Intercultural Sensitivity


When did you last check your Intercultural Sensitivity? Hard facts about a soft skill

If you could choose between Knowing China’s Top 10 Do’s and Taboos and Sensing How Your Chinese Business Partner Feels Right Now: What would you choose?

Nobody wants to give offence or make a fool of him- or herself, and so we’d happily follow a list of Do’s and Don’ts if that helped behave properly and make a good impression. Today, however, there is overwhelming evidence that Sensing How the Other Feels – that is, having developed Intercultural Sensitivity – is our key to being effective across cultures.

In our Intercultural Readiness approach, Intercultural Sensitivity measures a person’s interest in the needs and perspectives of people from other cultures. People who are interculturally sensitive thoroughly analyse how expectations and needs may differ, which in turn leads them to constantly attend to verbal and nonverbal signals.

Studies by psychologists and business specialists overwhelmingly show the importance of intercultural sensitivity for expatriates and international students. In expatriate research, Daniel J Kealey was one of the first to discover the pivotal role of intercultural sensitivity. In his 1989 publication A Study of Cross-Cultural Effectiveness: Theoretical Issues, Practical Applications, Kealey looked at 12 challenges expatriates routinely face, for example, adjustment and transfer of skills.1 Of the competence clusters he assessed, only one predicted mastery of all 12 challenges: the cluster comprising empathy, respect and tolerance, a cluster which we call Intercultural Sensitivity in the Readiness approach. More recently, building on 42 earlier studies, Regina Hechanova, Terry A Beehr, and Neil D Christiansen conducted a meta-analysis involving data from 5210 expatriates. In their 2003 publication Antecedents and Consequences of Employees’ Adjustment to Overseas Assignment: A Meta-Analytic Review, they identify intercultural sensitivity as essential for adjustment: Expatriates who understand the feelings of others find it easier to adjust to their new environment than those who don’t empathize well with others.2 Intercultural sensitivity also helps expatriates to do a good job. In their 2005 meta-analysis Predicting Expatriate Job Performance for Selection Purposes: A Quantitative Review on Personality Factors Predicting Expatriate Job Performance, Stefan T Mol, Marise Ph Born, Madde E Willemsen, and Henk van der Molen detect, in a total of 30 studies with data from 4046 expatriates, intercultural sensitivity as one of the strongest predictors of expatriate job performance.3

Two recent studies also demonstrate the importance of Intercultural Sensitivity, as measured by the Intercultural Readiness Check, for study abroad. In their 2014 article How are task reflexivity and intercultural sensitivity related to the academic performance of MBA students?, Joanne Lyubovnikova, Uwe Napiersky and Panos Vlachopoulos analyse the interplay between Intercultural Sensitivity, task reflexivity and academic performance of MBA students. Students who had improved their Intercultural Sensitivity by reflecting about the task at hand performed better than those who had not improved this competence. Being interculturally sensitive, they could benefit from their team’s diversity, which in turn enhanced their performance. Students who had not developed their Intercultural Sensitivity, in contrast, failed to benefit from their team diversity and results suffered.4 Most recently, Marcel van der Poel, from Hanze University of Applied Science, Groningen, The Netherlands, has shown that students’ scores on Intercultural Sensitivity, again as assessed by the Intercultural Readiness Check, predict how much they will benefit in their intercultural development from their study abroad programme.5

In view of these studies, we agree then with David C Thomas and Stacey R Fitzsimmons, who conclude, in their 2008 literature synopsis Cross Cultural Skills and Abilities that “empathy or intercultural sensitivity (in its various manifestations) seems to be one of the most robust predictors of effective intercultural interaction”.6

Given the vital importance of Intercultural Sensitivity, we have developed a tool box of exercises and activities to support people in developing this competence. Such exercises feed our natural curiosity, and so tend to be a lot of fun, as IRC Associate Rika Asaoka describes in her recent blog ‘Heard of Intercultural Sensitivity? Watch a foreign film together!’.

So far the good news. The sad news is that organisations fail to take advantage of the evidence – that is, they do not systematically assess, develop, select and promote staff with respect to Intercultural Sensitivity. When we analysed the IRC competence data from 27,181 respondents from all over the world (Brinkmann & van Weerdenburg, 2014), we found no correlation between Intercultural Sensitivity scores and promotion through the organizational hierarchy: People in top management functions scored just as high, or just as low, on Intercultural Sensitivity as people with no or little managerial responsibility; average scores on Intercultural Sensitivity were the same across all levels within an organisation.7

Given the relevance of Intercultural Sensitivity for intercultural effectiveness, we recommend that all organisations operating internationally assess staff and students on this critical competence to identify people’s learning and development needs. They can now use the Intercultural Readiness Check to do this.

This article was originally published by Ursula Brinkmann as a LinkedIn post.


1 Daniel J Kealey (1989). A Study of cross-cultural effectiveness: Theoretical issues, practical applications. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. Volume 13(3), 387-428.

2 Regina Hechanova, Terry A Beehr, and Neil D Christiansen (2003). Antecedents and consequences of employees’ adjustment to overseas assignment: A meta-analytic review. Applied Psychology, Volume 52(2), 213-236.

3 Stefan T Mol, Marise Ph Born, ME Willemsen, and Henk T van der Molen (2005). Predicting expatriate job performance for selection purposes: A quantitative review. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Volume 36(5), 590-620.

4 Joanne Lyubovnikova, Uwe Napiersky, and Palos Vlachopoulos (2014). How are task reflexivity and intercultural sensitivity related to the academic performance of MBA students? Studies in Higher Education, Vol 40, Issue 9.

5 Marcel van der Poel (2015) Predicting the effect of study abroad on students’ development of intercultural sensitivity. Unpublished paper, Hanze University of Applied Science, Groningen, The Netherlands.

6 David C Thomas & Stacey R Fitzsimmons (2008). Cross-cultural skills and abilities. In Peter B Smith & Mark F Peterson (Eds), The handbook of cross-cultural management research (pp. 201-215). London: SAGE.

About the author:

Psychologist Ursula Brinkmann has over 15 years of experience in the intercultural management field. She conducted her doctoral research on First Language Acquisition at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and worked as intercultural management consultant with the internationally renowned Professor Fons Trompenaars at the Center for International Business Studies.

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