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Beyond Frontiers: The Critical Role of Cross-Cultural Competence in the Military

Elizabeth Culhane, JHT Inc./Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI)
Patrice Reid, Defense Language and National Security Education Office
Loring J. Crepeau and Daniel McDonald, DEOMI

(For additional information contact: Elizabeth Culhane, PhD, Research Psychologist, Elizabeth.trame.ctr@patrick.af.mil; or Patrice Reid, PhD, Research Psychologist, Patrice.reid@patrick.af.mil, Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, 366 Tuskegee Airmen Drive, PAFB 32925.)

"Cultural knowledge and linguistic ability are some of the best weapons in the struggle against terrorism. Mastering these weapons can mean the difference between victory and defeat on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan."
- Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Commencement Address at the Defense Language Institute, August 2009

Cross-cultural competence (3C) has been conceptualized in many ways, but most definitions center on the ability to quickly understand and effectively act in a culture different from one’s own (Abbe, Gulick, & Herman, 2008; McDonald, McGuire, Johnston, Semelski, & Abbe, 2008; Selmeski, 2009). It is a vital element for military and civilian personnel who must frequently interact with people from other cultures—both here in the United States and when deployed or operating in other countries. Cross-cultural competence can prove very advantageous, as it equips individuals with the requisite knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics that enable them to function effectively in culturally diverse situations. Furthermore, 3C provides the individual with the conscious knowledge of when and how to switch from an “automatic home-culture international management mode” to a more “culturally appropriate, adaptable mode” (Zakaria, 2000). Thus, 3C helps mitigate undesirable and costly outcomes by supporting critical skills, including those needed for conflict resolution, communication, stress coping, language acquisition, tolerance for ambiguity, and adapting to living in other cultures (McDonald et al., 2008).

This article addresses how 3C can enhance proficiency in cross-cultural interactions and improve readiness in operational environments, as well as provides insight into some of the current efforts being employed in the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to address such demands. Although cross-cultural competence has been known to enhance proficiency in cross-cultural interactions and improve readiness in operational environments, incorporating these skills in the cultural learning process for DoD personnel operating in joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational contexts remains a nascent endeavor (Reid, et al., 2012). Recent examples in the news demonstrate how a lack of 3C can markedly damage tenuous alliances between American and Middle Eastern allies seeking to collaboratively combat terrorism. These incidents not only jeopardize our relationship with those allies, consequently undermining growing relations, but further incense radicalized individuals, elevating the threat they represent to our troops. Consequently, these cultural blunders continue to place an exponentially higher number of American service members at risk. Hence, this article does not seek to provide an exhaustive review of the vast literature addressing cross-cultural competence. Instead, the foremost objective is to exemplify the value of 3C tenets in a combat environment—one in which the practical applications have significant relevance to the field of I-O psychology.


Given the ever-changing global landscape and the adaptive nature of military operations in dynamic and asymmetric warfare environments, 3C has emerged as a vital asset that equips military personnel to optimally execute mission objectives abroad (Reid et al., 2012). Many leaders in the DoD have recognized the critical need for our military personnel to be cognitively, socially, and culturally adept to effectively meet the changing needs and growing spectrum of varied missions our Armed Forces currently face. The emergent nature of these missions has increased the need for adaptive interpersonal interaction and skills, despite the continuous advancement of technology that serves to maximize the distance between our service members and adversaries who threaten them. Still, the U.S. will likely face missions within the next decade that increasingly involve efforts focused on stabilization, reconstruction, security operations, and humanitarian endeavors. These types of missions often require close interaction between ground personnel and those from other cultural backgrounds, including both allies and adversaries. Given this reality, the demonstrated need for our personnel to communicate, negotiate, and influence members of various cultures—and the agencies involved with these missions—is equally as critical as the military’s ability to effectively “aim and fire.”

Today’s military must, therefore, be poised to perform the complex range of missions it faces on a daily basis. The combination of language, regional expertise, and cultural (LREC) capabilities has become increasingly important given the emerging need for allied forces at the ground level to interact with the local populace. According to Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2011), LREC capabilities are critical, given that military and civilian personnel must have the “ability to effectively communicate and understand the cultures of coalition forces, international partners, and local populations.” The DoD has, therefore, placed considerable emphasis on the education and training of LREC capabilities to meet these demands. At the same time, it has proven especially difficult to predict the locations and intercultural partnerships that would benefit from this type of specialized training. Thus, the DoD has sought to establish and execute policies and procedures that provide the requisite education, distributed training, and awareness, while underscoring the importance of an individual’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing operational demands.

