Intercultural Competence

Intercultural Competence

What is intercultural competence, who has it and how or why (can it be learned), and most importantly, how can HR and Mobility managers identify these elusive creatures to ensure more successful international placements?

In a recent Apto blog piece, “Identifying the Right Candidates for International Relocation,”  we identified some ideas and industry consensus on the flexible and open-minded personality types which, when coupled with the right backgrounds and experiences, make a candidate likely to be successful in disparate cultures and locations. However, the onus remains on the HR manager to somehow glean – through experience or intuition –  candidates who seem like they have the keys to success. It’s a huge risk, and a tremendous burden, especially when global mobility programs and packages often run in excess of $500,000 per relocated employee.  The last thing an HR manager or company needs is a poor choice that results in a failed assignment. Wouldn’t we all breathe a bit easier with a slightly more scientific approach to hiring and recruiting for global positions?

Many Global Mobility managers look at Intercultural Competence (IC) as a means to gauge whether or not a candidate for international relocation has the right skills, outlook, and global worldview. But what is IC, who has it and how or why (can it be learned), and most importantly, how can HR and Mobility managers identify these elusive creatures to ensure more successful international placements?

What is Intercultural Competence and how is it measured?

In its simplest terms, intercultural competence is an ability to move easily between vastly different cultures and languages while doing the following:

  1. maintaining a natural and enthusiastic communication style with different types of people
  2. making those they meet feel comfortable and respected
  3. continuing to function and adapt at high levels despite cultural and linguistic differences encountered in almost every aspect of  life.

Identifying and defining the attributes that comprise Intercultural Competence is not an exact science. Many scholars who focus on the subject might disagree with parts of our markers below, but most would agree that the following are critical components of a successful competency. Basically, one must possess the sincere desire for competency and underscore that with ability and knowledge.

Attitudes and world views that demonstrate openness and respect:

Those individuals with the strongest intercultural competence are also the ones most excited about experiencing new countries, cultures and people. Respect, openness, honesty, curiosity, adventure and a need to discover are each important IC attitudes and many imply a willingness to take risks and jump outside of their own comfort zone. Candidates should also demonstrate a desire to understand other cultures and place the same value on them as any other. All of these attitudes together show that the willingness to trust and be trusted can have a radical impact on building the sincere bonds of friendship that underscore intercultural competence.

Knowledge, skills, and capabilities that foster cultural understanding:

Intercultural capabilities can be both learned and developed. These include cultural knowledge, language skills, and communication skills. High IC individuals have a strong awareness of the ways in which they are influenced by their own culture AND are able to identify and understand the cultural, socio-economic, and linguistic attributes of other cultures. When this type of knowledge exists simultaneously with the right kinds of skills – specifically skills like focused listening, keen observation, the ability to evaluate, analyze, and interpret verbal and non-verbal cues – a special kind of understanding and empathy is fostered that allow these individuals to try to see the world from the perspective of another culture.

Can Intercultural Competence be learned, and if so, what is the best methodology?

Individuals who possess what Harvard Business Review once called intercultural competence or intelligence, demonstrate a “seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the same way that person’s compatriots would.” ( It’s at this point that cultural competence and intelligence meet and beg the question – can Intercultural Competence be taught (and in a way that makes it worthwhile) as a way of cultivating future global leaders in business and, of course, prior to an international relocation assignment? Or, would Global Mobility managers serve themselves better by finding and recruiting the individuals who already possess these skills and traits naturally? In other words, must this kind of interpersonal aptitude exist inherently, or can those who may at first seem ill-equipped improve their cultural intelligence through training and experiential learning?

In a blog post titled “Some Thoughts on Assessing Intercultural Competence,” Darla Deardorff asserts that intercultural competence and intelligence will be a required skill for future leaders in a globally driven world and must become an important aspect of business curriculum. Institutions of higher learning are beginning to focus more heavily on cultivating intercultural competence through specific classroom curriculum, foreign language acquisition and other scholarly linguistic curriculum, and programs that allow students to live and study abroad. However, while classroom learning can provide a great deal in terms of understanding theory or historical and political realities of specific cultures and regions of the world, immersive and experiential types of learning have the greatest promise for building a more natural and genuine cultural understanding and more open cultural perspectives and world views.

How can Global Mobility and HR Managers Identify the candidates with a high intercultural competence and how can they help others improve these skills as a way to increase success rates of international relocation placements and positions?

As Global HR and Mobility Managers recruit candidates with high Intercultural competence, they must begin to assess to what extent their candidate pool has benefited from specialized academic tracks and/or time spent abroad learning and studying a specific culture or language. They can also begin to develop their own internal development programs for leaders in roles that would require stints of international placement.

Given the cost of providing true immersive learning experiences for those in strong leadership roles, many multi-national companies are opting to provide employees slated for international placement with online language tools and formal language training programs. Many find these are a good start, but aren’t adequately preparing their employees for what real-life will be like once they begin their assignment. For many, a better option is an online, cloud-based, cultural-linguistic simulator like Apto which can provide designated employees and their families with a way to experience what real life looks and sounds like in their target country.

The Apto Perspective on Intercultural Competence

While intercultural competence is important for the success of progressive multinational companies, it also brings with it the promise of something much bigger. The Association of American Colleges and Universities perhaps stated it best in their value rubric related to  intercultural competence:

“The call to integrate intercultural knowledge and competence into the heart of education is an imperative born of seeing ourselves as members of a world community, knowing that we share the future with others.” (

At Apto, we share this vision of the future and call it “the heart of Apto.” Apto is not just a product, or a commercial business venture – we have the values of a social enterprise, and that means that user needs, goals, and experience drive us to develop a product that brings meaning to those who use it and to create value that is lasting.

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