Exploring Commonalities Through Competencies

Diversity and inclusion has become an integral part of the HR field. The same can be said for cross-cultural competence, especially in organizations that are growing or expanding globally. The two share many things in common. However, both commercial and military organizations typically have used D&I and cross-cultural competence strategies separately, without taking advantage of the commonalities in each.

Cross-cultural competence refers to the level of cultural knowledge, skills and abilities the workforce needs to operate effectively. Although there are advantages to both D&I and cross-cultural competence individually, given the geographical and cultural differences and the competitive marketplace challenges many organizations face, there are increasing advantages to be gained by connecting the two. By exploiting commonalities, diversity executives can promote awareness of workforce differences and capitalize on them by creating a culture of respect, trust and support to increase organizational success.

For example, both diversity and cross-cultural competencies are advantageous if efforts are underway to operationalize an organization’s values, institute a stronger focus on customer service or expand into new market segments or geographies that require strong or nuanced cultural competence.

Promote Integration
There is a shift taking place in the diversity field. Instead of seeing D&I and cross-cultural interventions as separate from the real work of the organization, leaders increasingly recognize why it should be a consideration for everything individual workers do each day. Further, supporting two separate but related functions in an organization would cause a significant amount of overlap in effort and resources.

Thus, organizations have begun to integrate practices, bringing together diversity and cross-cultural initiatives under one umbrella, and in some cases establishing one department for global diversity or a unit focused on global engagement. These departments create a variety of solutions, metrics, culture assessments, training and communications.

Two trends have emerged. First, some organizations use competency models as a foundation to create a common language and framework, essentially aligning the models to organizational goals and business strategy.

For example, Microsoft uses a set of foundational competencies across all competency models for all employees, but each profession has a set of job-specific competencies. Based on this line of reasoning, organizations would use competency models that integrate diversity and cross-cultural fields, if they deem these foundational competencies essential for their success, which multinational companies likely would do.

Second, examining commonalities, not just differences, across and within diverse individuals, teams and organizations is an important component of working effectively in diverse, multicultural contexts. Having employees focus on how they are similar to others can build a foundation for mutual understanding and an appreciation of workplace diversity. Negativity is often the result when the focus is solely on differences.

“Setting behavioral expectations in organizations, we would be well-served to collaborate more fully across the disciplines of performance management, diversity and inclusion and cross-cultural skill building,” said Scott Hoesman, founder and CEO of InQuest Consulting.

“Leaders and employees don’t distinguish when they are demonstrating a D&I competency or a cross-cultural skill or core behavioral expectations — nor should we as practitioners.”

Employees’ ability to successfully perform their jobs is influenced by their ability to adapt to the natural diversity in the organization. Competencies are causally related to superior performance in a job. But creating successful diversity competencies is not simple. Each organizational climate, industry, military service, job, task and customer is different, requiring a unique set of competencies that enable a business to grow and its mission to be achieved.

It is the diversity executive’s responsibility to structure diversity competencies in accordance with the organizational climate and match them to business goals and mission. In other words, this integrated process should demonstrate how employees directly influence the organization’s goals. This strategy also promotes interest and commitment from senior management, gaining their support for related projects. This top-down approach can engender support from midlevel managers as well.

To begin, companies should collect information from top executives on current trends in D&I, business or marketplace concerns, as well as input on how diversity can provide a return or provide value. Then, obtain similar types of information from the broader population of subject matter experts via interviews and surveying.

Organizations and military commands often classify diversity-themed competencies as knowledge, skills and abilities. How well an organization or service can properly align knowledge, skills and abilities with expected outcomes for top performers or service members will determine its success.

Act Before Something Goes Bad
Typically, an organization will explore workforce diversity after experiencing an event that has negatively impacted its climate. Organizations that do not proactively explore the benefits of workforce diversity prior to such an event often don’t act because they do not understand the return on investment diversity can produce. Exploring diversity, cross-culture competencies and their impact on organizational climate yields a variety of results — such as innovation, greater levels of engagement, discretionary effort and performance, and more successful recruiting efforts — many of which relate to leadership.

For example, in 2010, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, or DEOMI, commissioned development of research-based diversity competencies. (Editor’s note: One of the authors works for DEOMI). Through this effort, DEOMI identified seven core competencies for military leaders: applying cultural knowledge, organizational awareness, taking a cultural perspective, communication, interpersonal skills, cultural adaptability and leading others. In this model, competencies related to applying cultural knowledge, organizational awareness and taking a cultural perspective are categorized as “thinking factors” — those that rely on an individual’s attainment of knowledge. The remaining four competencies are categorized as “connecting factors” — those that emphasize interfacing with other individuals.

Integrating the principles of diversity and cross-cultural work into a leadership competency framework dispels the myth that diversity is simply the right thing to do. Through their behaviors and policies, leaders can leverage competencies to move D&I from an emotional reaction to a strategy with actionable steps that can be tracked and measured to determine the organization’s return on investment. Further, this paradigm shift can encourage the workforce to maintain local identities, acknowledge commonalties and use leadership competencies in connection with talent mobility and other management strategies to best leverage people.

Several competency themes consistently appear in the diversity and cross-culture fields and contribute to leadership competency development. These include:

1. Cultural adaptability: This refers to leaders understanding their own actions and modifying their behaviors to different situations based on social and nonverbal cues to meet organizational needs and manage change well.

2. Cultural perspective: This focuses on leaders’ ability to understand how culture influences individuals’ perceptions of themselves and of others, to consider others’ point of view and to interpret their own behaviors. Leaders who possess this competency are able to think more critically about challenges, which may reduce stereotyping of diverse groups.

3. Interpersonal skills: In cross-cultural literature, building rapport, interacting effectively with others from a different culture than one’s own and conflict management — an individual’s ability to resolve conflicts across national boundaries — are important. These skills are equally important in diversity literature, which focuses on cooperatively working and leading others while enhancing the quality of relationships by building trust, respect and value congruence.

Diversity is usually seen positively or as a desired goal. It is often argued that differences can be harnessed to help an organization meet specific business challenges or to complete its mission. On the surface, this perspective may give people warm, inclusive feelings, but it does not provide tools to mitigate much of the inherent bias people have toward those who are different. A key complexity of diversity is that for all its benefits, demographic diversity can have a negative impact in the workplace, specifically on job satisfaction, retention, social integrations, communication and increased conflict.

However, these negative outcomes have been found to dissipate the longer a team is together. This can be attributed to team members’ ability to focus on common threads, as opposed to the differences — in cultures, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, attitudes, values and behaviors — between members.

However, that knowledge alone will not automatically make a better supervisor, manager, leader or organization. That’s why it’s so important to build and to connect cross-culture and diversity competencies. Encouraging individuals to develop a broader perspective, which includes discovering their commonalities, opens up possibilities to better manage and lead diverse groups.

Christopher C. Butts is vice president at K. Parks Consulting Inc. Daniel P. McDonald is executive director for research, development and strategic initiatives for the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. Kizzy M. Parks is president of K. Parks Consulting Inc., and Bianca Trejo is a senior research analyst at Walt Disney World. They can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.