual’s unique working styles and strong contributions on top of their cultural roots and preferences. The model actually pins down most of the countries in the world along its three sides, which we go deeper into in training programs. The World Map gives a rough picture.

Then we map culture-specific values and individually unique working styles and preferences. This is done by using a brilliant self-assessment tool, CultureActive, developed to map the linear, multi or reactive preferences. It provides individual and team profiles, overviews and advice to work from, as well as giving access to – literally – a world of country-specific information. This always inspires and adds a lot of value. Building on this, bridging and integrating is about clarifying and explaining personal differences, finding common ground and agreements, before making shared guidelines that everyone commits to, for how to work together.

The bridging and integrating will usually be about clarifying and explaining differences, identify needs and common denominators for the team, make team “rules” and agreements on some shared guidelines for how to work together, build relationships, and make sure things are understood the same way and roles and responsibilities are clear. Do always start with finding what you all share, where you agree, what you have of common ground to build from. That will be the core and identity of the team. From there, gaps are easier to deal with and bridge, and people who get the chance to really know each other from start will work together with more understanding, generosity and flexibility!

Culture is often seen as some “diffuse, unidentified soft skill”, not concrete enough to learn, and this is a huge misunderstanding. It's concrete and real and with consequences!

Distinct patterns have been identified for how national cultures behave in general. And even if every single individual, of course, isn’t “like the average norm”, this provides valuable starting points in mapping and bridging. The most important country-specific areas to learn fast are the communication styles – for instance, are they direct with straight-forward openness or indirect with coded speech? Strictly serious and fact-based, or more relationships oriented and loquacious? The direct ones like Americans, Germans, and Dutch (blue coding, built on values like honesty and transparency) cause fear and loss of face for the indirect ones. Reversely, the indirect styles (yellow coding, like Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Thai, partly Arabic etc, built on values like respect, preservation of face, honour, diplomacy, protecting relationships) are often interpreted as cowardly, weak and dishonest from a direct point of view. The definition of “truth” is also an interesting -sometimes amusing – thing that differs greatly. Then listening styles to prepare your messages and preparations optimally, leadership styles to know how to earn respect and release motivation across cultures – it’s a wide range of exciting things to learn about a diverse project team that will help you succeed in your multicultural projects!

When supporting new multicultural project teams in their start-up, I facilitate these processes to make sure everyone learns the vital things about each other and that we get the team off on an immediate positive track. Best results are reached when we use and build on the CultureActive profiling, which gives both individual positions in the culture model, and a total team overview of the diversity and cultural capital. Then we can identify potential issues and clarify them from the start. This is something people always find highly enlightening and motivating, and it is very helpful for assignment of tasks and roles as well. Using CultureActive, you can match own profile to any given culture relevant for you and find helpful advice. This strengthens all the stages of building cultural competence: Awareness, understanding, positive attitudes and curiosity, and as a result: Build your cultural competence and skills!

On top of this, the recipe for a successful multicultural team should contain patience, flexibility and generosity, - and a dash of humour wouldn’t hurt!

The Lewis Model of Cultures

Click here for part two of this interview, and check out more on

Other Articles

About Us

Supported by the Union of International Associations (UIA), the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) and the Interel Group, the global public affairs and association management consultancy, Headquarters Magazines serve the needs of international associations organising worldwide congresses.