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Cultural proficiency: how to nurture it in your organization

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9 min read
cultural proficiency

Cultural proficiency is a framework that enables you to build an environment founded on the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s an approach that develops and reinforces values and practices that enable all members of an organization to be aware of conscious and unconscious assumptions, biases, and beliefs that often result in the discrimination of minority groups. 

Essentially, by implementing this framework in your organization, you can teach your workforce to interact effectively in a culturally diverse environment. This, in turn, can help you develop more inclusive and productive teams that are capable of making better business decisions.

In this post, we are going to share everything you need to know about cultural proficiency. We will explain what the cultural proficiency framework is, and help you identify where your organization currently lies on the cultural proficiency continuum. We will also share a few tips and examples of cultural proficiency to help you develop a strategy for building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization.

What is cultural proficiency? 

Cultural competence has never been so important. Now, more than ever, people are aware of the need to understand, appreciate, and interact with people from other cultures or belief systems. As a result, companies all around the world are working on DEI and DEIB initiatives to help them create an inclusive company culture that is open to and accepting of a diverse workforce. And this is precisely what the cultural proficiency framework aims to do.

Cultural proficiency is defined as “the policies and practices in an organization, or the values and behavior of an individual, that enable the person or institution to engage effectively with people and groups who are different from them”.

So, what does this mean exactly?

To put it simply, in the context of a business, this means creating policies and practices that teach and encourage your employees to engage effectively with colleagues who are culturally different to them. The aim is to use these policies and practices to encourage your employees to consider their own culture and recognize how it might affect others. That way, they learn to identify their own unconscious biases and are better able to relate with individuals from other cultures and backgrounds. Rather than focusing on “Why are they different?”, it’s about encouraging employees to better understand who they are as individuals and teaching them how to interact positively with those who are different.

Check out this video to find out more about what cultural proficiency means for your organization:

The cultural proficiency framework 

Cultural proficiency is an inside-out developmental approach. This means that instead of criticizing an employee’s opinion, you need to acknowledge and validate their current values and beliefs towards other cultures and encourage them to reflect on them. The aim is to challenge an employee’s existing beliefs without threatening their sense of worth. It’s a proactive approach that focuses on behavioral changes, not emotional responses.

Most approaches to diversity focus on explaining the nature of diversity and inclusion and the process of learning about new cultures. Cultural proficiency, in turn, is about the way a company culture responds to DEI in its actions and behaviors. At its heart, it’s a model for promoting organizational change. And you can’t teach organizational change with a simple course – you have to live it. But there are some tools to help you.

The cultural proficiency framework is a simple model for developing cultural proficiency and a diverse workplace. It’s based on four interrelated tools that can help you develop more equitable and inclusive practices and policies in your business. You can then use these equitable and inclusive practices and policies to develop a more culturally aware and diverse workforce 

So, what are these tools?

The four tools are barriers, guiding principles, the cultural proficiency continuum, and essential elements.

The 4 tools of cultural proficiency 

As we just mentioned, the cultural proficiency framework consists of four interrelated tools that help you develop more diverse, equitable and inclusive policies and practices.

The four tools of cultural proficiency are:

  • Barriers: that create unhealthy practices and behaviors and prevent diversity.
  • Guiding principles: the underlying values of the approach that guide healthy DEI practices.
  • Cultural proficiency continuum: language for describing both healthy and unhealthy practices.
  • Essential elements: behavioral standards for measuring cultural proficiency growth, and actions for increasing equity, access, and inclusion.

Let’s take a look at these four tools in a bit more detail. 

Barriers 

The first phase of the cultural proficiency framework involves identifying barriers that are preventing you from nurturing a more diverse workplace.

