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A Simple Guide to Cultural Competence

Mohan is a family physician and a postgraduate associate dean working in the UK. He has a keen interest in self-regulated learning.

A simple guide to cultural competence

A simple guide to cultural competence

Why Cultural Competence?

We live, learn and work in a multicultural environment. We trust our intrinsic humanity and good nature as we pride ourselves on being curious and tolerant of other cultures. Yet, we interact, try to teamwork, make assessments, and judge behaviours and attitudes based on our frameworks without always considering the cultural context. A better understanding of individual cultures and the context that individuals bring to their educational and work spaces can only strengthen our organisations.

What is culture? It is a learned set of shared interpretations about beliefs, values and norms that affect the behaviours of a relatively large group of people1

Many global industry leaders include cultural competence in their leadership, management and employee training. Many educators who handle multicultural classrooms are showing an increasing awareness of the competencies required to get the best out of their diverse learners.

Culture is a medium that touches and alters all aspects of human life, including personality, how people express themselves, how they emote, the way they think, how they move, and how problems are solved2.

The diversity wheel

The diversity wheel

Journey of Discovery

I grew up in South India and now live and work in the United Kingdom. Over the past twenty-five years, I have experienced the similarities and differences in the culturally diverse population that I have encountered. I am constantly energised by the value of such cultural diversity as a strength-based relationship; I am also equally wary of the misunderstandings and misperceptions that can lead to stereotyping and create mutual bias.

While a lot of cultural awareness grows from exposure and interaction, defining the core principles of cultural competence can only help. This helps us to look at how we develop this in everyone - whether they have or have not grown up or worked in a culturally diverse setting.

As a physician, educator and health care leader, I find meaningful cultural contexts in everyday interactions. This made me reflect and look up the fundamentals of cultural competency - what is it, how do we develop it in ourselves and others, and how do we benefit from it and move on to excellence.

As a physician, educator and a health care leader, I find meaningful cultural contexts in everyday interactions. This made me reflect and look up the fundamentals of cultural competence: what is it, how do we develop it in ourselves and others and how do we benefit from it ...

Benefits of diversity from pwc

Benefits of diversity from pwc

Why Diversity Matters

Before we move on to cultural competence, perhaps it is worth dwelling on why diversity matters. The world is growing multicultural and benefits from the cultural confluence. We enjoy the food, the music, the trade opportunities, and the mutual learning and thrive in a world that is increasingly growing closer and more inclusive.

However, in times of strife, economic downturn and Global unrest, it is inevitable that fear and anti-diversity sentiments can surface from time to time in communities.

Thankfully today's successful organisations thrive on diversity as we work in a Global marketplace. There is evidence to say diversity and inclusion can benefit us individually and organisationally.

Diversity exists on various levels and is broadly categorised as primary, secondary, organisational and cultural - There is a visible primary dimension that encompasses age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and mental and physical abilities. A secondary dimension arises from religion, education, geographic location, relationship, appearance, working styles, learning styles, language and family status.3

Further dimensions can exist in workplace status, management level, experience, and department and are collectively called organisational diversity. Structure, flexibility, communication styles, time, being or doing, power and authority, body language, conflict resolution preferences, individual or team preferences and even body language can represent cultural diversity.

This helps us to understand that when we talk about culturally diverse populations, we are not just talking about the obvious divides of race, ethnicity and religion; we can still be of the same race, same religion and same gender and be culturally diverse due to our upbringing and our formative/educational experiences.

...when we talk about culturally diverse populations, we are not just talking the obvious divides of race, ethnicity, nationality and religion. We can be of the same race, same religion, same nation and still be culturally diverse...

Elements of cultural competence

Elements of cultural competence

What Is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence can be defined in numerous ways. Simply put, it is a set of values, beliefs, behaviours, skills and policies that comes together to enable us to work effectively in cross-cultural situations. In 1989 Cross et al. defined attitudes, structures and policies that enable an individual and an organisation to achieve cultural competence. The paper outlines five essential elements that contribute to the development of cultural competence4.

  1. Valuing diversity
  2. Having the capacity for cultural self-assessment
  3. Being conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact
  4. Having institutionalised cultural knowledge
  5. Having developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting an understanding of cultural diversity

In healthcare, cultural competence can be described as the ability of systems to provide care to patients with diverse values, beliefs and behaviours, including tailoring delivery to meet patients’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs5.

