8 Skills to Become More Culturally Adept at Work

Published: May 13, 2022
Modified: Apr 09, 2024


In a global business world and any organization where people of various nationalities, ethnicities, races, genders, and generations work together, cultural competency is a vital skill. Whether you’re the CEO of a multinational corporation, a shop floor manager at a factory, or a team leader within a small or mid-level company just about anywhere across the USA, it’s imperative to develop the ability to recognize and respond effectively and appropriately to cultural differences in perspectives, practices, values, behavior, and norms. When you’re sensitive to and respectful of how people from other cultural groups think and act, you’ll be able to adapt your communication and behavior style as needed to avoid misunderstandings, mitigate conflict, build trust, support collaboration, and, ultimately, improve performance and results. 

Improving your cultural competency, like every core business competency, requires a combination of commitment, effort, and education. To get you started on a firm foundation, the experts at American Management Association (AMA) have identified eight related skills that need to be well-developed. Here’s an overview:    

Self-Knowledge. Everyone has biases based on our own background, experiences, and preferences. Having a cultural bias doesn’t make you a bad person, let alone a bigot. But it’s important to be able to identify and recognize your own deep-rooted feelings about and reactions to different ethnic, racial, or other cultural groups—and understand how those emotions impact your thoughts and behavior. To prevent a bias from determining how you judge or treat an employee from a different group, self-knowledge is crucial. 

Self-Regulation. Becoming aware of your biases isn’t enough. You have to be able to manage the feelings and emotions those biases might trigger. Self-regulation is the ability to consciously choose how you respond to employees from different races, ethnicities, genders, religions, and age groups as opposed to reacting based on unconscious biases and the negative stereotypes attached to them. 

Interpersonal Sensitivity. Everyone is their own person, regardless of their group affiliation, and deserves to be seen, heard, and valued as an individual. Interpersonal sensitivity is the ability to accurately assess the abilities, states, and traits of each unique employee from verbal and nonverbal cues—and adjust your behavior as needed. 

Cultural Sensitivity. While everyone should be viewed as an individual, it’s important to also acknowledge and validate the influence of larger group ties. Cultural sensitivity is the ability to respond appropriately to the feelings of others who share a common racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage. This includes taking care to avoid cultural appropriation. When someone from a dominant culture adopts the dress, mannerisms, slang, or other practices of a culture that is not their own and has been historically marginalized or oppressed, it often reinforces an imbalance of power that still exists and thwarts productive cultural exchange.    

Empathy. Despite our cultural and personal differences, we’re all human beings with the same core human emotions. In the workplace, an empathetic leader is sensitive to each employee’s feelings, on a human level. Practicing empathy also means having the ability to take into account others’ perspectives and circumstances, even when they’re vastly different from your own. 

Flexibility. Being flexible goes beyond responding to your company’s changing circumstances and expectations with deftness and ease. In terms of diversity and inclusion, flexibility means staying open to and embracing the perspectives that all employees bring to the table, encouraging others to share views that may differ from your own, and respecting others’ opinions and ideas. 

Curiosity. Being curious is a wonderful quality for bridging gaps and building bonds among diverse employees. Curiosity is not just being willing to learn about different cultures. In the workplace, curious leaders seek out opportunities to interact with diverse individuals and express a genuine, respectful interest in discovering their culture and its distinctive qualities.  

Tolerance for Ambiguity. It’s not unlike being a foreigner struggling to navigate an unfamiliar country. When managing a multicultural workforce, uncertainty, unpredictability, misunderstandings, and tensions come with the territory. A healthy tolerance for ambiguity can help you handle it all with calm and confidence. What’s more, when you understand the dynamics behind cultural clashes, you’ll be better equipped to use conflict as a constructive process to exchange ideas and bring about resolution.

Keeping these skills in mind and practicing them whenever possible is the first step to cultural competency and sensitivity. The payoff: a more productive and happier workplace for everyone.         

About AMA
American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit www.amanet.org