This brief is part of the Insights @ Center for Emerging Markets, a publication focused on cutting-edge ideas and advice for global leaders about emerging markets.

By Paula Caligiuri (Northeastern University)

Thinking about Culture

Cultural differences arise from the collective programming of the mind. National culture is the most widely accepted way to understand these differences. Therefore, when designing organization processes, such as decision rights and incentive compensation, for a different national culture such as in a foreign subsidiary, home country executives need to take account of these average differences. But at the level of individuals, differences in national culture do not mean that individuals from a particular country should be stereotyped or generalized. There is plenty of variance in behaviors, attitudes, and values within any group, and therefore every individual should be treated uniquely. In other words, cultural differences should be understood as norms and tendencies that are shared by a group, but not as rigid or definitive characteristics of every individual belonging to that group.

Most people think of culture as something that is only experienced when in another country or when interacting with foreigners. However, cultural differences can be found locally through generational, professional, regional, and organizational subcultures. Therefore, becoming culturally agile is important even when not traveling abroad. For instance, when attending meetings, participants are often from different age groups, have backgrounds in different functional areas, have different regional and organizational cultures, and have varying educational backgrounds.

A Cultural Values Framework

Cultural agility is the ability to be comfortable and effective in novel situations. It comes from a combination of personality traits, knowledge, motivation, and experiences. Around 50 percent of one's personality has a heritable component. For instance, novelty-seeking, linked to the personality trait of openness, is often linked to the way the body regulates dopamine. Although genes are only one part of the cultural agility equation, they provide clues to understanding why some people find developing cultural agility easier than others. Yet, cultural agility can be built from any starting point, and one's natural predisposition is merely the accelerator, not the engine.

Culture is created through iterative and successive experiences with people in groups. Behavioral norms are the first impression of a novel culture, while values, which may not be readily visible, affect how behaviors are evaluated.

Building Awareness, Engaging in Social Learning, and Gaining Experience

Cultural agility requires skill and practice, starting with building cultural awareness, engaging in social learning, and gaining experience by placing oneself in increasingly novel situations. Understanding how a context might differ is also crucial in perceiving and understanding cultural differences. This might involve engaging with colleagues from different cultures and forming professional relationships, reading articles or books about how to best communicate in an unfamiliar context, engaging with people from other countries, volunteering to work with diverse communities, trying new foods, learning a new language, practicing a second language with native speakers, and participating in intercultural exchange programs, such as study abroad or cultural exchanges.

With innovations in technology and communications, it has become easier to do business across borders. But mastering time zones and translations is only a small part of the challenge. Professionals need to be able to navigate the complexity of different cultures, including their nuances, customs, and ways of doing things. Those who can do so effectively are more likely to succeed, while those who cannot, may hinder their firm's business and harm its reputation. Furthermore, a lack of cultural agility can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and missed opportunities. Therefore, developing cultural agility is crucial for individuals and organizations that want to thrive in the modern world.

Managerial Implications
  • As global markets expand, companies are increasingly recognizing the need to foster cultural agility in their employees. For emerging markets, in particular, this skill is becoming essential. To help organizations develop a pipeline of culturally agile professionals, companies should consider the following three steps:
    • Identify the key roles that require cultural agility. Assess the cultural agility of your current workforce to understand your bench strength for cultural agility.
    • Hire, assign, or promote those who have cultural agility (or have the personality traits to readily gain cultural agility) into key roles.  
    • Develop cultural agility to ensure the people with the right technical skills are gaining cultural agility in advance of a strategic role for which it will be needed. 

By following these steps, companies can begin their journey towards greater cultural agility.

Original Works

Caligiuri, P. (2021). Build your cultural agility. Kogan Page.

Caligiuri, P. (2012). Cultural agility: Building a pipeline of successful global professionals. John Wiley & Sons.

Caligiuri, P., & DeCaprio, D. (2023, March 10). How to prepare for a cross-cultural interview. Harvard Business Review.


If you are interested in learning more about this work, contact Professor Caligiuri.