Defining and Developing a Cross-Cultural Competence Framework

As a critical step to developing a cross-cultural framework, it is important to recognize the contributions of extant literature, particularly the vast research that has been fundamental in the development of cross-cultural applications—not only in expatriate assignments but also germane to military contexts (Abbe, Gulick, & Herman, 2008; Bennett, Aston, & Colquhoun 2000; Bhagat & Prien, 1996; Black, Gregersen, & Mendenhall, 1992; Caligiuri & Tarique, 2005; Hardison, Sims, Ali, Villamizar, Mundell, & Howe, 2009; McDonald et al., 2008; Mol, Born, Willemsen, & Van Der Molen 2003; Tung, 1981; van Oudenhoven, van der Zee, & van Kooten, 2001). In order to increase the likelihood of successful expatriation, many multinational corporations have considered the role of personality characteristics, language skills, and prior international experience when selecting expatriates envisioned as most adept in culturally diverse contexts (Caligiuri & Tarique, 2005). Complementary to these best practices, Caliguiri, Pepak, and Bonache (2010) developed a framework that explicates the importance and application of culture-general—as opposed to culture-specific—knowledge in understanding cultural differences and successfully navigating around culturally-complex situations. From a management perspective, there are three overarching themes that emerge to create and sustain a competitive global workforce. Gaining credibility within a cross-cultural context is arguably the first step an expatriate should attempt to take when entering a new company in an international setting. Likewise, Calguiri et al. (2010) underscore the importance of effective communication, as well as the critical need to work together to encourage shared values and successful intercultural interaction. Although at the surface level, these cultural dimensions may appear germane to HR practice, the underlying tenets also hold true for successful military operations, especially given the cultural complexities encountered in combat environments, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations, and provincial reconstruction efforts.

Cross-cultural competence covers a broad domain of individual qualities and capabilities deemed critical to mission performance in novel cultural settings. It is best described as a “set of cultural behaviors and attitudes integrated into the practice methods of a system, agency, or its professionals that enables them to work effectively in cross-cultural situations” (National Center for Cultural Competence, 2001, p. 9). The Defense Language National Security Education Office (DLNSEO) conceptualization of 3C is similar:

[Cross-cultural competence is a] set of culture-general knowledge, skills, abilities, and attributes (KSAAs) developed through education, training, and experience that provide the ability to operate effectively within any culturally complex environment. [It] is further augmented through the acquisition of cultural, linguistic, and regional proficiency and by the application in cross-cultural contexts.

In line with this reasoning, researchers from the Naval Air Warfare Command Training Systems Division (Johnston, Paris, McCoy, Severe, & Hughes, 2010) and the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) developed a 3C framework comprising core competencies and core enablers. Based on an extensive analysis of the research literature, and after refining competency definitions found among previously identified 3C learning statements, the researchers identified six core competencies and 13 core enablers deemed fundamental to the development of 3C (Johnston et al., 2010; McDonald et al., 2008). The core competencies that include thinking and connecting factors are cognitive, behavioral, and affective in nature. The thinking factors include declarative, procedural, and conceptual knowledge, as well as critical thinking skills (Johnston et al., 2008). Conversely, the connecting factor represents the social engagement aspect, which relies on human interaction. The core enablers, on the other hand, are those personal characteristics that predispose individuals to act in a certain manner. These enablers are also considered precompetence/motivating factors that influence job success in cross-cultural contexts and facilitate the development of the core competencies (Johnston et al., 2010). The core enablers are divided into two factors: resilience and engagement. The resilience factors allow an individual to recover from, or easily adjust to, change or stressful circumstances (Johnston et al., 2010). Similar to the connecting factor of the core competencies, the engagement factor extends beyond resilience by facilitating proactive interactions in diverse contexts (Johnston et al., 2010). This model has helped to provide a framework for understanding the interplay between malleable, state-like capabilities and the more immutable trait-like characteristics—the latter of which can be used to select more qualified individuals into leadership positions where these talents can be effectively leveraged.

In line with this effort, the DLNSEO is currently in the process of building a new 3C model that converges the extant models by identifying overarching cross-cultural competencies. Researchers from DLNSEO and DEOMI compiled findings from an extensive survey of the extant 3C literature, subsequently identifying 72 competencies integrally linked to the development of 3C. A data reduction approach was employed in an effort to determine a final list of critical constructs in the domain of 3C development. This model is intended to be implemented as DoD policy that will guide myriad factors in workforce planning. Once finalized, the DoD will ultimately leverage this model to educate and train the General Purpose Force, as well as assign military service members to areas that are culturally diverse. Thus, the expectation is that these military personnel will operate at far higher levels of effectiveness, by virtue of their 3C expertise.