These are defined as:

  • Resistance to change. If an employee is part of a dominant culture and all the policies in an organization support them, then it can make them resistant to change. The policies and practices are serving them well, so they don’t see any benefit in changing things. You might spot people in your organization saying things like, “This has been working well until now so why change?” or “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”. 
  • Difficulties overcoming privilege, oppressive systems, and access. If an employee is part of a dominant culture, they will also be seeing things from a perspective of privilege. This is when you have unearned access to certain things just because of your cultural background. Often when people are privileged, they don’t realize that not everyone has the same level of access. They might also be unaware of any existing oppression. This can lead to unconscious bias that promotes exclusion and creates barriers. 
  • Unawareness of the need to adapt. Some employees might not recognize that there is a need to make organizational changes because there is a more diverse workforce. Their view might be that it is the minority groups who need to adapt, not them. They don’t see any value in promoting diversity. 
  • Misuse of power. This, again, comes down to the presumption of entitlement. Some employees might believe that the benefits they get are down to personal merit rather than privilege. They might believe that if others lag behind it is because they don’t possess the same merit, rather than it being down to a system of oppression. 

You can find out more about cultural proficiency barriers in this video:

Guiding principles 

The guiding principles are the underlying core values of the approach

  • Culture is a predominant force. It’s impossible not to be influenced by culture. It is a predominant force that shapes the norms, values, and behaviors of a group. It determines how your employees interact with each other and how they react to conflict. What’s more, every culture has its own biases that it needs to overcome. There’s no escaping culture; it forms an innate part of your organization. 
  • People are served in varying degrees by the dominant culture. If an employee is a member of the dominant culture, they may not be aware of how their culture impacts those who are outside of the group. If they are aware, they might believe that it is the responsibility of those from other cultures to learn and adapt to their cultural norms and beliefs. In order to promote cultural proficiency, you need to encourage relationships where all your employees strive to learn from each other and adapt to each other’s differences. 
  • People have personal identities and group identities. You need to recognize that people have personal identities and group identities. Although it’s important to treat everyone as individuals, making negative comments about a certain group is going to offend all individuals who identify with it.
  • There is diversity within and between cultures. It’s important to see cultural groups as being complex and diverse. Avoid stereotypes and teach your employees that there is diversity within groups, as well as between them.
  • The unique needs of every culture must be respected. Every culture has unique needs that must be respected. These needs can’t necessarily be met within the boundaries of the dominant culture. Make sure you take a flexible approach to your policies and practices to account for this.

Cultural proficiency continuum 

The cultural proficiency continuum is a set of terms used to describe both healthy and unhealthy practices and policies in your organization. These represent 6 different ways in which your company might respond to diversity.

  • Cultural destructiveness. “See the difference, stomp it out”. The elimination and exclusion of other people’s cultures. For example, a hiring manager saying, “I only want to hire young people”, and discriminating against those over a certain age. 
  • Cultural incapacity. “See the difference, make it wrong”. A belief in the superiority of your own culture and behavior that disempowers the culture of another. A form of cultural intolerance. “If I have to hire older people I will, but I don’t want to”.
  • Cultural blindness. “See the difference, act like you don’t”. Acting as if the cultural differences you see don’t matter, or not recognizing that there are differences among and between cultures. Reducing the individualism of those from other cultures. “I don’t see color”. 
  • Cultural precompetence. “See the difference, respond inadequately”. Being aware of your own limitations when interacting with other cultural groups. “I have to learn a few things. I don’t know what I don’t know, but I’m willing to learn”. 
  • Cultural competence. “See the difference, understand the difference that difference makes”. Interacting with other cultural groups using the five essential elements of cultural proficiency. “Now I’m more aware. I’m looking at policies and my own behavior so I can be more aware of my unconscious biases and change them”. 
  • Cultural proficiency. “See the difference and respond effectively in a variety of environments”. Holding esteem for culture. Knowing how to learn about individual and organizational culture. Interacting effectively in a variety of cultural environments. Understanding that cultural proficiency involves continuous growth.

