Barriers to Developing Culturally Agile Employees

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  • 0:00 Cultural Agility
  • 1:56 Cultural Competence
  • 2:28 Success
  • 3:12 Similarities
  • 3:40 Technology
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Developing individual cross-cultural agility is an important skill that doesn't come naturally for everyone. This lesson details four common mistaken beliefs that lead to the development of cross-cultural barriers.

Cultural Agility

Many organizations, especially organizations that deal in technology support services, are finding it necessary to have cooperative teams whose members are based in dozens of locations and nearly as many time zones. In this model, cross-cultural agility is a must and achieving it means hiring and engaging team members who are capable of adapting quickly to cultural differences that are relevant to the workplace.

One large U.S.-based enterprise software developer discovered the importance of employing culturally agile employees the hard way after opening an operation in India. Believing that local leadership, especially during the transition, would be a bad idea, the company launched the new operation with a management team that was exclusively from the United States. The company had done its homework, and it was offering local employees a competitive pay rate that compared favorably to the regional average. Unfortunately, the not-yet-culturally-agile management team began to direct operations with the belief that a relatively high wage would instantly motivate all the local employees.

That's not what happened. The company's U.S.-based management team faced one of the four common barriers to cross-cultural agility, which include overestimating cultural competence, making false assumptions about success, overstating similarities, and relying too heavily on technology. Having conducted salary surveys and cost-of-living assessments, the management team thought that they were a lot more culturally adept than they actually were. As a result, they ended up choosing wages as the foundation of their plan to keep employees motivated. The management team found out the hard way that their cross-cultural partners were actually far more interested in advancement opportunities and work-life balance.

By believing themselves to be more culturally agile than they actually were, the U.S.-based managers eventually had to adapt their motivation model. Ultimately, turning over the management duties to properly motivated local talent proved to be the best way for the company to obtain optimal performance from their India-based workforce.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is an agile competency related to one's ability to accept another society's cultural environment as the rule rather than the exception. True cultural agility is often threatened by individuals who perceive their cross-cultural competence as being far more effective than it is in reality. This inaccurate perception may be even more exaggerated when individuals have some cross-cultural experience because it can lead them to believe that they have a deep understanding of a culture, even though they may have spent little time within that culture or had minimal business-relevant integration.


Many individuals draw conclusions that connect two occurrences that may or may not be related. In the context of cultural agility, false assumptions about the meaning of success can lead to individuals being unpleasantly surprised when they are hit by a negative cultural consequence that was otherwise unexpected due to the incorrect belief.

Another closely related barrier is the misinterpretation of the applicability or universal nature of cross-cultural success. A success in one cross-cultural market doesn't mean that the same approach will lead to universal success elsewhere. For individual managers in cross-cultural employment environments, this means that the tools they used to motivate employees or land customers in one culture won't automatically be successful in the next cross-cultural situation.

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