Leveraging Cultural Competencies in Professional and Personal Encounters

by Patricia Arredondo* and Courtland Lee*

Cultural competency development is being discussed more often as an asset in organizations, “something” everyone should become good at and embrace. We describe cultural competency  as a skillset grounded in three domains of learning; these domains are increased self-awareness, new and enhanced awareness and knowledge about others, and the application of this awareness and knowledge to enhance workplace relationships, performance, self-confidence, and workplace climate. In the next sections, we will unpack each domain and introduce constructs that are relevant to leveraging cultural competency.


We are in a sociopolitical context where utterances about people are expressed on a daily basis. Sometimes statements hit close to home. For example, the first author is  proud of her Mexican-American heritage and take prides in it but her self-awareness about this identity becomes more heightened when she hears racial slurs about people like her. The construct that comes to mind is that of macro-microaggressions, that is insults that are generalized to a group of people. In the workplace,  the construct of microaggressions is described as interpersonal disrespect that affects relationships and workplace climate. Comments about one’s accent, questions about one’s “unfamiliar” kind of name, or feedback about one’s nonverbal behavior may be received and perceived as insensitive. It is not just the statement—“So why don’t you smile a little more? You come across as an uptight Latina”—it is how it is said.

Awareness does not signify a need to be hypervigilant but rather a recognition of how we are viewed and how we view and conduct ourselves. For example, we are aware of research that found that Latinas are expected to be “nice”, to smile a lot and to be accommodating in work settings (Alemán, 2009). I (Patricia) am aware of my friendly interpersonal style, but when it comes to making formal presentations, my demeanor is one of seriousness, I am about business. Self-awareness requires attention and reflection about how I communicate with individuals from diverse backgrounds, i.e., age, language, in different contexts. Similarly, we are aware of research that found African American males are often perceived as intimidating. I (Courtland) am constantly aware of how my mere presence may impact people and work to insure that my interpersonal professional style is commanding while still being inviting. This is an on-going learning process.

New and Enhanced Awareness and Knowledge About Others

A few years ago the terms “political correctness” or the “diversity police” were often heard in work settings. I (Patricia) found that these comments came from individuals who believed they were being limited in their expression, that they could not tell the same sexist joke as usual nor could they blurt out comments about a woman’s appearance.  In workplaces that honored their sexual harassment or anti-bullying policies, in fact telling sexist jokes or creating an environment that was hostile were reasons for reprimand. But enhancing our awareness and knowledge about others does not have to occur as a result of a complaint. Rather, we like to think that changes in the workplace climate are now coming about through intentional educational programs for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

There are several constructs that support our awareness and knowledge-building about others. These include unconscious biases, perspective-taking and open-mindedness. We will start with unconscious biases, a cognitive behavior that everyone engages in. Stereotyping is another such cognitive process. Our knowledge of others with whom we have not had personal contact often derives from what we have heard about that group of individuals from the media or friends. It could be that a negative experience, for example, with an individual who speaks with a “foreign” accent,  leads us to think the worst about all individuals with an accent. This is an example of our unconscious bias. We make an assessment before we get to know the individual. Unconscious biases tend to limit our open-mindedness and perspective-taking. If you are a hiring manager, your unconscious biases may interfere in fairly assessing someone who looks great on paper but makes you uncomfortable because of the way they speak. This brings into the discussion the construct of stereotyping. As mentioned before, stereotyping occurs unconsciously also, but if we make assumptions about a new peer because of a stereotype, there is a good chance we will not really get to know that person.

Building knowledge about others means suspending judgment, setting aside stereotypes to really get to know your peer, and to check your unconscious biases. Holding on to our biases and stereotypes about immigrants, for example, is a about resistance to change. It is also a statement about negating one’s own immigrant story because everyone born in the U.S. has such a story too. Thus, new and enhanced awareness and knowledge about others requires effort and a willingness to learn.

Perspective-taking is necessary skill that allows one to consider other viewpoints. Holding on to one’s opinion or judgment suggests inflexibility and depending on one’s role in the workplace, a form of coercion or manipulation. Developing cultural competency requires expanding our thinking, hearing others, and allowing for alternative to completing a task. This is not about rights or wrongs but more about open-mindedness to consider other possibilities.

Application of Awareness and Knowledge

Cultural competency development is about learning and unlearning and it is a process of change that requires education, reinforcement and support in the workplace as perhaps is evident by now. Many organizations have metrics for their DEI initiatives that include the number of new hires and promotions of individuals from underrepresented groups, revenue increase as a result of marketing in neighborhoods where there are persons of color, or contracts awarded to minority suppliers. These behaviors benefit the reputation of an organization as well as their DEI metrics.  Metrics mean accountability and we will discuss this further next month.