Check out this video for more information on the cultural proficiency continuum:

The essential elements 

The essential elements are the fourth and final tool included in the cultural proficiency framework. They consist of 5 behavioral standards for measuring growth toward cultural proficiency:

  • Assess culture: Identify the cultural groups present in the system (name the differences)
  • Value diversity: Develop an appreciation for the differences among and between groups (claim the differences)
  • Manage the dynamics of difference: Learn to respond appropriately and effectively to the issues that arise in a diverse environment (reframe the differences)
  • Adapt to diversity: Change and adopt new policies and practices that support diversity and inclusion (train about differences)
  • Institutionalize cultural knowledge: Drive the changes into the systems of the organization (change for differences)

Cultural proficiency examples 

A company’s cultural proficiency is reflected in the way it treats its employees and the level of diversity, equity and inclusion that it promotes at every touchpoint in the employee experience. This ranges from hiring and recruitment processes, access to learning and development opportunities and salaries and promotions, to the internal language used by members of an organization. Ultimately, cultural proficiency is all about creating a diverse workplace where every employee feels safe from prejudice, and that they belong. 

With that in mind, here are a few examples of cultural proficiency:

  • Offering your employees workplace bias training. Ask employees about their experiences of negative bias within your company. Once you know the barriers holding your workforce back, you can plan training workshops to deal with those issues.
  • Developing an ethical hiring process where opportunities are available to all. Take a look at your recruitment team. Is it diverse? Are your recruiters representative of a range of ages, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and genders? Are your recruitment managers aware of the benefits of promoting a culture add vs culture fit hiring strategy?
  • Creating culturally proficient practices and policies
  • Offering equal pay to all based on experience.
  • Being open to all and willing to listen.
  • Creating a psychologically safe environment.
  • Creating Employee Resource Groups. Employee resource groups create an open forum for employees who share a common identity. With these groups, employees can get support from each other, build a community, and create a sense of belonging.

Cultural proficiency tips  

Let’s finish by taking a look at a few cultural proficiency tips and takeaways. 

Let’s start with the tips.

Implementing the following key elements will help you build a culturally proficient organization:

  • Assess your culture. What is your culture like? Take an objective look around your organization and take note of how people address issues of culture. Ask your employees and leaders what 3 words they would use to describe your company culture. Pay attention to how people describe their colleagues, especially those from other cultural backgrounds. The words that your employees use will give you insight into their values in this area. 
  • Value diversity. Start at the top with your leaders. Make sure they understand the value of cultural proficiency and strive for a mix of diversity in your organization.
  • Manage the dynamics of difference. Take into account all elements of diversity, both visible and invisible. If you don’t learn how to manage the dynamics of difference and what makes every person unique it can create tension, microaggressions and bias in the workplace and lead to a hostile working environment. 
  • Adapt to diversity. This is where inclusion and belonging come in. The aim is to nurture a workplace that creates space where people feel they have made the right choice by joining and staying at your organization. They feel that they belong.
  • Institutionalize the culture. This is all about your practices and policies. Make sure they reflect the level of diversity that you are trying to create in your culture. Make sure there’s no hidden bias or inadvertent marginalization. 

Final takeaways

Ultimately, cultural proficiency helps you understand the resources that you need to build and create a healthy and diverse culture. Above all, it builds community relations and creates an environment where your employees feel safe and that they belong.

Every employee has an opinion of your organization based on the culture you develop. They can be your best allies and your best recruiters, or they can be your worst adversaries. Strive to create a diverse workplace based on cultural proficiency that they can be proud of so that they go out into the world and promote your organization. 

You can find out more about the most essential cultural proficiency tips and takeaways here:

Cat Symonds is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Originally from Wales, she studied Spanish and French at the University of Swansea before moving to Barcelona where she lived and worked for 12 years. She has since relocated back to Wales where she continues to build her business, working with clients in Spain and the UK.  Cat is the founder of The Content CAT: Content And Translation, providing content development and translation services to her clients. She specializes in corporate blogs, articles of interest, ghostwriting, and translation (SP/FR/CA into EN), collaborating with a range of companies from a variety of business sectors. She also offers services to a number of NGOs including Oxfam Intermón, UNICEF, and Corporate Excellence - Centre for Reputation Leadership.  For more information or to contact Cat visit her website or send her a message through LinkedIn.

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