Why cross-cultural competency is among the 10 most important skills of the future

Cross-cultural competency has been named among the 10 most important skills for the future workforce by the Institute for the Future.

The center identifies a “globally connected world” as one of the six main drivers of structural change for the global workforce among other factors such as a rise of smart machines and systems, the development of the world as a programmable system and the rise of the new media ecology.

Innovation becomes more and more dependent on the collaboration between actors from very different backgrounds who combine their own expertise to create something new. This happens both on an individual- as well as on an institutional level.

Especially in an economy where the large majority of the work can be done by computational systems and smart machines, the primary role of human beings is to use their creativity to solve problems in novel ways.

Research has long shown that diversity of thought increases creativity and, with it, the innovation potential of both teams and corporations.

As such, the organizations of the future will be forced to work more and more closely with people and institutional partners from all over the world in order to bring as many different perspectives and areas of expertise together as possible.

Cross-cultural competency is the key enabling factor of working in diverse teams

The main problem of working in diverse teams is that it is a double-edged sword.

While it can increase the number of ideas generated due to a variety of different perspectives coming together to solve a single problem, it can also lead to higher levels of conflict than what is found in conventional teams.

If team members are unable to set aside their differences and communicate in an effective way that generates mutual understanding, bringing together all the best minds in the world simply won’t have a positive effect on the team’s creative problem-solving ability.

Conflict in itself may not be such a big problem if it can lead to the creation of mutual understanding.

In fact, it is productive conflict which allows team members to reflect on each other’s different point of views and ultimately find a way to create synergy between their different perspectives in order to create a novel solution to a problem.

The problem arises when team members lack the cross-cultural competency to:

  • put themselves into the perspective of the other side
  • understand the different values, beliefs and assumptions that are at play from the other side
  • communicate their point of view effectively to the other side
  • work towards an integration of the different perspectives in order to create a new solution for the problem
  • resolve conflicts in a productive way as opposed to leading to negative emotional reactions

When a group of people with a purely mono-cultural perspective on the world come together, they are likely to simply end up asking themselves:

“ what’s wrong with these people?”

When a group of people with cross-cultural competence come together, however, something amazing happens.

They help each other to question their assumptions about the issue at hand. They introduce each other to completely new ways of thinking. They work together in order to solve problems in ways that have never been attempted before.

Ultimately, they are able to “merge” their different worldviews into a “third” way of thinking beyond the constraints of each individual’s cultural conditioning.

Cross-cultural competency will no longer be something that is only important for expatriates

In the near future, it will be hard to find a work-team that only consists of people from a single cultural background.

Different countries have different specializations and their very own areas of expertise. For that reason, it will become more and more necessary for companies to “import” expertise in certain areas of knowledge from people all over the world.

Furthermore, production lines will become more and more internationally integrated with one another, leading to the inevitable exposure of people to people from other cultural backgrounds.

I have written this elsewhere, but it is important to recognize that this constant exposure to other cultures is actually something that goes against human nature.

Photo Credit: Racha Adit (Al Arabiya News)

Let’s face it: at the time when we were still living in tribes, nobody would have ever been happy about cultural diversity. At that time, it was either “fight” or “flight”.

Kill or be killed.

For that reason, the “us” versus “them” thinking has been so strongly ingrained into our psyche.

When we meet somebody from a culture other than our own, we are more likely to unconsciously regard them as our enemies than as somebody to learn something new from.

Even if we are not consciously aware of this tendency, it is nonetheless something that influences our thinking.

For that reason, there are several factors which are really important for people who want to be successful in the globally connected marketplace of the future:

  • having extensive experience in working with people from other cultural backgrounds
  • shifting our mindset from national to international — redefining which groups we belong to (“I am an international citizen” as opposed to “I am German”)
  • developing intercultural empathy — i.e. the ability to put ourselves into the perspective of somebody from a different cultural background
  • understanding how cultural systems work — the values, beliefs and assumptions underlying the behavior of people from any particular culture
  • having a high degree of cognitive complexity — the ability to hold seemingly opposing ideas in your head and integrate them into something new

So, what are the next steps?

For individuals: make a plan on how you yourself can develop cross-cultural skills. Even if you do not have the ability right now to move to another country, there are always ways to get more exposure to other ways of thinking. Have a look at the list of skills outlined in this article and think step-by-step on how you can develop them yourself.

For companies: I recommend developing a strategy on how to increase the cross-cultural competence among your existing workforce and include it as a skill in your hiring strategy.


If you found this article useful, please do 👏 and share it with your friends.

Also, feel free to check out my upcoming book titled “Becoming Intercultural: how to adapt to any culture quickly” if you are interested in more in-depth strategies on how to develop cross-cultural competency. You can pre-purchase the book by clicking here.