Intercultural Competence – Can it be measured?

While in Tallinn I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Milton Bennett’s speech: “Culture is not like an Iceberg, and Competence is not like Intelligence: The Ravages of Reification in Intercultural Theory & Research”[1]. As expected the temperature in the room directly rose and animated discussions followed the presentation. What sparked so many reactions was the fact that Dr. Bennett pointed towards the idea that intercultural competence is not a ‘thing’  – and therefore cannot be measured and/or ranked – as one cannot assume that it is normally distributed within a given population.

In his recent Blog post: “The Mismeasure of Intercultural Competence” he even goes a little further drawing a parallel between intelligence (IQ) and Intercultural Competence (IC). He says: “IQ was (…) devised as a system to rank people in terms of how much g[2] they had, and it is still with us today. The point here is that g (and consequently IQ) has no identifiable existence outside of our measurement.” When originally observing Intercultural Competence in behavior, whereby some people obviously had more of it than others, we directly assumed that the ones “(…) more competent had some set of measurable inherent qualities and characteristics that accounted for their competence”, hence something that could be measured.

One can easily understand why these statements cause so many reactions… it leaves HR professionals, trainers, coaches, consultants etc. with a big ‘question mark’, meaning a gap where the traditional measurement tools normally would have been situated. Exactly as in other domains – like communications for example – if you cannot prove in numbers how the situation was before your intervention and where it stands after, how can you show the ROI and show your value to the organization?

Concerning IQ, it is generally assumed that it is not the only factor determining how well a person will function in international or national teams, with employees or as a manager/supervisor. Whereas technical skills are important, different ways are found nowadays to express a persons’ skill levels; emotional intelligence with its different aspects for instance, well described by Daniel Goleman, is one example of a ‘new’ way of analyzing people’s competences when working together.

I guess in the case of Intercultural Competence, new ways have to be found to express how well a person adapts and others don’t. Certainly interesting new ground for research!




[1] You can find his slides here

[2] General Intelligence Factor

What a journey: Intercultural Communications at its best!

Trail in Temperate Rainforest

Here I am again after three wonderful days in Italy; I have to say that I very rarely participated in a course where I felt completely at home and at the same time challenged by the subject. I honestly thought I knew a lot about intercultural communications and had to find out that much of what I actually knew needed to be seen in a completely different light and from a different angle. Did you know for example that following Dr. Milton J. Bennett:

  • Culture is an observational category constructed for the purpose of identifying various ways of coordinating meaning or action among people interacting within a boundary.
  • People within the boundaries see themselves as part of that culture.
  • Cultural identity is constructed by associating self-boundary with one or more cultural boundaries.
  • Culture as such does not exist in individuals; culture is a social phenomenon that exists in groups of people.

I therefore learned that because of my upbringing and background, I identify with different cultural groups, i.e. to name just a few:

  • European
  • Female
  • German/French

I also learned that stereotypes as “characteristics of society” don’t exist for groups or societies as they can only be applied to a particular type of person or thing. What we do see though are so-called generalizations, i.e. statements concerning the probability of a certain behavior in a certain context (the probability of patterns of behavior).

To give you one example: Americans have a higher probability of being individualists whereas Chinese have a higher probability of being collectivists; there are always deviants in the middle of the spectrum to which the probability does not apply. There can hence also be Chinese which are individualists and Americans who are collectivists.

I will definitely do my homework and read through all the materials that I have received so that I can already apply its principles to my day-to-day work. I will also certainly continue on that road as I really feel that the journey has just begun! Thank you IDRinstitute!