What is Cultural Adaptability and why do you need it?

What is Cultural Adaptability and why do you need it?

Among the benefits of operating in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, it’s important to acknowledge the potential conflicts that exist when different teams (with potentially very different cultures) work together. Dysfunctional teams can have a major impact on productivity, company culture and the ability to recruit. So bringing teams together and helping them work cohesively should be a focus for management. This is especially true following a company merger or acquisition.

Adaptability is now described as a core element of success for workers in the modern day. But when we discuss how we can work more flexibly, we must also look at being able to change our style to the different cultures and environments in which we work. This is where the importance of employees having an awareness of cultural adaptability comes in. 

What is Cultural Adaptability? 

Cultural adaptability (a.k.a. cultural intelligence) is an individual’s skill to vary their communication and management style depending on the culture and environment in which they are operating. It’s the consideration and understanding that others may have different styles, approaches and attitudes depending on their cultural background.

Maybe you are already aware of cultural clashes within your own organisation that need addressing. In which case, jump straight to our Cultural Adaptability training page for details of how we can help. The training looks at how perspectives can vary when working with colleagues from different countries or regions of the same country. We also look at how workplace cultures can form within different teams (even in the same country and perhaps even in the same office) and how potential conflicts can arise due to a difference in style. Your HR department may, for example, have an entirely different work ethic and approach to the L&D team, yet they need to co-exist and work well together.

Why do we need to be culturally adaptable? 

Why is it so important to be culturally adaptable? Cultural adaptability teaches us to have an awareness of our differences: empowering us to work around these potential challenges to find the best outcome. Teams benefit from learning how to adapt to different professional situations in a number of ways. These include understanding and being aware of deadlines when we work with teams that operate in different time zones or perhaps with alternative working patterns (such as Dubai having a working week of Sunday to Thursday according to religious tradition). Time management can also be taken into account when thinking about attitudes towards lunch breaks (whether employees take a whole hour lunch break or not), thoughts towards flexible working arrangements and rules on punctuality (with some cultures expecting a meeting to start exactly on time, whilst others adopt more relaxed approaches to start times).  

Language is an obvious aspect to consider when we work across new and different geographies. An example would be a colleague from a German office moving to a London head office to oversee the launch of a new product. Although their written and spoken English is perfect, they feel at times excluded in casual conversations with their new colleagues as they don’t always understand idioms and colloquial language used around the office. A North/South divide can even exist where employees from various regions of the United Kingdom use different terms and phrases – which have the potential to exclude those who do not understand their meaning. During a company merger, cultural conflicts can occur when two or more companies are brought together, which is why being capable of adapting to changes in management is so crucial for success and to minimize downtime and team disruption.

When it comes to your diversity and inclusion agenda, having an awareness of cultural difference is also important. Cultural adaptability comes into play when planning global aims. Your diversity and inclusion strategy might require global leadership buy-in, for instance. Some leaders might view D&I as more or less important due to the narrative around equality in their cultural zone. Being culturally adaptable is not about favouring one set of cultural norms over another. Instead it looks at how we can respect and value difference whilst identifying ways to overcome potential challenges. And when seeking to build an Inclusive Culture, it’s important to look at how these everyday norms can create inclusion and exclusion in the workplace.

Providing training for your team around Cultural Adaptability demonstrates your organisation’s commitment to the inclusion of an assortment of cultures and that you value the contribution that diversity brings.

The benefits of being culturally adaptable extend way beyond situations such as company mergers and acquisitions. It’s in all of our interests to be culturally adaptable, both in our work and personal lives. Being versatile is a requirement for many job roles, including those working in client-facing situations being regularly in contact with different working cultures and individuals with various working norms. Being able to negotiate these differences ultimately make for much happier and more fruitful business relationships.

It might be part of your wider diversity and inclusion objectives, that you not only aim for a workforce that is diverse but one that is inclusive to all of those within it. Being culturally adaptable also means that your team can work in situations requiring them to be more versatile; such as your Sales team adapting to different clients and environments (where even normalised actions like handshakes are important to be aware of when working with individuals with different cultural conventions)One of your suppliers might adopt very informal greetings (perhaps even hugs) whilst another would find this totally inappropriate. Having this cultural intelligence emphasises the benefit of being culturally adaptable as you can work more effectively and amicably with a diversity of clients and stakeholders. 

How can we help?

Our Cultural Adaptability training is suitable for all staff, especially for those – such as sales teams, managers, leaders and front-line staff – who work with clients, stakeholders and customers with potentially different cultural norms. Our half-day training course can be bespoke and personalised to focus on the cultural pressure points of your organisation – maximising your team’s ability to overcome cultural barriers which they may have already experienced first-hand. Contact us and find out how you can work with us to gain a fair advantage. 


Clare Cromarty is a Diversity, Organisational Development and HR consultant for EW Group, having worked across the sectors to build clients' understanding of practical commitments to diversity and inclusion through their approach to organisational development, HR practice and employee engagement. Clare specialises in reviewing HR practices and supporting clients through challenging HR situations, ensuring values, integrity and inclusivity are at the heart of decisions. Her client list ranges from The Houses of Parliament, Health Education England, London Ambulance Service, K&L Gates LLP, to a variety of Universities and Social Housing Providers.

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