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Bicultural Competent Professionals Deliver a Competitive Edge

Bicultural Competent Professionals Deliver a Competitive Edge

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Both bicultural professionals and the organisations within they work, are too often unaware of what biculturalism is, nor how bicultural competent professionals deliver a competitive edge for their business.

What Is a Bicultural Person?

A ‘bicultural’ is an individual who identifies with two (or more) different cultures. It might be that one or both parents come from different countries, or they have been raised in another country or region. The bicultural has therefore internalised more than one set of cultural values, or so called ‘cultural frames’. A person who has extensive knowledge of another culture but does not identify with that culture – through family connections or personal experiences – is not considered bicultural person.

Although bicultural people may learn to enjoy their multiple cultural identities (e.g., when travelling for pleasure), most are unaware that their latent cultural knowledge and related abilities are important in a professional environment. There are several reasons why bicultural professionals and organisations might be lacking awareness about bicultural potential abilities:

  1. biculturals often feel inadequate with regards to specific knowledge expected of them such as language, demographics, politics, history, etc.
  2. biculturals often take cultural knowledge for granted.
  3. organisations that employ biculturals are often unaware of their cultural knowledge and abilities unless it is documented in a resume or discussed in an interview.
  4. organisations often confuse ethnicity with country-specific understanding and or identification.
Bicultural Professional Case study – the Chinese American manager

We came across a situation where a female American manager from Chinese ancestry was expatriated to Singapore to manage a multicultural team. The team consisted of mostly Chinese (from Singapore, China, and Hong Kong), a few Vietnamese and Australians members for an US IT company. Within eight months of her move, seven of the 12 members in the team had resigned and another three people were looking for new jobs. In the end, the manager lasted less than a year in her managerial position in Singapore. She was subsequently moved to a different role back in the US.

According to exit interviews with Chinese team members and feedback from remaining Australian team members, the manager used a management style that was demotivating to certain staff members. Also, her direct style created distrust and miscommunication in meetings and alienated staff from China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Although the manager looked Chinese, she had no cultural identification with the Chinese culture because her upbringing, her education and most of her connections were in the US.

Mapping cultural differences can be learned relatively quickly by enhancing a persons’ cultural knowledge. However, bridging and integrating cultural gaps is much more difficult because it requires a certain level of intercultural competence. Although the Chinese American manager could be seen as a bicultural person, she did not possess the required intercultural competence to apply cultural frame switching. Or in other words, she did not have the capacity of a bicultural competent professional. Unfortunately, organisations often confuse ethnicity with country-specific understanding and cultural identification.

Identify and Benefit from Bicultural Competence

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, economic, 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.

How can bicultural competent professionals benefit organisations?

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:

  • excel in roles such as boundary spanners and mediators in multicultural teams,
  • act as a bridge between organisational departments in culturally different contexts, or
  • be catalysts for creativity and innovation because of their cognitive complexity and ability to develop new (and often synergistic) practices to integrate cultural gaps.

Biculturalism therefor creates opportunities for businesses because they can tap into the direct benefits of leveraging this unique bicultural ability.  Bicultural professionals are a growing, yet under-utilised resource within multicultural teams: they can play an important role in building trust, enhance communication, and negotiate culturally appropriate work practices. 

Bicultural professionals are a growing, yet under-utilised resource within multicultural teams.

Organisations therefore are strongly advised to identify bicultural professionals and offer them opportunities to further develop and apply bicultural competence. Bicultural competent professionals will become highly sought-after members of the talent pool when 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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