7 ways to strengthen intercultural competence and cultural sensibility

· October 3, 2018 · 1:08 pm
psychologist in copenhagen and international- leadership consultant mei consulting

By Mei-Fun Kuang PhD.

Intercultural competence and cultural sensibility is not something that can be learned overnight. With professional psychological tools and executive coaching it is possible to develop and strengthen the potentiality to become a successful international executive on the global scene.

The following 7-step guide gives useful tips and introductory knowledge on how to start improving your skills.


1. Knowing the culture

Being an expat is more than being a tourist. Moving to a new country for work requires in-depth cultural insight. Apart from having the factual information about the new working and living environment, it is vital to understand the different social codes, value systems, and beliefs that shape a society. Instead of just collecting information, one has to go through a real learning process. Tools for how to comprehend the complexity of the new culture should therefore be some of the fundamental elements of effective on-boarding support.

My advice: Getting to know a new culture from books might seem overwhelming and too time-consuming, especially in a demanding working position based on efficiency. A more engaging and stimulating way to start exploring a new culture could be by asking local colleagues for recommendations. You could, for example, ask them which movie to watch to get a picture of their culture or learn about the history of their country. The choice of the movie is already a cultural exchange and a subject of conversation. You could also ask for recommendations for music and food, so you can immerse yourself in the new culture through all your senses.

2. Navigating across cultures

Good leadership methods used in one culture will often be ineffective in others. In global operations, it is necessary to be able to perform successfully on all relevant working platforms and in diverse cultural contexts.
This can be achieved by injecting cultural sensitivity into the workflow. The ability to appreciate cultural differences is essential for a successful international assignment.

My advice: Cultural sensitivity is not only a trick, which you can learn and implement immediately. It is a skill which has to be cultivated. It takes time and it should not be neglected. So it is important to sketch out a plan for “growing” the cultural sensitivity. Regular interactions with the new culture both at work and in your free time, should be put it in your calendar to ensure the continued development.

3. Improving communication with cultural translation

Communication relates to language, but any experienced executive, aware of the cross-cultural challenges, would know that it is not enough to grasp linguistic translation. It is necessary also to deal with the cultural translation happening “between the lines”.
Making decisions, managing teams and supervising are only some of the operations where communication skills are obligatory. In a global workplace this is even more vital, because exchange of information is happening across cultural differences.

Communication is not a simple act of sending and receiving messages, so the leaders or persons with executive responsibility for cross-cultural business relationships would benefit greatly from professional socio-psychological tools for decoding underlying meaning, which is often not communicated explicitly.

My advice: To improve communication and avoid misunderstandings between the lines, avoid assuming anything as ‘common sense’. Ask for clarification when you don’t understand the message, or you are in doubt. Establish openness about the cultural translation process. There is nothing shameful in saying “I don’t understand. Could you explain it to me?”.

4. Using empathy and shifting cultural perspectives

Shifting the perspective can be of great importance when looking for alternative working methods or solutions for an eventual problem.
The ability to put oneself in the situation of others and to understand their feelings is a difficult but necessary skill in cross-cultural management and leadership.
An empathic approach, based on shared values and feelings, builds trust across cultural boundaries, ensuring a successful cohesive exchange.

My advice: Especially for result-oriented people, such as leaders and executives, being empathic can be a real challenge. Nevertheless, gestures and expressions are central to creating a positive empathic impression with open dialogues and active listening. Ask questions instead of giving comments. This will help you shift your perspective when needed.

5. Devising new ways with creativity

The ability to think outside the box is a crucial skill for an international assignment, where the working flows must constantly be redefined to fit the dynamic intercultural settings.
In order to meet organisational objectives and goals in a different cultural setting, the established and common working patterns might have to be redefined creatively and turned into innovative cross-cultural models.
Willingness to think in new directions is a must. With creative coaching tools for rethinking the established systems, it is possible to avoid the stagnation which might lead to failure.

My advice: The best method to enhance creativity is by creating situations where you have to do something you have not done before, even though it is not your cup of tea. Stepping outside of your comfort zone and thinking outside the box. So, if you are an executive expat in Japan, you should probably accept the invitation to karaoke, even though you are not interested in that kind of entertainment. Maybe karaoke in Japan is different from what you have experienced before, maybe it will make you discover new aspects of japanese culture or maybe it will change your own social behavior so you can start thinking in new ways. The important thing is to try.

6. Adapting with flexibility

To adapt, one has to be flexible. But for a person who is not sure about the basic personal and professional fundament, the idea of being flexible and adapting to a new context might provoke fear and uneasiness.
The professional support from a psychologist coach can greatly help to develop and maintain the necessary solid mindset and greet the flexibility.

My advice: The best way to embrace the flexibility is by challenging oneself. You could for example share something you are bad at, with your colleagues. After seeing the reaction, you would probably discover that the situation was not as embarrassing as you thought. This will be a good learning process for you, because it will make you more relaxed. – You don’t have to be Mr. or Ms. perfect. Relaxation will automatically make you less afraid of being flexible.

7. Leading cross-cultural changes

An executive expat is facing different types of changes during an international assignment abroad. The cultural and working environment is obviously changing, but at the same time, the expat him/herself is being changed by new surroundings. The changes around and inside the employee have a direct impact on his/her leadership and management style, performance metrics in working practices, as well as personality and lifestyle
A successful executive expat has to be psychologically prepared to cope cautiously with both the external and internal changes.

My advice: First of all it is important to acknowledge that anxiety is a natural reaction to change. When both our habitual external surrounding and our inner universe are changing, it is normal to feel a certain loss of control.
Instead of letting this situation block you, you should respect the anxious feeling and try to make peace with it. You can try to see the change as a transformation which can bring constructive energy beneficial for the professional as well as the personal development.


Improving intercultural competence and cultural sensibility is an organic process. It is a learning process that becomes a lifestyle shaping both your personal and professional profile. As you probably have discovered, all the above described 7 ways are thus interconnected, supplementary and overlap each other.

In order to master the intercultural skills fully you might need a more tailor-made plan for onboarding. Usually, I suggest a biweekly sesion series starting before your international assignment departure and during the first three to six months in the new country, which is the most critical period. If you wish to learn more about my psychological services for executives, please feel free to contact me or make a request, so I can call you back when it fits your schedule.

Tags: , ,