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Bicultural professionals and the organisations within which they work, are often unaware of what biculturalism is nor how ‘bicultural competent professionals’ unique skills could deliver a cultural competitive edge for business.
A ‘bicultural’ is an individual who identifies with two (or more) different cultures. This person has internalised more than one set of cultural values, beliefs and behaviour which we also refer to as ‘cultural frames’. This person may identify with one or more cultural frames because one or both parents come from different countries. Alternatively, the individual may have been raised in, or spent an extensive period of time in another country or region. To manage the complexities of multiple cultural frames requires a deeper understanding of culture itself. Where an individual has knowledge of another culture without identifying with that culture through family connections or personal experiences, he or she is not considered bicultural. Biculturalism most certainly creates opportunities for businesses to tap into the direct benefits of leveraging the unique bicultural skills.
Although bicultural professionals may learn to enjoy their multiple cultural identities (e.g. when travelling for pleasure), most are unaware that their suppressed cultural knowledge and related skills or abilities are important. This makes it difficult for them to use their cultural abilities within the workplace. There are a number of reasons behind biculturals lacking awareness about their potential skills/abilities:
We came across a situation where a Chinese-born woman, raised and educated in the United States, was expatriated to Singapore to manage a multicultural team with a majority of Singaporean-Chinese locals for an US IT company. Within six months of the move, five of the 12 people in the team had resigned and another three people were looking for new jobs. The manager lasted less than a year in her position in Singapore and was subsequently moved to a different role back in the US.
The remaining team members, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, indicated that the manager used a management style that was de-motivating. She apparently alienated the Chinese staff within the office and her style appeared to create conflict. Although the manager looked Chinese, she had no cultural identification with Chinese culture because most of her upbringing and most of her connections were in the US.
Although mapping and bridging cultural differences can be learned relatively quickly, integrating cultural knowledge is more difficult and requires extensive cultural competence. The manager in Singapore did not possess this extensive cultural competence which hindered her in her role.
Developing new practices based on integrating cultural knowledge to ‘close’ cultural gaps requires the ability to identify closely with the other culture. Biculturals seem to have that ability.
According to a Bicultural Competence model (Hong 2010), when an individual displays bicultural competence, they have the ability to draw upon cultural specific knowledge that is both explicit such as history, political, economical, and social structures; and tacit such as cultural values, beliefs and behaviours. At the same time, they possess cross-cultural abilities such as behaviour adaptability and cross-cultural communication skills to be able to effectively switch language, understand social scripts and apply verbal and non-verbal behaviour – all based on cues from the environment. This constant cultural frame switching positively impacts the individual’s ability in that they have a higher level accuracy when it comes to perceiving the actions of others during cultural experiences. Those with bicultural competence pay more attention to new cultural cues and tend to behave more appropriately in cultural interactions. Within organisations, biculturals are predicted to:
In another expatriate situation, an Australian manager was on assignment in India to manage a project team to develop a new platform for their Information Technology solutions. During the first meeting, the manager casually gave an example of one type of new platform. A few weeks later, at a point when the project had gone over time and over budget, the manager discovered that the team had understood his casual remark to be a directive to use that particular platform, even though that was not the intention. Although the ‘fit’ of the new platform was not ideal, the team had worked hard to make it fit.
If the Australian manager or even if one of the team members had been biculturally competent, the initial casual comment from the initial project meeting would not have been made by the manager in the first place and the team member would have recognised the comment as being an off-hand comment rather than a directive.
Bicultural professionals are a growing, yet under-utilised resource within the workforce that can play an important role in integrating cultures, bridging gaps, building team trust, and enhance the communication. Organisations are advised to identify biculturals in their businesses and offer them opportunities to enhance their bicultural skills. People possessing bicultural abilities can then be recruited for roles where they can act as a boundary spanner, mediator, link pin, or catalyst.
Biculturally competent professionals will likely become highly sought after members of the global talent pool when the global businesses start recognising them for their capability to deliver a cultural competitive edge.
Hong H J, 2010, ‘Bicultural Competence and its Impact on Team Effectiveness’, International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, April, 10(1): 93-120.
Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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