Research Findings: The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace

IC Skills importance
Culture at Work: The value of intercultural skills in the workplace
—A survey conducted by the British Council, Booz Allen Hamilton and Ipsos Public Affairs, of HR managers at 367 large employers in nine countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US)

The Report’s Conclusions

“Our ability to engage successfully with other countries, organisations and people will depend to a large extent on whether we possess the necessary intercultural and foreign language skills to make fruitful connections, whether in trade and investment, charity/NGO programmes or as government and international organisations. This is fundamentally changing the way in which employers value and seek to develop intercultural skills in the workplace.”

“More and more business leaders are identifying real business value in employing staff with intercultural skills. These skills are vital, not just in smoothing international business transactions, but also in developing long term relationships with customers and suppliers. Increasingly they also play a key role within the workplace, enhancing team working, fostering creativity, improving communication and reducing conflict. All this translates into greater efficiency, stronger brand identity, enhanced reputation and ultimately impact on the bottom line.”

“Employers believe that intercultural skills are integral to the workplace.”

“A common challenge shared by employers around the world is finding employees with adequate intercultural skills. Given that the operating environments of all organisations is increasingly global, it comes as no surprise that employers need employees who can understand and adapt to different cultural contexts.”

What is the international reality in the workplace?

The research shows that employees in most large companies surveyed engage in extensive interaction across international borders.

More than two thirds of employers report that their employees engage frequently with colleagues outside of their country, and over half say that their employees engage frequently with partners and clients outside of their country.

Intercultural skills provide business value and help mitigate risk.

The research shows that HR managers associate intercultural skills with significant business benefits. Overall, the organisations surveyed are most interested in intercultural skills for the benefits they bring—benefits that carry significant monetary value to employers:

  • Keeping teams running efficiently
  • Good for reputation
  • Bringing in new clients
  • Building trust with clients
  • Communicating with overseas partners
  • Able to work with diverse colleagues
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased sales

Employers also see significant risk to their organisations when employees lack intercultural skills. Top risks that organisations surveyed are concerned about are:

  • Miscommunication and conflict within teams
  • Global reputational damage
  • Los of clients
  • Cultural insensitivity to clients/partners overseas
  • Project mistakes

How do the organisations surveyed define “intercultural skills”?

The graphic below shows the words employers used, with size of the block equating to frequency of use.


The terms employers use to define intercultural skills
Source: Telephone/face-to-face surveys of public sector, private sector and NGO employers responsible for employment decisions. Base: Ipsos Public Affairs, 2012: Global (n=367).

In particular, employers highlight the following as important intercultural skills that they look for in job candidates:

  • the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • demonstrating respect for others
  • accepting different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • openness to new ideas and ways of thinking
  • knowledge of a foreign language.

How employers rank different skills in terms of importance


Graphic © the original report, with yellow highlights added by Cultural Detective.

How does the research indicate these skills are developed?

Most employers report encouraging their staff to develop intercultural skills through in-house training, meetings and events. However, employers also say that educational institutions could do more to equip students with intercultural skills.

The findings suggest that policy makers and education providers could do more to contribute to the development of a workforce with the necessary intercultural skills through interventions, such as prioritising:

  • teaching communication skills
  • offering foreign language classes
  • availability of opportunities for students to gain international experience
  • development of international research partnerships.

This research suggests that there is significant opportunity for employers, policy makers and education providers to work together to strengthen the development of intercultural skills to meet the needs of an increasingly global workforce.

26 thoughts on “Research Findings: The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace

  1. Thank you Dianne for sharing this research. I think it is important during the new employee onboarding process to have formal training on corporate culture and how it is translated into the specific local or regional culture. It is also important to provide formal education on intercultural communication and emotional intelligence for global managers leading multicultural teams.


    • Yes, what you say is very true, Anne. This research did not appear to include a look at corporate culture; rather it was focused on the skills employers would like employees to have, those that make a difference in the workplace. In that sense it’s a terrific answer to the question about the business case for intercultural.

      It is notable that corporate culture was not mentioned, though of course we all know organizational culture as well as cultural understanding of one’s personal values are so key. Creating a “team culture” is, of course, also crucial to high performance.

      Thank you for joining us here!


      • Dianne,
        Sincere thanks for sharing this research. So much of what we do can seem to be underestimated. It’s always good to get the conversation going around our passion: cultural intelligence. Next is to loo at the complexity of the layers of culture( as you mention): global corporate culture, national, local corporate culture, functional, team, etc.


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    • So glad you find it helpful, Maureen and Donna! Thank you for taking the time to let me know! I must say I enjoy making stuff like that. But I’m one of those “crafters” who likes to know the chachke is getting used! lol Now a video around the layers of culture, Maureen, hmm….


  5. Thanks for this posting, Dianne. I’d seen this article and posted it on LinkedIn, but you’ve really made it come to life with the graphics!


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  7. Great video and encouraging to see how reaserch is confitming the real value of intercultural skills! Thank you for sharing!


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  9. Diane, Thanks for posting the article in LinkedIn, plus your video, terrific resources. I noticed “Build Trust” as #2 in value ranking/importance. We are looking into this in business, but also in our beloved Venezuela where trust is on the line daily as the 14th April election fraud is being evaluated daily – – thus, trust is much on my mind, and jumped out at me in the report. What do you think it takes to build trust across cultures?


    • Marian, I’m very happy to know you are conducting some research in the area of trust across cultures. It is, of course, hugely important. I feel there are culture-general components of trust: someone we feel confident in, someone we can be honest with, someone we can be authentically ourselves with, etc. Then there are also the culture-specific aspects of trust: how we demonstrate and build the above, for example. The Values Lenses in our CD series provide a wealth of culture-specific information on how trust is established and maintained differently in different cultures. I look forward to reading the results of your research!


  10. Yesterday, I was running a one day cultural induction program in a major pharmaceutical company for a newly hired senior scientist. The initial program was completely turned upside down since the key focus of that person was on how to enhance daily working situations. His business environment is both real and virtual and the challenges he is facing are underlining the importance of creating trust, engagement and alignment together with the necessity of building personal credibility.

    The study you share Dianne is great and I would have appreciated getting it prior to my session. What this study highlights is exactly what my client’s concerns are. I’ll pass him the link since this could be a perfect follow up information on what we discussed.

    Interestingly, the client said that emotional intelligence development should be associated to cultural understanding and adjustment since both are intimately intermingled.
    Openness, Trust and respect were among his priorities… he confirms the study.


    • Thank you for sharing this experience, Olivier. Trust and how we demonstrate it, build and maintain it across cultures and even within our own families is, indeed, key. And far from easy. Best wishes to your client.


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  17. The survey is interested in many respects for the beliefs and assumptions it propagates. Check out the ‘intercultural skills’ taxonomy referred to and, interestingly, culture explicitly forms only two dimensions and I am very sure that ‘culture’ is the construct of ‘national culture’, something academic research is increasingly discrediting as a organising category.

    Builds trust
    Adjust communication
    Open to new ideas
    Listens and observes
    Continuous learner
    Works in diverse teams
    Tolerates ambiguity

    Undestands cultural differences
    Accepts cultural differences

    Importantly, what is left out with respect to business professionals is the systemic understanding of corporate reality – roles, KPIs, global-local issues – as determinants of behaviour and thinking, an environmental perspective (financial crisis and business model collapse with the arrival of digitialisation) and, probably more importantly, a situational approach to competence as opposed to universalist ideals of ‘acceptance’ and ‘flexibility’.

    It’s all in the right area but is missing context and credibility for our clients.


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