Cultural Competence vs. Cultural Humility

by | Jan 12, 2021

Organizations are generally more culturally aware today than they were even a year ago. Or, at least, more leaders are aware that they need to be more culturally aware. Cultural competence and cultural humility are terms which have started to come up regularly in our professional conversations. Are we moving in the right direction?

What do we mean when we talk about cultural competence vs cultural humility? What are the differences between them and why do they matter for successful leadership? Finally, how can we put them into practice so that they benefit our leaders, team members and organizations?

What is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence means that you have done the work required to understand key aspects of cultural communities other than your own. I use the term cultural community deliberately here rather than culture, because cultures arise not only around shared geographic location, ethnicity or spiritual affiliation. They also manifest around gender identity, sexual orientation, social causes, politics, hobbies and interests too. And they are intersectional. Most of us identify with more than one cultural community simultaneously and which ones we identify with can shift over the course of our lifetimes.

To remain culturally competent, you make an ongoing effort to increase your exposure to, learn about, and understand other cultural communities. You accomplish this through online research, reading articles and books authored by actual community members, engaging directly with members of the community, and traveling to new places. And you approach all of these activities in the spirit of what we call “appreciative inquiry.

When you’ve worked to develop cultural competence:

  • You typically have more empathy and respect for the concerns of others
  • You have a broader lens through which you can understand a “people problem” and greater openness to consider different solutions and approaches to resolving it
  • You tend to be more patient
  • You are less likely to commit microaggressions
  • Things that might have seemed weird and off putting to you before seem less so once you know more

Cultural Competence Enhances Leadership

Cultural competence is an important baseline skill for leadership today. The truth is, when we are managing a more diverse workforce, and saying that we are committed to making it even more diverse, people can tell very quickly if we mean to include their cultural community.

We give ourselves away all the time with the language we use (or don’t use) and how (and if) we respond to questions and concerns people raise. As humans, we’re wired to notice people who seem to be like us, and those are the people who we feel we can be both safe and comfortable with. If they seem to be like us or to have some familiarity with us, we feel safer and more relaxed around them. When culturally competent leaders can meet us where we are, we’re more relaxed and engaged. Candid communication and building relationships based on trust is a lot easier.

The end goal of cultural competence for leaders isn’t mastery—it’s openness and understanding. Remember that the lived experience of someone who identifies with a particular cultural community is always the most important perspective in the room. Even if you have read 10 different books about being Black in America or being transgender, (which would be fantastic if you do, by the way), that does not give you claim to the title of an expert in either.

This can be hard for leaders to wrap their heads around, because we’ve been taught that if we study something long enough and practice our skills enough, then we can earn “expert” status. And, if we are working in an organization where our expectation of leadership is that our top leader is the one who has to know more than anyone else, a mindset shift is required.

The bottom line is, leader = expert doesn’t hold true when it comes to cultural competence. If we’re not from a culture, we cannot truly become “the” expert in it. And, knowing that we won’t ever get to claim “expert’ status when it comes to cultural communities that we do not identify with does not mean we throw up our hands in dismay and abandon the effort to become culturally competent. The work many of us need to do as leaders, now, is essentially about making peace with the both/and.

What is Cultural Humility?

Cultural humility goes a step further than cultural competence and it’s both harder to find and harder to develop. Cultural humility is not only making the effort to understand and appreciate other cultural communities; it’s de-centering your own. In other words, understanding that even if you might be considered a member of the “default culture,” which in the U.S. centers and privileges white, cisgendered, heterosexual males, you take active steps to “un-default” it.

Cultural humility demands a deeper level of self-awareness and intention than cultural competence. We all fundamentally feel the way we think is the right way to think. It’s part of our default programming. So to unlearn that and come up with new mindsets takes time, energy and practice. Ideally, this would result in working to identify your own unconscious biases, develop cultural competence, and then actively work to correct power and privilege driven imbalances and injustices within your sphere of influence.

Cultural humility is a kind of new leadership superpower. It allows us to both see the often- invisible-to-us-but-not-to-others curtain of dominant culture and start to move it aside. The goal isn’t disruption for disruption’s sake, it is achieving real equity of opportunity and influence so that everyone in an organization can thrive. It is trusting, as a leader, in the abundant goldmine of talent that resides within each individual and every team and creating the conditions that will bring that fully to the surface.

What do cultural competence and cultural humility look like in practice?

As important as building cultural competence and humility are, it doesn’t mean you abandon the use of policies, standardized processes or accountability structures in an organization.

The idea is not that there are no rules, standards or boundaries; it’s saying that we can evaluate and adjust our existing policies, processes and accountability structures so that they better serve us. And, we can leverage cultural competence and cultural humility when we’re making decisions about creating new ones.

For example, many organizations have maintained strict policies about how you can wear your hair. The impact of these policies—whether stated explicitly or not – has been that if you’re a person of color, you can’t wear hair the way that it naturally grows out of your head or style it in certain ways. Where that stems from is that it makes people from the dominant (white) culture uncomfortable, and it’s been a problem for a long time.

If you’re practicing cultural humility, you don’t create policies like this or you revise them, Imposing a policy like that on a Black woman, for example, essentially tells her, “you have to code switch; you can’t bring your whole self to work; we have a different set of requirements for you than your white co-worker.”

It’s not that we don’t all have to groom ourselves for work. We do have to be well-groomed in most workplace environments but rather the way we define “well-groomed” should be called into question. Biases in organizational policies and processes can be found everywhere, and it’s not just hair that’s an issue.

There’s a teacher in France with a LOT of face and body tattoos; even to the extent that he had the whites of his eyes surgically turned blue. Because parents thought he was disturbing-looking, he was removed from his job teaching kindergarten. Was that fair, or not?

These are interesting and difficult debates to have. But it’s important for creating more equity and inclusion that we be willing to have them.

What now?

Most of us don’t get to cultural competence, let alone cultural humility. For a lot of reasons, most leaders are still in a zone of being oblivious around all of that.

However, when it comes to successful leaders and organizations, does it serve you better to be culturally competent? Most of the time, we can absolutely make the case for “yes.” Should we also try to cultivate cultural humility? I think the answer is also, “yes.”

Cultural competence and humility are both powerful and practical for leaders and managers, but they require us to extend ourselves. They don’t develop automatically, just by sitting where you are. You commit to growing these superpowers through action and intention.

Take the time to educate yourself as much as possible and examine your own biases. Be open to others’ lived experiences and talk to leaders and team members in your organization to see what they have to say. Consider whether the policies in your organization are fair, welcoming and respectful when viewed from the perspective of cultural communities outside of your own. If they are not, engage members of these communities with you in your work to change them.

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