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5 Steps from Cultural Ignorance to Cultural Savvy

5 Steps from Cultural Ignorance to Cultural Savvy

Sporting its own fair share of industry models, my favourite cultural model has to be one which outlines the steps between cultural ignorance and cultural savvy.

This model resonates with me on a personal note.  Why?  Well, working in the Oil and Gas industry overseeing project delivery across international teams, I thought I was great at working across cultures. It’s only since leaving and moving into a cultural based role that I can now appreciate that I was very ‘un-savvy’.   

I was guilty of assuming that everyone I worked with would do it ‘my way’ and my cross cultural successes were deemed to be getting what I needed in the ‘right’ format across the teams with whom I worked.  I had no concept of thinking about the position my international peers were coming from and I most certainly had no concept of adapting my approach to get the best out of my interactions.

In honesty, I was probably at Phase Two of the model below. I certainly failed to truly consider cultural differences and I certainly failed to draw contrasts which extended beyond ‘us and them’.  The organisation with whom I worked – despite being a large global, were clearly no more advanced in this thinking than I was. I guess the ‘my way or the highway’ approach underlined much of the work undertaken.

Let’s take a look at the high-level features of this model:

Phases of Intercultural Development

Phase One: My Experience of the World is the World (Ethnocentrism)  

This ubiquitous attitude was arguably the ‘norm’ for Europeans when doing business in the past and is still prevalent in the societies in which we live.   This attitude encompasses an expectation that the only way to do things is ‘my way’. 

The awareness that people might do things differently elsewhere – while getting the same results and sometimes better, does not feature in this mindset. Their understanding of the world can be simply summed up as their experience of the world.

Phase Two: I understand that people might do things differently, but my way is still the best (Ethnocentrism)  

Fundamentally, this phase recognises that people might do things differently. The individuals may have received greater exposure to other cultures via an international workplace, holidays, the media etc.  However, acceptance that ‘other ways’ exist is often perceived by individuals in this phase as threatening. 

To address this threat, the individual operates by way of stereotypes, creating an ‘us and them’ situation which helps to simplify the challenge and mitigate the perceived threat.  Individuals falling into this phase are more likely to denigrate other cultures and believe that their way is the best way. The UK expression ‘my way or the highway’ sums up Phase Two behaviours well.  

“Culturally literate individuals and their intercultural mindsets are essential to the future of global business operations. The competencies these individuals bring to a role are increasingly recognised at the interview table.  A condition of appointment for many international roles is that the individual already possesses a high level of intercultural awareness. Global employers are less likely to accept individuals with an approach that suggests ‘their way’ will be bulldozed into an organisation when working internationally”.
Lubna Husseini, Global Recruitment Consultant

Phase Three: We do things differently (Ethnorelativism)

Individuals who have entered the ethnorelativist stage (appreciating that we are all subject to our own cultural frameworks and that the way in which we all behave is relative to these frameworks) recognise that people do things differently based on their cultural background. They are more likely to take an interest in cultural difference and their understanding of this area enables them to make relevant contrasts between different cultures.

Within the workplace, these individuals are far more likely to champion diversity and to analyse intercultural situations; taking a ‘pick and choose’ approach to identify the best approach for the task at hand.

Phase Four: Adaptation (Ethnorelativism)

Individuals in this phase are far more adept and savvy when working interculturally.  Not only can a Phase Four individuals make contrasts between cultures (as with Phase Three), but they are also able to empathise greatly with cultural difference and use this empathy to change or adapt their behaviour to advance the intercultural situation in which they find themselves. To put more simply, they can see through the eyes of their intercultural peer and appreciate the behaviours or responses expected within the situation.

Their appreciation of cultural constructs means that they can understand a myriad of cultures – they are not limited to only the Western world or Asian world for example.

These individuals are generally good champions of diversity within the workplace and they are more likely to successfully mobilise others and gain their trust – regardless of culture.


Phase Five: Third Culture (Ethnorelativism)

This phase is really the pinnacle of intercultural ability and denotes the phase to which the most successful global managers might strive in their commitment to developing intercultural skills.


In this phase, individuals are so adept at moving between cultures that their own personal sense of cultural identity becomes eroded and they no longer feel that they belong to any one culture. They are equally comfortable within even the most complex cultural settings and have developed the ability to move seamlessly and effortlessly within them.  Such individuals are likely to have extensive expatriate backgrounds – moving between international assignments on a regular basis.  They may also be cultural nomads, moving from country to country for the sake of the move itself and not within an expatriate capacity.

Within the workplace, these individuals do a great job of engaging with a mixed intercultural group to create innovate and new rules which best govern a situation.  In effect, they are helping to create a ‘third culture’; a culture which independently frameworks a situation. This third culture is  not specific to any on culture.  It is unique, relevant and more likely to gain the engagement and understanding of the diverse team in question.

Having looked at this high-level overview of the model, where do you think you sit? If you not where you want to be, and, if you work internationally, then think about how you can continue your journey as cross cultural competence is now well and truly a key recruitment and talent factor for most global organisations.

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