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Building intercultural competence: how to best support postdocs to thrive in multicultural work settings 

Session details

Date: 12 January 2023

Session Title

A session on intercultural competence led by leadership coach Sally Walker 

Speakers at this session

Sally Walker, career, leadership and intercultural coach, SW Career Coaching.

Session overview

This PI Network session looked at the importance of intercultural competence and how best to lead a multicultural team.

How can you best support your postdocs to thrive in multicultural work settings? How does your own intercultural competence impact on your ability to build mutually beneficial working relationships with your postdocs? Can increasing your intercultural competence improve your abilities as a research leader and manager?

This workshop covered:

  • Understanding of what intercultural competence consists of, and vhow it can be beneficial in all future career directions, irrespective of sector or geographic location. 
  • Gaining an awareness of personal cultural identity and intercultural preferences to enable managers and PIs to better interpret and build multicultural relationships with their postdocs and support them to thrive. 
  • Practical tools and strategies for building greater intercultural competence, leading to increased self-confidence in own multicultural work environment and when supporting postdoc career development. 
  • Learning how PIs can best lead and manage multicultural teams of postdocs. 

Intercultural competence and how it can help you thrive in a multicultural work setting 

This part of the session explored the value of intercultural competence and how it can help PIs manage their research staff. 

Shared learnings 

  • ‘Culture’ extends far beyond nationality – it’s any aspect of an individual’s diversity, including age, gender, education, occupation, sexual or religious preferences, political ties etc.  
  • Intercultural competence is the measure of your effectiveness when interacting with others who do not share the same cultural background as you. 
  • There are significant benefits to having a diverse, multicultural workforce. 
  • Yet a multicultural work setting can present challenges, including differences in communication (language, non-verbal, style of communication), attitudes towards hierarchy, decision-making norms, and relationships to time.  
  • Intercultural competence requires you to be curious and open to differences, show respect towards others and to suspend beliefs, assumptions and judgements whenever possible.  

Cultural identity and assessing your level of intercultural competence 

This part of the session helped attendees to identify their current level of intercultural competence.  

Download the workbook that accompanies this video. 

Shared learnings

  • To work effectively with multicultural colleagues it can be helpful initially to be conscious of your own cultural make-up, making it easier to recognise areas of cultural common ground as well as differences between yourself and others. 
  • The skills of listening, observing, and evaluating, interpreting and relationship building are facets of intercultural competence. 
  • Often, peers, researchers, managers and other knowledgeable others can help to identify your intercultural “blind spots” which may be talents and strengths that you do not recognise in yourself or potential areas for development in future. 

Building a multicultural team culture using intercultural competence

This part of the session helped PIs and managers to recognise the influence they can have on creating an effective culture within their teams by consciously using intercultural competence. 

Shared learnings

  • Culture is a process and fluid concept and PIs can influence and create culture within their own teams. 
  • Encourage postdocs applying for new jobs to find out more about the organisational culture they are applying to, in order to help them best decide if this organisational culture aligns with their own values and preferred ways of working, and help them prepare for the recruitment process. 
  • Intercultural Incidents may arise when you interact with someone who is operating to a different set of cultural norms to your own. You might experience a sense of surprise, tension or even conflict. 
  • Raise your awareness of your own behaviours and preferred ways of communicating and interacting and use this knowledge to interpret and appreciate someone else’s perspective and behaviour without ‘othering’ them – labelling them as ‘wrong’ because their preferences and behaviours are different from your own. 
  • The SPLIT model can help managers build an effective multicultural team. The key issues to consider are Structure, Process, Language, Identity, and Technology. 
  • Following an intercultural incident PIs could use the 3R Model: Report the incident in a journal, Reflect on the situation and try to spot the problem, Re-evaluate the situation – what other interpretations are there and how could you repair things or make sure the same incident doesn’t happen again? 

This part of the session covered practical tips to help PIs carry out effective interviews, meetings and emails with individuals who have a different cultural background and identity. them 

Top intercultural tips for conducting multicultural interviews, meetings and email etiquette 

Download the workbook that accompanies this video

Shared learnings


  • Put yourself in the shoes of the interviewee – what expectations might they have? 
  • Ensure the applicant feels welcome and respected. 
  • Monitor your own assumptions about non-verbal behaviour and communication and be accommodating of language challenges.  
  • Be aware of your own preferences as an interviewer – your own preferred level of formality during the interview, whether you are task or relationship orientated and what your own communication style is like. 


  • Aim to balance task and relationship building, particularly with new people. 
  • Create common ground between participants. 
  • Allow time for participants to think and respond, or even to share written questions anonymously. Everyone works differently so ensure that everyone can contribute in a way that will be most effective for them (the people that talk the most aren’t necessarily the people with the best ideas). 

Email etiquette 

  • Focus on sharing information in emails rather than criticism or negative emotions. 
  • Keep emails short, simple and polite, making clear what is requested and the timeframe. 
  • Echo the use of titles and credentials. 
  • Aim to respond to emails rather than react to them – if something aggravates take a moment to consider if you might have misinterpreted the intention or tone. 
  • Communicate in a variety of ways, not just email.  
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