Workplace Culture

Cultural Competence: What’s in a Name?

By Susana Rinderle

Aug. 23, 2013

WF_WebSite_BlogHeaders-12Some believe that words are mere descriptors of reality, but there is evidence that words also create reality. Scholars such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, and more recently George Lakoff and Lera Boroditsky, (also here) make a compelling case for the power of language to actually shape our experience, thoughts and perception.

As the term “cultural competence” grows as a buzzword in the D&I field, so does discussion about its appropriateness. Since the term is still fairly new, now is the time to consider what reality this word creates, and whether it’s the best expression of our ultimate goal. If our goal is to create commitment, initiatives and behaviors that result in all people receiving equitable, excellent and the most appropriate services, patient care and products possible, then cultural competence is an inadequate term for two reasons.

First, while competence is attractive and familiar in sectors like health care, it implies an end point or a check box. Neither exists when it comes to effective communication across differences. Providing the best, most appropriate services to a variety of people and populations is a moving target — fluid, contextual and evolving. And who gets to decide when this box is checked? Who defines, assesses and grants the competence at the fictional end point? Second, “cultural” is vague. For many, culture is proxy for race just like diverse often means people of color. While we in D&I know culture includes multiple identity groups, the word tricks people into thinking we’re only talking about race and language.

There are other possibilities, but most are also inadequate. Cultural empathy points to an adaptive internal emotional state, but no actions, behaviors or impact. Also, empathy is difficult for certain personalities, thinking types and industries to take seriously. Cultural humility has similar drawbacks. Cultural capacities refers to a finite end state and implies that some folks have it, and some don’t. Sensitivity and awareness are incomplete – an internal state only – and for many, cultural sensitivity elicits the fearful specter of blame-shame-walking-on-eggshells sensitivity training.

My colleague Andrés Tapia suggests we embrace crosscultural dexterity.  Dexterity is a vast improvement, but still implies a way of being instead of a way of behaving that meets a goal. Also, the term cross cultural refers to the comparing and contrasting of one group’s cultural patterns to another. Intercultural is the accurate term to describe what occurs when individuals from different cultures interact with each other. We need people to show behaviors that are effective during the (intercultural) interaction among members of different identity groups; we don’t need people to develop sophisticated (cross cultural) knowledge of different cultural beliefs and practices devoid of context.

Right now my preferred term is “intercultural effectiveness.” Effectiveness focuses on action. It focuses on impact, not intent. Effectiveness is fluid, contextual and constantly evolving. It moves us toward our goal of equity, excellence and appropriateness. To be effective, we need three things — awareness, knowledge and skills. Skills are useful insofar as they are effective, and one’s awareness, knowledge or internal emotional state (empathy, humility, etc.) are irrelevant if one lacks skills. The point of empathy, humility and sensitivity is what we do next in a situation to interact effectively with others and get a better result for everyone.

A close second is cultural responsiveness, used widely in Australia. Their Cultural Responsiveness Framework and Cultural Responsiveness Plans required for health care are excellent examples ahead of what we are doing in the USA.

Words create reality. What is your goal with cultural competence? What is the reality you want to create? Perhaps using a different term will be more effective!

Susana Rinderle is a principal consultant with Korn Ferry, and a coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email

What’s New at

blog workforce

Come see what we’re building in the world of predictive employee scheduling, superior labor insights and next-gen employee apps. We’re on a mission to automate workforce management for hourly employees and bring productivity, optimization and engagement to the frontline.

Book a call
See the software
workforce news

Related Articles

workforce blog

Workplace Culture

Workplace productivity statistics and trends you need to know

Summary There was a 2.4% decrease in productivity in Q2 2022 – the largest decline since the U.S. Burea...

productivity, statistics, trends, workplace

workforce blog

Workplace Culture

5 lunch break statistics that shed light on American work culture

Summary Research shows how taking lunch breaks enhances employee engagement and productivity. Despite t...

lunch breaks, scheduling, statistics

workforce blog

Workplace Culture

6 Things Leadership can do to Prevent Nurse Burnout

Summary Nurse burnout is a serious issue in the healthcare business and has several negative consequenc...

burnout, Healthcare, hospitals, nurses