The elements of cultural competence can be broadly defined as firstly an awareness that enables a cultural self -assessment, a sensitivity and understanding of cultural interactions, the knowledge of different cultural norms and the skills to communicate, problem solve, educate and teamwork effectively in a culturally diverse setting.

The many dimensions of culture

The many dimensions of culture

What Does It Mean to Me?

Whether you are a healthcare professional, social care worker, educator or simply anyone who works in a multicultural environment, it is worth reflecting on the question: what does cultural competence mean to me?

From my own personal experience, there perhaps has been institutional fatigue to the concept of equality and diversity - this has become an organisational cliché - a dusty policy manual filed away after being signed by everyone. The term 'mandatory training' is another much-used phrase- this can further endanger an individual's willingness to reflect on cultural diversity.

The desire to become culturally competent should be intrinsic. While extrinsic factors- the needs of the job, the pressures of working multiculturally, and the demands of the organisation may well signpost us to the possibilities of cultural competence.

However, it is the innate desire to understand, share, learn from each other, celebrate multi-culturalism and seek out the diversity that will enable us to truly become culturally competent.

Diversity in the workplace can contribute to different ways of thinking.

Diversity in the workplace can contribute to different ways of thinking. is the innate desire to understand, share, learn from each other, celebrate multiculturalism and seek out diversity that will enable us to truly become culturally competent.

Cultural Competence Continuum

One only has to look at the media and the political winds that blow to sense the dissonance that exists in the world of understanding cultural diversity and embracing variety. Whatever one's views are about immigration, borders and political divides, cultural isolation is not a solution. Cross-cultural transactions enrich, energise, enlighten, enthuse and empower people.

A person may start anywhere in the cultural competence continuum based on their beliefs, values, cultural attitudes, prior learning, upbringing and prior exposure to diverse backgrounds.

At the extreme left of the continuum is cultural destructiveness, where bias, intolerance and racism exist. However, many of us may exist in the zones of cultural incapacity, cultural blindness or cultural sensitivity.

Moving from sensitivity to competence and then on to proficiency requires reflection, self-evaluation and skill development.

Yet, not many of us actively seek to become culturally proficient as part of a larger development plan. In the world without borders, many of us choose to work abroad, travel wide, converse and interact daily with varying cultures. It is as good a time as any to set our goals at cultural proficiency.

A cultural competence continuum adapted from The Healthcare Professionals Guide to Clinical Cultural Competence by Rani Srivastava

A cultural competence continuum adapted from The Healthcare Professionals Guide to Clinical Cultural Competence by Rani Srivastava

Setting Standards

In many developed countries, the professional group that is engaged in such culturally diverse conversations on a day-to-day basis are social workers. Their vocations take them into the heart of communities, and their cultural competency is vital to an engaged client base and enables problem-solving.

The National Association of Social Workers compiled a set of standards and indicators for a culturally competent workforce. Many of the themes I have outlined below are gleaned from their excellent handbook7.

Moving from cultural sensitivity to competence and then on to proficiency requires self reflection, self evaluation and skill development...

Standards and Indicators for cultural Competence in Social Work Practice ( 2005) The National Association of Social Workers

Standards and Indicators for cultural Competence in Social Work Practice ( 2005) The National Association of Social Workers

Goals and Objectives

The NASW set out ten standards for their social workers towards cultural competency7. This set of standards forms a firm foundation for cultural competence. In this context, cultural competence is the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to increase the quality of services, thereby producing better outcomes. As a physician and educator, I find these contexts in day-to-day patient care and in educating learners from multicultural backgrounds.

Standards for Cultural Competence

Adapted from the National Association of Social Workers' Standards and Indicators for Cultural competence.


Ethics and Values

An individual, a group or an organisation needs to set a code of values and ethics. They need to ensure that their existing codes of practice have a clarity in dealing with culturally diverse themes, staff and clients. These sets of values need to be embraced, internalised and celebrated. The Hippocratic oath and the Good Medical Practice guide already contain key principles of equity. In the cultural competence context it goes further into commitment, shared vision and cultural humility.



Self Awareness

Awareness of one's own cultural identity, a tolerance to different view point, a growth mindset and ability to reflect on personal strengths and development needs. Also approaching a diverse culture with no sense of ' Let us fix them' superiority is vital



Cross Cultural Knowledge

Having a specialised knowledge of history, traditions, rituals, values , family systems , artistic expressions of the cultural groups and cross cultural communication.



Cross Cultural Skills

Ability to communicate, activate and negotiate with various clients ( patients, learners, employees etc.) and using cultural understanding to problem solve.



