Cultural agility: Assessments and best practices

Cultural agility is an important predictor of success in many roles and contexts, yet many talent professionals are not aware of what it is or best practice assessments that can be used in its measurement.

In this article, we discuss the most important factors to consider when assessing for cultural agility.

What is cultural agility?

A working definition of cultural agility which we will use throughout this article is:

  • A cluster of competencies that are associated with being able to successfully function in cross-cultural, multicultural and international work environments. Cultural agility is especially important in roles that require frequent cross-cultural interchange and communication.

More specifically, Prof. Paula Caligiuri, the author of much of the research on cultural agility and noted expert on expatriate work behaviour, has identified the following key competencies that predict whether individuals will be successful global and cross-cultural workers:

  • Tolerance of ambiguity. Since cross-cultural interactions may often be difficult to understand or interpret, a high degree of comfort with ambiguity acts as an enabler in cross-cultural work contexts.
  • Perspective-taking. The capacity to understand different norms, practices, and values all form part of perspective-taking. Employees who are high in perspective-taking tend to suspend judgement and cultivate more empathy for those who have a different cultural background than them.
  • Cultural humility. Effective cross-cultural employees are less likely to assume that their culture and practices are superior to others and tend to be more receptive to feedback and learnings from an array of diverse peers.
  • Resilience. Successful cross-cultural workers can more readily bounce back from missteps as well as cope better with the pressures and stresses associated with working in unfamiliar and foreign contexts.
  • Relationship-building. An essentialcomponent of cultural agility is thecapacity to build strong collegial networks across cultures and countries, as well as the ability to learn from others in social interactions.
  • Cultural curiosity. Having a complex and deep understanding of other cultures contributes substantially to cultural agility. Culturally agile employees tend to be curious about other cultures and feed their curiosity through exploring other cultures’ art, history, customs, norms, and products.

While the above competencies enable success in cross-cultural or cross-national work assignments, cultural agility also depends on the person’s predominant orientation toward working with other cultures.

To this end, Prof. Caligiuri describes three main orientations toward culture that culturally agile employees exhibit.

While most individuals will prefer a particular orientation, the ideal disposition from an agility perspective is to maintain a balanced approach to all three orientations. In this way, the culturally agile worker can apply orientations when and where they are most appropriate to the current business goal:

  • Cultural minimization. This orientation allows global professionals to reduce the perceived influence of cultural differences. This orientation is vital when cross-national and cross-cultural organisations wish to establish universal standards and norms that are impervious to local influences or nuances.
  • Cultural adaptation. This orientation calls for adapting to cultural practices, and can be beneficial in environments where an organisation must understand and adopt local norms and practices in order to achieve its objectives.
  • Cultural integration. This orientation allows the global professional to create new practices and norms by combining different cultural inputs. Cultural integration is vital for building strong global or international teams, or when a new culture must be created within an organisation that has recently merged with or been acquired by another.

The benefits of employing culturally agile talent

The need to employ (and deploy) individuals who are culturally agile is on the rise across the globe. For instance, a recent (2014) McKinsey survey of US companies found that 30% of the surveyed pool reported that they routinely failed to exploit international business opportunities because of a lack of leaders who could work effectively with cross-national and globally-composed teams.

This lack of confidence in capacity to manage cross-national and cross-cultural businesses is shared by many organisations across the world: Indeed, a survey conducted by The Conference Board of more than 13,000 professionals across the globe revealed that (1) leading across cultures and (2) intercultural communication were by far the lowest rated competencies across industries.

In South Africa, cultural diversity is a given. In addition, many businesses have international aspirations both within the subcontinent and further afield, but most such organisations do not assess or select for cultural agility.

Validation research conducted by Prof Caligiuri, the author of the Cultural Agility Selection Test (CAST), suggests that culturally agile professionals bring significant benefits to the organisations they serve. Examples include:

  • Professionals who develop greater cultural agility tend to build more productive relationships with intercultural colleagues
  • Culturally agile employees have significantly greater confidence and self-efficacy about their likely performance in global assignments.
  • Expatriate workers high in cultural humility (one of the competencies of cultural agility) benefited more from the support and feedback offered in their host country which, in turn, facilitated better supervisor-ratings of their work performance.

In addition, it is important to note that business objectives often require specific cultural orientations (i.e. cultural minimization, adaptation or integration) from employees to ensure completion.

Understanding the talent landscape in terms of predominant cultural orientations and cultural agility competencies can therefore be a strategic advantage for any global or cross-national business.

Assessing for cultural agility

Based on her research on cultural agility and expatriate workers, Prof. Caligiuri has developed a series of cultural agility measures to help organisations and individuals better understand this important concept.

TTS is the official distributor these measures, which include:

  • The Cultural Agility Selection Test (CAST): Geared toward talent decision-makers, the CAST allows companies to select the best talent for global roles. It is a highly predictive measure of suitability for cross-cultural and international roles and allows talent decision-makers to determine their bench strength for culturally agile talent.

    The CAST measures the six cultural agility competencies as well as three cultural orientations mentioned above. Validation research conducted on the CAST revealed that culturally agile professionals in a consumer products company scored 25% higher in manager-led performance ratings of their global roles than less agile colleagues.
  • The Cultural Agility Self Assessment (CASA): The CASA is designed as a self-assessment of cultural agility. Its principal application is for development, training and similar purposes. Research conducted on the CASA revealed that 98% of candidates who completed the instrument showed an improved self-awareness of their cultural agility development needs while 83% of candidates engaged in development activities as a result of having completed the CASA.
  • The Self Assessment for Global Endeavours (SAGE): Designed for realistic self-assessment, the SAGE allows candidates to use their assessment results to judge whether living abroad is right for them and their families.

    Studies using the SAGE have shown that candidates who completed the instrument are 40% more confident in accepting international assignments and twice as likely to have a realistic and thorough understanding of the adjustments required from them and their families in accepting international assignments.

Many of TTS’s clients have successfully applied results from these measures in a variety of assessment projects, such as:

  • Understanding cultural agility as a vital factor in succession planning and high-potential talent identification
  • Graduate recruitment that includes cross-national or multicultural exposure
  • High-risk roles that include international or cross-national secondments
  • Selection of leaders who need to manage cross-national, virtual, and remote or geographically distributed teams

Closing thoughts

Culturally agile employees are a vital resource for global organisations and companies with cross-national and multicultural interests.

The research on cultural agility reveals that it is an important marker of success in cross-national and international assignments as well as a vital competency for employees (and their employers) to cultivate and develop.

Cultural agility is not an inevitable by-product of extensive international travel or mere cross-cultural exposure. Instead, it is a multifaceted collection of competencies and orientations that must be encouraged, honed and practiced to produce beneficial outcomes.

The measures discussed above are important tools in the identification and development of these competencies inside any organisation.

If you are interested in how cultural agility and its assessment may further your organisation’s talent objectives, why not connect with us at info@tts-talent.com?

Sources and further reading

Caliguiri, P. (2012). Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals. Jossey-Bass publishers.

Caligiuri, P., Baytalskaya, N., Lazarova, M. (2016). Cultural humility and low ethnocentrism as facilitators of expatriate performance. Journal of Global Mobility, 4(1), 4-17.

Caligiuri, P. & Phillips, J. (2003). An application of self-assessment realistic job previews to expatriate assignments. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 14(7), 1112-1116.

Caligiuri, P., Tarique, I. (2012). Dynamic cross-cultural competencies and global leadership effectiveness. Journal of World Business, 47, 612-622.