Sustaining 3C at Various Levels

Cross-cultural competence is recognized as a critical capability that helps personnel become mission ready and meet the challenges of this decade. McDonald (2008) proposed a model of concentric circles, also known as the “3C Bulls-Eye,” that depicts how cross-cultural competence permeates different organizational levels, beginning with the self and expanding outward, ultimately to the adversary (see Figure 1). McDonald (2008) posits that the acquisition of 3C begins with the self by understanding one’s own beliefs, values, and biases to better appreciate other cultural identities. Subsequently, individuals must work with a team of other people—even within the U.S.—who come from different regions and backgrounds. In order to communicate effectively and lead these groups, personnel must possess adequate 3C to work with those who are different from themselves. Cross-cultural competence is also important in fostering partnerships with coalitions and host nations. The accepted practices, behaviors, and mission goals may differ widely across forces, and in order to coordinate and integrate these commands, success will depend on addressing, understanding, and adapting to these cultural differences. Hence, 3C is imperative at the tactical, strategic, and operational levels; knowing the adversary’s culture provides the insight needed to effectively negotiate and stabilize the current operational environment.


Figure 1. McDonald’s (2008) “3C Bulls-Eye” Model

Furthermore, 3C plays a critical role in leadership functions, as it promotes effective cross-cultural interactions and leads to effective behavioral skills for communicating with other cultures. Leaders are commonly tasked to lead teams in a variety of missions, forcing them to meet operational needs and to perform effectively in cross-cultural environments. Thus, leaders must be able to successfully interact with others across cultures, reading intentions, building trust, and creating alliances, all while influencing individuals’ motivations and actions (Laurence, 2011). Furthermore, leaders can use 3C to integrate, tolerate, and bridge differences that allow for congruent communication pathways and perspectives when executing military missions. Finally, 3C helps to hone leader capabilities, such as systems thinking, strategic agility, forecasting team strengths, building strategic networks, and ultimately planning, preparing, executing, and assessing operations.

Distributed Training and Cross-Cultural Simulation in the Military

Many organizations, including the military, are moving in the direction of distributed training, specifically for training and sustaining 3C. The U. S. Office of Performance Technology, in partnership with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, has developed a cross-cultural distributed training model that integrates multiple learning technologies that include computer-based training, interactive video teletraining, knowledge management centers, web-based information delivery systems, and electronic performance support systems. These training programs will serve to improve the quality of cross-cultural training, reduce operational costs, increase training availability, and promote continuous learning (Distributed Training, 2005).

The U. S. military has also focused on increasing its distributed and online cross-cultural training in an effort to provide access to the vast number of military and civilian personnel working abroad. Distributed training provides military personnel the opportunity to receive this training on demand, making it virtually accessible anywhere and anytime. This form of training helps to ensure that military personnel do not encounter a predicament where they lack the requisite information or critical capabilities needed to succeed and advance in that cultural context.

Future Directions

DEOMI—a nonprofit U.S. government organization that serves to assist its customers in enhancing their mission readiness and capabilities by promoting human dignity through education in equity, diversity, and cultural competency, as well as research and worldwide consultation—plays an integral role in the future development of 3C efforts. DEOMI has also remained at the forefront of integrating 3C and online training, using computer simulation and avatars. In fact, DEOMI opened a simulation laboratory in 2009, which primarily seeks to establish a center of excellence for simulation research and development in the areas of military equal opportunity, equal employment opportunity, diversity, and 3C. At present, DEOMI serves as a test bed and transition partner for emerging technologies in these research areas, delivering training solutions within DEOMI and across the military in support of mission readiness. In addition, DEOMI evaluates the effectiveness of recently developed tools and provides recommendations that can be applied in the field and fleet. Some of the most recently developed tools provide interactive scenarios, computer simulation and avatars, automatic feedback, and branching techniques. For example, the Virtual Environment Cultural Training for Operational Readiness (VECTOR) training tool is frequently utilized primarily for this purpose. VECTOR provides a training platform, coupled with highly engaging 3-D virtual environments, avatar-based scenarios, and traditional web-based tutorials that teach a broad range of culture and interpersonal skills.

Institutionalizing 3C may require an organizational cultural change using a multipronged approach through functions that include recruiting, selection, promotion, systems development, research, training, education, and mission operations for success. Ultimately, successful institutionalization relies on securing sufficient priority within the strategic plans, policy, and doctrine—along with the supporting budget. Furthermore, successful implementation requires a valid measurement strategy—both at the individual and organizational level—where a demand signal can idenity operational requirements. This feedback system would allow for agile and rapid adjustment, ensuring “institutional adaptability.” To assist with meeting such operational requirements, the DoD recently launched its cross-cultural competence portal, located at www.defenseculture.org. This website provides a number of cross-cultural resources, including:

  • Education and training (culture clips, e-learning, simulation training, and additional resources),
  • Individual- and unit-level assessments,
  • Information pertinent to leaders at the regional and operational levels,
  • Current and emerging research in the field, and 
  • Current news, events, and other additional resources.

In sum, training our forces in 3C using distributed training and other experiential learning methods can save money, time, and lives. 3C provides individuals with the means for a culturally appropriate, adaptable, and acceptable mode of management; an aid to improving coping mechanisms associated with culture shock and unexpected events; a means for reducing the uncertainty of interaction with foreign nationals; and a means of enhancing the expatriate’s coping abilities, by reducing stress and disorientation (Zakaria, 2000).


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