Toxic Culture: Cultural Competence – The Solution to Diversity Disconnects?

By Karetta Hubbard, Lynne Revo-Cohen, Gwen Crider, and Dr. Chris Kilmartin.

Imagine finding yourself in the midst of a culture with which you are totally unfamiliar. Maybe it’s a religious service or ceremony. Maybe it’s a political event.  Maybe it’s dinner at the home of a new acquaintance whose ethnic background is different from your own. Or maybe it’s just working with a new colleague who only recently moved to the U.S.

These situations are ripe for producing “diversity disconnects” – misunderstandings or confusion that result from different ways of seeing the world based on our culture and life experiences.

Cultural competence helps prevent diversity disconnects by increasing our ability to understand, respond to and effectively connect across cultural differences. And, when disconnects do happen, we learn from and grow through them to become ever more culturally competent.

However, just acknowledging cultural differences does not make us culturally competent.

Becoming culturally competent is about more than being respectful of other cultures and perspectives. It requires more than awareness and knowledge of the beliefs, values and customs of those who are different from us. Cultural competence involves an intentional effort to understand the influence and impact of culture; recognizing and respecting the validity of different world views; and developing knowledge, skills, behaviors and attitudes that allow us to communicate and connect with others from different cultural backgrounds.

It does not require us to compromise or give up our own values; rather, it is an expansion of our own world view that allows us to acknowledge other ways of seeing and being – even if we disagree with them.

We continually encounter new people, situations and experiences that enhance our ability to understand cultural differences and build relationships with others.  Thus, cultural competence is a lifelong journey that begins with recognizing the power and influence of culture in our everyday lives. It also includes:

  • Building an awareness of our own cultural influences; critical self-reflection on and assessment of how our beliefs, values and other cultural messages – including unconscious biases – may affect the assumptions we make about other people and situations.
  • Keeping an open mind and developing positive attitude toward diversity and cultural differences. When someone sees a situation from a perspective that is different from our own, that does not mean that person is wrong; it means they have a different worldview.
  • Pro-actively seeking to increase our exposure and understanding of other world views. Placing ourselves in environments where we are unfamiliar with the culture is an opportunity to build cultural competence.
  • Looking for commonalities with others rather than focusing on differences. Understanding the differences is important but, recognizing commonalities lays a foundation for building relationships across cultural differences.
  • Developing and practicing effective communication skills. We always know what we intend to communicate and becoming culturally competent leads us to think about how others might understand what we have communicated so that our intent is aligned with the possible impact of our message.

The way we interpret, give meaning to, and function in the world is strongly influenced by the shared values, beliefs, traditions, standards, behavioral norms, communication styles and other factors of the communities with which we primarily identify. Put more simply, how we see – and interpret – situations is influenced by our unique cultural background.

Thus, cultural competence increases our ability to understand how other people perceive the world around them; and it is an evolving, dynamic process that takes time and revelation. While on the journey in cultural competence, authenticity, respect and patience will go a long way to build bridges across cultural differences.

We welcome your thoughts and comments. Each contributes to the conversation which is the key to understanding and culture change.

Please send them to and we will publish them. Thanks!

NewPoint Strategies is a nationally recognized consulting firm assisting companies and organizations manage High Risk EEO issues.

Gwen Crider, an internationally recognized diversity expert, has been writing about, teaching and implementing successful diversity initiatives for more than twenty years. The preceding reflects her thoughts about Developing Cultural Competence in the Workplace.

Top photo: Bigstock

About KHubbard LRevo-Cohen GCrider Chris Kilmartin Maria Morukian (34 Articles)
Since 1984, the founders of NewPoint Strategies, Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, have built a strong reputation for delivering extremely effective prevention training in high-risk issues such as sexual harassment/assault. Contributing Author and Lead Consultant, Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Psychology from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert in Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention, specifically Male Violence Against Women, Gwen Crider, a diversity and inclusion strategist with over 20 years of leadership experience in non-profit and private sector organizations, and Maria Morukian is an internationally recognized diversity expert