Service Delivery

Using networks of support specifically available to cultural groups, making appropriate referrals and signposting. Identifying gaps in support systems in order to address them.



Empowerment and Advocacy

Understanding how policies and procedures can impact on diverse cultural groups, ensuring equity of law while protecting the groups from discrimination. Helping develop policies and protocols that aid and enable.



Diverse Wokforce

Support, advocate and promote a workforce that is representative of the population it serves and encourage development of marginal groups that may not seek certain roles within the systems.



Professional Development

Cultural competence is not just a solitary milestone. We need to sign up to a continuing professional development , a programme of learning in and out of the job and ongoing development of proficiency.



Language and Communication

This is a two way conduit. We need to ensure the means and methods we use ot communciate are fit for purpose to the groups that we communciate with while at the same time ensuring our communciation skills are constantly developed as we facilitate the development those of the groups we onteract with.




We need to commit to being change agents, where 'things that have gone before' are not just taken on at face value but are scrutinised, refined, updated and new pathways developed towards a culturally proficient team and organisation.

Cultural competence is not just a solitary milestone. We need to sign up to a journey of continuing professional development; a programme of learning in and out of the job and an ambition towards proficiency...


Cultural Humility

Whether it is between doctors/ patients, teachers/students, social workers/ families, races, religions, or majority or minority groups, there is always an inevitable power differential that can lead to cultural superiority from one against the other.

Good physicians approach patient-centred care with the humility that the patient knows their bodies much better and offers insight and professional advise in a patient-centred, contextualised holistic context. Good teachers adopt a strength-based approach and learn as much from their students as they teach. Social workers work closely with families and understand them before offering unsolicited advice.

An important factor in professional identity is cultural humility. This encourages self evolvement and self-evaluation as much as evaluating those we interact with. We do not judge others by our contexts without fully understanding what the cultural context is. A non (m)paternalistic approach creates better therapeutic, learning and mutually beneficial partnerships.

Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, to redressing the power imbalances in the patient/physician dynamic, and to developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic clinical and advocacy partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations8

As a Physician I see that large-scale evidence-based medicine can overwhelm individuality. I always treat each person in front of me as unique. They bring their own culture, opinions, fears, expectations, personal narratives and ideas that I need to explore. This help me listen and arrive at a mutually beneficial therapeutic relationship.

— Mohan Kumar

Humility is thinking of yourself less.

Humility is thinking of yourself less.

A Journey

The word journey is a much-used cliché. Everyone has a journey. In its original meaning, it meant a distant covered in a day ( French: jour-nee)

In the context of cultural competence, it is indeed a journey. Not just one of a day, but one of many days, months and years. We grow, we assimilate, and we get skilled in dealing with others not like us. The journey of a thousand miles still starts with that first step. The willingness and desire to embrace all cultures and to develop skills of teaching, working with and treating all, irrespective of their colour, creed, or cultural origins.

This needs to be the universal motto if we are to move to a truly global outlook. One World. One vision.


1Lustig, M. W., and Koester, J. (2003). Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication across cultures. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2Samovar, L.A., and Porter, R. E. (1991). Communication between cultures. California : Wadsworth.

3Schaefer, R.T. (2011). Racial and Ethnic Groups (12th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ : Pearson

4Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M., (1989). Towards A Culturally Competent System of Care, Volume I. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.

5Betancourt, J., Green, A. & Carrillo, E. (2002). Cultural competence in health care: Emerging frameworks and practical approaches. The Commonwealth Fund.

6 Srivastava, R. RN, PHD. (2007) The Healthcare Professionals Guide to Clinical Cultural Competence.Toronto : Mosby

7 Standards and Indicators for cultural Competence in Social Work Practice ( 2005) The National Association of Social Workers. USA : NASW

8 Tervalon, M., & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9(2), 117–125

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Mohan Kumar


Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on November 14, 2016:

Thank you- Been teaching cultural competence in various guises for sometime now. As you say it has become more relevant in these days of xenophobia than ever before. Cultural sensitivity and humility can be a lot subtler too, there are still nuances to pick up even without worrying about the extremes..

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 12, 2016:

A very timely topic given all that is going on in US politics. I used to teach diversity and EEO and found that you really can't easily change diversity and inclusion attitudes if people have been hating specific other groups since childhood, but you can require as a condition of employment certain behaviors. Ultimately, the wallet wins and people's choices will come around.