Taking personal awareness and knowledge about others to practice is not always so straightforward or measurable but there are ways to proceed. This requires using department baseline data to measure change or improvement in areas where there have been shortcomings because of a lack of cultural competency development or emotional intelligence. Before measurement occurs, there has to be cultural competency and emotional intelligence education.

Emotional Intelligence. There are parallels between the two paradigms or models. Cultural competency development begins with learning about yourself and how you engage with others throughout your thinking, emotions, and behavior. Emotional intelligence (EI), the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically, is also about self-awareness and self-management. For example, not being reactive when you disagree with a woman peer who is presenting an alternative viewpoint is a manifestation of EI. EI can also facilitate a reduction in acting based on unconscious biases.

A “Pragmatic” Cultural Competency Paradigm

The Multicultural Competency model we have taught in business seminars and university classrooms for many years is outlined below.  The three circles are for 1) Personal Self-Awareness and Knowledge 2) “Your” Knowledge and Awareness about Others, and 3) Applying culturally competent strategies informed by self-and other- awareness and knowledge to behaviors. In other words, neither you nor I can engage in culturally competent behaviors unless we have an informed and open mind about ourselves and others.

Any organization committed to ensuring a culture of DEI should strive to develop a foundation of multicultural competency. Does the organization encourage a supportive atmosphere where employees can examine and articulate values and biases that contribute to cultural miscommunications or behavioral conflicts? Are there mechanisms in place that allow employees to learn about colleagues’ cultural realities and how their cultural differences impact the workplace?  Is the organization committed to ongoing staff development for enhancing employee skills that promote an inclusive work environment?

The ultimate goal of this paradigm and the answers to the above questions is to enhance workplace relationships, performance, employee self-efficacy, and workplace climate.  With attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in organizations, a cultural competency development paradigm is one pathway to create workplaces that value difference and inclusive diversity and increase equity and inclusion when it comes to employee selection, promotion, and reward. Over the years, we have infused cultural competencies into communications training, leadership development, and of course, diversity management planning. In contemporary society, the importance of leveraging cultural competency practices in professional and personal encounters is essential. We are constantly engaged in interpersonal connections with individuals from a range of different backgrounds and experiences, and in different settings. Even when we believe we have something in common with another because of their ethnic heritage, we could be very surprised to find otherwise. Workplace cross cultural encounters require adaptability of thinking and behavior. So how to proceed? What are your thoughts?

*Dr. Patricia Arredondo, is President of AAG and Dr. Courtland Lee is an AAG Senior Consultant.

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  • Manuel Media September 17, 2019   Reply →

    Hola Dra. Arredondo, this is MedinaI am so glad that you continue this important work to make our respective professions a healthier place in the world. I myself am trying to find the time and courage to start a local Charter for Compassion. I am preparing a diversity training on Chicanx issues in the behavioral health for the Stewart Integrated Health in Arizona. one of the subjects I am attempting to address is self awareness of our biases and internalized racism. Trying to tease out the Concepts of Socially Constructed Reality- Unconscience Bias, Micro aggressions- Racism-and institutional Racism for a train of clinicians. Wish me luck. Feliz Dies Y Seis .

    • Patricia M Arredondo October 12, 2019   Reply →

      Hello Dr. Medina,

      Your work is very creative and powerful. I wish you well with the focus you are pursuing with clinicians. Let us connect in Phoenix some time soon.


  • Freddy A. Paniagua September 17, 2019   Reply →

    Excellent summary/paper. I would suggest to add references when available.

  • Patricia M Arredondo October 12, 2019   Reply →

    Thank you Freddy!


  • Steve Galloway January 7, 2020   Reply →

    Dr. Arredondo:
    Appreciate your thoughts and detailed study and development of a practical cultural competency model. I’ve been extremely interested in the cultural competency development of executive/leadership coaches. The work of a coach is to ultimately help their clients engage and leverage their full selves in positive and fulfilling ways. In many ways we expose the client’s self imposed barriers and limitations, as well as those experienced externally. I contend that in order to effectively help someone achieve experiences of their best selves, I as the coach should first be aware of the things that limit my understanding of myself and others. I think this is especially relevant in today’s rapidly changing multicultural world and workplace.

    I’d love to learn more about the application of your cultural competency model and share thoughts on how it can be incorporated into the executive/leadership coaching discipline.

    Take good care, and thank you!

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