Cultural Competency

The Elements of a Successful 

Cultural Competency Initiative

Written by Matt Thompson

I have been working with issues related to employee relations, affirmative action and diversity for more years than I dare to count. I have seen employee behavior with roots in the employee’s feeling of being either on the outside of, or fully entrenched in the prevailing workplace culture and I’ve seen employers strive to make sure their employment practices result in fair representation of the racial makeup of our society as a whole. I have worked closely with employers and employees alike to try to create a workplace environment where talent and productivity are maximized and employees can feel that they are valued and have a professional future.

I have seen the labor market shed the image of the “American Melting Pot” and then embrace the view of Roosevelt Thomas: that our society is more like a salad, where each of the elements retain their individual identity and, together, create something greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ve been privileged to work across a number of business sectors from health care in major teaching hospitals to public health institutions;  from multi-national corporations to community agencies. I’ve worked in higher education, from state-run public institutions to prestigious private schools.

It was around 1982 when the term “cultural competency” made its way out from the social science literature and into mainstream conversations in our communities and corporate boardrooms. Since that time we have been struggling to understand just what that term means and how we recognize cultural competency when we see it.

The 1960’s were a time of social and cultural upheaval in many respects, and the courts were called on to help chart the course. The motion picture industry underwent some major changes as standards of decency were imposed on filmmakers. Potter Stewart, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, in an opinion in which the court was grappling with how to identify obscenity, said that he wasn’t able to define pornography “but I know it when I see it.” With tongue in cheek, I would paraphrase that sentiment and say that “I may not be able to define cultural competency, but I know it when I see it.”

I have read definitions of cultural competency ranging from: “A set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations” to a more simple and elegant definition: “The ability to understand, appreciate and interact with persons from cultures and/or belief systems other than one’s own.” (I like this one, myself.)

I was raised in the Greater Detroit area during the late 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. In my “culture” no one spared the rod to spoil the child and my father wasn’t much different than most working class folks of the day. What he did do differently, however, was ask me, when I was in trouble: “And what did we learn from this?” If I couldn’t think of the lesson I had learned — or should have learned — he would provide one. Enough said.

Applying my childhood lesson of asking “And what did we learn from this?” to my observations during my years of professional trial and error, I have confirmed the following:

When I see successful cultural competency initiatives I see five essential elements. Building upon the work of the National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC) at Georgetown University, the first element is the valuing of diversity. By this I mean the keepers of the culture see genuine value, both socially and financially, in making all employees feel they have something of value to contribute.

The second element in a successful cultural competency initiative is the capacity for cultural self-assessment. Some employers want to put the best spin on what they are currently doing and are afraid of admitting their flaws. Thus, no real changes happen and, quite possibly, the environment will get worse instead of better as employees become disillusioned and disheartened by the whitewash.

The third element of a successful cultural competency initiative is a consciousness of the dynamics inherent when cultures do interact. There is the potential for destructive behavior when cultures clash and leadership must be prepared to devote time and resources to minimizing and resolving these moments. The upside of this is the potential for creative, outside-the-box thinking that can be a source of innovation and market gain for the company.

The fourth element is the institutionalization of this cultural knowledge. When an employer can actively embrace all the fine qualities brought to the workplace by employees and make those qualities a part of the culture for all to share in, there is a chance to make a permanent change in the environment.

The fifth element is the development of programs and services that reflect an understanding of diversity between and within cultures. The successful employers are willing to put in the time, effort and resources then show the patience for these cultural identities and norms to be accepted and coexist alongside each other, knowing that each makes its own contribution to the whole of the community and all are valued equally.

There are times when it may be necessary to rate the proficiency of the level of cultural competency prevailing in a work or social environment along the six different levels of NCCC’s continuum of developmental stages: Destructiveness, incapacity, blindness, pre-competence, competence, and proficiency. If the keepers of the culture are truly honest with themselves, this step can lay the groundwork for some great strides toward making all members of the community feel heard, seen, and valued.