You likely have heard the phrase “cultural competency,” but do you know where it comes from?

Mental health researchers coined the phrase cultural competence in a 1989 paper that spotlighted how cultural differences between children and their health care providers could have an impact on the equitable care provided to the child. The study concluded that the best way to eradicate the inequity in treatment was for staff and organizations to become culturally competent.

So, what does “culturally competent” mean, and how do we become culturally competent?

Dictionary.com defines cultural competence as, “the ability to effectively interact with people from cultures different from one’s own, especially through a knowledge and appreciation of cultural differences.”

Developing cultural competence sounds easy enough based on the definition, but where do we start when there are more than 3,800 cultures around the world, with each of those cultures holding their own traditions, norms, and values? Believe it or not, the best place to start is internally.

To develop our cultural competence, we need to start with ourselves. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Spend time determining what we think, feel and believe about our own culture.
  • Reflect on our own biases and identify any stereotypical beliefs that we hold about cultures — both our own and others.
  • Determine what impact our cultural differences have when interacting with people from other cultures and backgrounds.

Once we have spent time focusing on ourselves, we can begin to grow in our cultural competency by understanding how our own culture and our cultural beliefs impact people from other cultures. We can start by:

  • Being open to learning. We cannot learn everything about every culture, as culture is not a static thing. It’s constantly evolving, and so we must understand we will not know everything, we will make mistakes and we must be open to learning something new.
  • Staying curious. Being a lifelong learner will help us grow in our cultural competency. Ask questions, read, learn a new language, take courses or workshops about other cultures, and so on.
  • Expanding our circle of friends. Develop trusting relationships with people who are different from you, where you can learn about their experiences, cultural norms and practices.
  • Decentering our culture. One key component in our cultural competency growth is recognizing and differentiating when our own cultural norms, values and practices are informing how we think, feel or act about other cultural norms, values and practices. In order to truly develop appreciation for other cultures, we need to decenter our own culture when examining other cultures and learn to see their culture through their lens instead of our own.

When we’re ready, we can begin to shift our thinking about being culturally competent to holding a mindset of cultural humility. Cultural humility is defined as a desire to fix power imbalances where none ought to exist. Cultural humility includes aspiring to develop partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others.

Here are a few ways that we can develop our cultural humility skills. We can:

  • Learn about systemic racism and its impact. We can develop these skills by attending training sessions or reading books related to the history of racism in the United States.
  • Stand in solidarity. If we understand the historical implications of the systems of racism and the impact on Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), we can understand how we can work to dismantle those systems and stand in solidarity with others.
  • Engage in allyship. It’s one thing to stand in solidarity with others and to understand the impact of systemic racism, but it’s another to continually work to dismantle oppressive systems. True allyship requires constant vigilance and a willingness to speak up — even when it’s uncomfortable.

As a leader or talent development professional, the best ways to help teams develop and grow in cultural competency and cultural humility is to:

  • Offer training and development opportunities. Provide employees with the opportunity to first develop cultural competency skills and then lean into developing cultural humility skills.
  • Create opportunities to share concerns. Employees should have avenues to provide feedback about any microaggressions they experience or concerns they have with being able to show up to work as their authentic selves. This feedback should be humbly accepted, respected, and action should be taken to change problematic behavior.
  • Assess continuously. The organization should use surveys, cultural audits and other means of evaluation to ensure environments are inclusive and welcoming. Organizational leaders must be committed to creating necessary changes based on feedback.

If done well, efforts to promote cultural competency and cultural humility will help employees feel a greater sense of belonging and inclusion in the workplace. Organizations are likely to see increased retention and employee satisfaction, increased innovation and productivity, and a greater sense of community.

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