A painting of four different colours that sometimes intersect. The image is a metaphor and represents the starting point of intercultural dexterity.

By Ilaneet Goren, MSW RSW

Ilaneet is a social worker, adult educator and project manager specializing in equity, inclusion and human rights. She is the Director of Workplace Learning and Development at Harmony Movement.

With recent weather keeping many Torontonians indoors, I’ve decided to catch up on some readings that have been on my list for a while, one of which is Global Dexterity by American educator and researcher Andy Molinksy.

It offers some useful insights and tools to help people cultivate greater intercultural agility and skillfulness, which the author terms global dexterity. But first, let’s define the term.

What is Global Dexterity?

      • According to Molinsky, global dexterity is “the capacity to adapt your behaviour, when necessary, in a foreign cultural environment to accommodate new and different expectations that vary from those of your native cultural setting


      •  The goal is threefold – to be culturally appropriate, to be effective, and to be attuned to your own inner needs and values


    • The emphasis is on skill and behaviour – the capacity to act on what you know – the ability to shape and adjust your behaviour in cultural situations that may be outside of your zone of familiarity and comfort.

Global dexterity is, without doubt, a critical skill for any leader or employee wanting to be successful in today’s global environment – a point that Molinsky demonstrates repeatedly. Luckily, no travel is necessary for a “global village” experience. In Canada, where one in five people was born in another country, cross-cultural experiences are all around us, urging us to expand our communication skills in order to be more effective and more inclusive.

What I appreciate here is the focus on skills and habits we can observe and develop. Too often DEI interventions have focused on awareness raising and reasoning with facts and figures without showing participants how to adjust to change and shift their behaviour. This has made the outcomes and impact of DEI work difficult to evaluate.

Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with the term global dexterity before this book, and yet, as a DEI facilitator and two-time immigrant who had to adapt to two different cultural environments – Israel in the 1990s and Canada in the 2000s – I’m no stranger to the experience it describes.

I personally prefer to use the term “intercultural skillfulness” to describe the kind of awareness, knowledge and skills we need in order to interact across cultural differences with confidence and ease. The term “intercultural competence” is also used to denote the ability to assess and adapt to cultural scenarios in a way that upholds people’s dignity, values and rights. This term is used by such DEI experts as Hamlin Grange and his organization DiversiPro as well as the Intercultural Development Index® community of which Harmony@Work is a part.

Why is it so hard for people to adapt?

Even when the benefits of intercultural competence are well understood, people still struggle to shift their behaviour toward greater cultural openness and inclusivity.

Molinksy points to 3 common psychological barriers to adapting behaviour across cultures: authenticity, competence, and resentment.

You may recall a situation where you needed to modify your own communication or working style to accommodate others. Use the following questions to assess how each of the barriers may have impacted you personally:

    1. Authenticity: How aligned was the new behaviour with your personality, core beliefs and cultural values? Did you feel any incongruency or a feeling of betraying your own culture and values?


    1. Competence: How knowledgeable and skilled did you feel carrying out the new behaviours? A personal sense of lack of competence can create feelings of shame and anxiety. Did any of these feelings come up for you?


  1. Resentment: How positive or negative did you feel about needing to adapt your behaviour? Did you see the need to change your behaviour as a burden or imposition and felt frustrated?

I’ve seen these elements play out in a variety of ways. When working in environments where faith and spirituality were central, such as Catholic education centres or Muslim organizations, I’ve noticed that the participants were able to easily make connections between the values of their faith (consider The Golden Rule) and the values of inclusion and human rights. In those cases, the sense of authenticity was relatively high, which in turn made shifting behaviour easier.

Competence can become a barrier in training when participants are so afraid to say or do “the wrong thing” that they avoid engaging in difficult conversations or asking questions critical to their understanding of cultural differences. And I’ve seen resentment show up in comments like: “Why do I need to change my behaviour? It’s them who need to adapt.” In these cases, ‘them’ usually refers to minorities – including people of colour, LGBT people, and women in some industries.

Strategies that aim to build intercultural competence among employees should create space for discussing and reflecting on these barriers. The idea is not to eliminate these experiences, which are universal and very human, but to acknowledge them without judgement and use that awareness to guide further inner work.

In my next post I will explore strategies for improving our intercultural skillfulness further drawing from Molinksy’s book.

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Harmony@Work is a leading provider of interactive Diversity, Equity + Inclusion workplace training programs. All Harmony@Work certificate programs, customized workshops and consulting services help organizations build the awareness, skills and leadership necessary to thrive in today’s multicultural environments. Our diverse team of Harmony@Work facilitators uses science-based tools and interactive training methods that deliver results.