Importance of Cultural Fluency in International Business

Cultural fluency is crucial to success in today’s dynamic business environment.

Many businesses today operate on a global scale. Leaders can expect to work with colleagues down the street one day and with contacts in distant countries like China, Brazil, and India—or all 3!—the next day. Successful management of this ever-changing dynamic requires cultural fluency, which is the ability to understand the viewpoints and norms of other cultures and adjust one’s working style accordingly.

Cultural fluency is not something that is just nice to have. In today’s world, it is a necessity that affects both a leader’s work relationships and the company’s success. As cultural fluency consultants Hyun & Associates explain, “It is vital to understand the unique needs of colleagues from different backgrounds across functions, borders, and generations. Culture can profoundly impact interpersonal dynamics, including styles of communication, how we relate to clients and supervisors, and how we approach critical business problems.”

Cultural fluency is not something that people possess naturally. The ins and outs of other cultures must be learned by careful observation and, when necessary, by targeted instruction and consultation. Although obtaining this knowledge is a lifelong task, the process is straightforward and can be learned through programs such as Washington State University’s online Executive Master of Business Administration. An online Executive MBA degree can be a springboard to cultural competence in business, preparing future C-suite executives to function in today’s global marketplace.

Finding Your Baseline

The first step in building cultural fluency, says expert Jane Hyun, is to honestly assess one’s competence level. Diagnostic tests such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) can be a starting point in this process. This tool evaluates a leader’s mindset, which may range from denial of cultural differences to complete acceptance and every phase in between. By doing so, the IDI identifies strengths to celebrate—and weaknesses where more work may be needed.

With these results in hand, Hyun suggests that leaders consider enlisting someone outside of their organization to reshape their thinking. “It may be adjusting a strategy for onboarding new clients from different cultural backgrounds. It may be learning how to better motivate multicultural teams. Or it may be checking your assumptions about why people act the way they do—personalities are often shaped by culture,” she explains.

Building Skills

Following an honest self-assessment, leaders can get to work honing their cultural fluency skills. According to Keith Warburton, founder of cultural fluency organization Global Business Culture, the process involves 3 basic steps:

  • Awareness building. Leaders must intellectually buy in to the fact that international cultural differences can have a very significant impact on any global organization. They must also accept that, as the leader, they bear responsibility for this process. “If things go wrong when you are working cross-border, it’s always partly [the leader’s] fault,” Warburton says.
  • Knowledge development. Being aware that cultural differences exist is not enough. Leaders must also acquire the specific knowledge to interface effectively in different markets. “The adaptations needed when dealing in India or Brazil will be very different,” Warburton points out. He explains that this knowledge can be acquired through trial and error or, more effectively, through research and training.
  • Embedding insight into corporate processes. Once a leader has awareness and knowledge, these things must be woven into a business’s everyday functioning. Warburton explains that every decision made in a global environment has potentially unforeseen cultural consequences. How can leaders mitigate unintentional negative actions? “It’s not easy, but it can be done if you have a deep understanding and the requisite level of knowledge,” Warburton says.

An Ongoing Process

Armed with this legwork, a leader is ready to enter the fray of culturally competent interaction. The basic skills needed from this point forward are much the same as they are in any interaction: leaders must listen, be empathetic, and engage appropriately. All of these tasks, however, must be undertaken through the lens of cultural differences and accommodation. A recent article in Nebraska Extension’s NebGuide lays out the issues:

  • Active listening. Listening with an open mind to someone whose background and beliefs are vastly different from yours can be challenging. However, doing so is necessary to learn about that person’s culture and experiences. Resist giving quick advice or making suggestions. Ask more questions and seek multiple viewpoints to truly understand your conversation partner.
  • Empathy is the art of seeing the world as a person of another culture sees it. You do not have to agree with that person’s perceptions and conclusions, but at the very least you must be able to understand them. Only then can you interact in an informed and effective way.
  • In effective engagement, people exchange ideas and learn from each other. When diverse cultures are involved, there are enormous opportunities for learning—but also much room for misunderstanding and offense. Avoid value-laden statements and simply open a factual dialogue that leads to greater understanding on all sides.

Reaping the Rewards

When a global leader appreciates the art of cultural fluency, he or she inevitably reaps more personal success—but according to Keith Warburton, there is a trickle-down effect as well. C-suite executives who promote cultural competence within their businesses position their organizations for success in countless areas. Warburton offers these examples:

  • Communication. Good communication style in one country will often be viewed as poor communication style in another. Culturally fluent staff know their market better than you do, and they will work to localize your message for maximum impact.
  • Presentations. Expectations for presentation styles and content can be markedly different from one country to another. Culturally competent presenters adapt their presentational style to meet the expectations of their audience.
  • Website design. Preferred styles in this area, too, vary from country to country. Chinese websites, for instance, have lots of visual noise and very little white space, while Danish websites have lots of white space and sparse text. A culturally competent web team understands these nuances and adjusts accordingly.
  • Images. Certain cultures are sensitive to such varied issues as depictions of women in certain types of clothing, a photo of 3 people together, the soles of shoes, names written in red, and many, many more. Culturally fluent marketers are alive to these sensitivities and factor them into the work they produce.
  • Negotiations. “Where to start with this one?” Warburton asks. “People in the U.S. like to get down to business quickly; people in Japan are focused on forming a good long-term relationship before even considering talking business. Finns like to come in with what they consider a ‘fair’ price from the outset; Indians are unlikely to ever take the first price offered. People in Sweden have a lot of authority delegated to them whereas you usually need to be talking to the top guy in the Gulf. Each country has its own unspoken rules as to how a negotiation is likely to be addressed.” By understanding these differences, leaders and salespeople have the best chance of success when performing in a global environment.

Cultural competence is a lot of information to take in—but the good news is that it does not all have to be done at once. By simply adopting the right attitude, leaders can tackle each situation as it arises. With flexibility, curiosity, and an open mind, C-suite executives can successfully navigate the world of cultural competence in business.

About WSU’s Executive Master of Business Administration Online Program

Washington State University’s Carson College of Business stands out among EMBA programs for its international study abroad program. The 10-day residency offers students first-hand experience of how business is conducted in other countries.

As one of the nation’s top-ranked Executive MBA programs, WSU offers a curriculum designed to equip graduates with the tactics, knowledge, skills, strategies, and other MBA resources utilized by today’s high-profile business leaders. For more information, visit WSU’s Executive MBA Online website.


Recommended Reading:

Five Characteristics of Successful Global Business Leadership

3 Things You Need to Know About Studying Abroad While Earning Your MBA

What International Students Should Know About Applying for a WSU MBA



Importance of cultural fluency – Hyun & Associates

Finding your baseline – Harvard Business Review

Building skills – Global Business Culture

An ongoing process – NebGuide

Reaping the rewards – Global Business Culture