6 Exercises For Mastering Cultural Agility

Business leaders are like athletes: They need to be able to adapt to rapidly changing elements in their environment and respond with speed, power, and accuracy.

Unlike in sports, however, where it’s relatively easy to perceive what your opponents or teammates are doing and respond accordingly, the things that business professionals need to pay attention to and respond to are often hidden in nuance.

That’s because, while sports require physical agility, business requires cultural agility.

In today’s global market, business leaders and organizations need to be able to work effectively across cultures. This demands a certain skillset. Business professionals need to be able to recognize, and respond appropriately, to different behaviors and worldviews in order to build strong working relationships across cultures. Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as it might sound.

When we meet on the playing field of business, we tend to dress alike, and we speak about the same things that are important to us. But this often masks the different assumptions and worldviews that we have, causing us to miss information that’s critical to building relationships and working together more effectively. Other times, we do notice cultural differences, but simply don’t know what to make of them.

If we strive to recognize cultural behaviors that we don’t understand rather than simply disregarding them, we can often work them out in our minds until we realize, "Oh, that’s what that was about." That’s perception, which is the first step toward cultural agility. 

The second part is then, how do you act? How do you know how to act in a way that will be relevant and important to the other person, and that he or she will understand and respond to favorably?

To begin, there are six key skills that will help you master cultural agility:

  1. Self-awareness. Being aware of your own cultural biases, behaviors, and worldviews.
  2. Being attuned to your environment, and to cultural nuances. Adjusting your behavior to harmonize the relationship—without mimicking.
  3. Adapting to cultural differences and ambiguities. Being flexible to the situation.
  4. Being authentic. (It’s not about putting on somebody else’s culture, but about being able to interact in a way that’s relevant and important to them.)
  5. Acquiring knowledge about other cultures. Immersing yourself in the foreign culture and seeking out new experiences.
  6. Continually assessing how you’re developing in each of these areas, and looking for opportunities to grow.

These skills come more naturally to some people than others. It would make sense that those who are more culturally agile are those who have traveled more, or have had more exposure to foreign countries, but that’s not always the case.

Let me give you an example. I have a client who’s from a very small town in the Deep South where he runs a manufacturing company. He just recently got his first passport. He has no stamps in it yet, but it’s a prized possession for him. He’s never been outside of the borders of the United States, and has spent very little time outside the geographic borders of the town where he grew up. Nevertheless, he’s one of the most culturally agile people I know. He’s aware of his own biases. He’s attuned. He adapts. He’s authentic. He may not have a lot of international experience, but he’s incredibly enthusiastic and engaged and fully present with others. He has an explorer spirit. When he meets new people, he looks at how they are different from him, and instead of judging them, he says, "Wow, that is really neat. How can I find out more?" That has a lot to do with cultural agility.

But cultural agility doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Most people need to work at it, continually building on their skills even after they begin to see results.

If you’re looking to succeed in this global economy, it’s time to hunker down and get serious about improving your game. Put these skills of cultural agility into action on the playing field of business, and you’ll have a real shot at taking home the gold.

Michelle Randall is president of Enriching Leadership International, a global management consultancy. Sign up to receive Michelle's monthly newsletter, Relentless Results. Subscribe to Michelle's podcast, Relentless Results, to transform bottom line results for high-growth, global companies.

[Image: Flickr user Porsupah Ree]

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  • Paulp

    good article - and I like the comments made also!  As a consultant I have worked in many different cultures. I have found that the "Curious George" approach works well also. Curious George is the storybook character that has endured from my children to their children - and will probably continue! What I mean is that I ask questions about what people mean by what they say and how they behave. I have found that when I respectfully ask what a word or saying or behavior means, people get that I am very interested in them and how they see the world.

    Half of my family is Jamaican - I'm white American male - and I have come to appreciate how the nuances of words and behavior carry lots of meaning that I am clueless about from my perspective. So I ask.

    I recognize that what I have learned is bot ha compliment and a limitation.


  • Simma "The Inclusionist"

    Great article. Adding to your excellent point on self-awareness  is being aware of your own culture and experiences that impact your beliefs and behaviors. When you are able to look at your own behaviors as a product of your history as opposed "just being right, or the only way" you can better get into other people's heads and see the world or the situation through their eyes.

  • Cedricj

    A great basic cross-cultural communication tool-kit

    I would also add the following.

    1. In cross-cultural situations we are always students
    2. We sometimes find bigger differences within a culture than across cultures
    3. Cultures are always in a state of flux
    4. No one culture is the center of the universe

    Inspiring leaders to inspire others