Cultural awareness versus cultural intelligence — the chicken and the egg debate

As the extent of mobility increases in the developed world, the need for cultural awareness accelerates. In countries across the Anglosphere in particular, where large-scale immigration has been a central pillar of population growth, the need couldn’t be starker, says Dr Stephane Shepherd.

Dr Shepherd is a research fellow and lecturer in psychology at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University, Melbourne Australia. Recently he was a visiting scholar at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in the United States.

Dr Shepherd spoke at the launch of Mahana Culture’s Chasing Our Tales forum in April. Chasing Our Tales showcases Mahana Culture’s cultural intelligence programs, led by Culture Connects. Culture Connects is a four-day across three-month incubator course for organisations, government departments, and corporations dealing with and looking to benefit from cross cultural currents within their ranks.

Wrinkles in theory and practice

He believes that when examining the formal learning structures of cultural awareness to date, these societies need to acknowledge the deficiencies in conventional workshops on the subject. They need to iron out some of the wrinkles in both theory and practice which to date have put the cultural awareness cart before the cultural intelligence horse.

He describes those deficiencies as myopic, impractical, and lacking self-criticism, factors that forums like Mahana Culture’s do much to address.

Cultural awareness workshops have various derivatives: cultural competence, cultural safety, cultural humility, and some overlapping sub-derivatives such as anti-prejudice training, diversity training and micro-aggression training. The overarching aim of most is to enhance effective cross-cultural training, initiatives he paints as laudable objectives.

They’re commonplace in Australia at the moment, with their philosophies embedded in many government departments’ and industry sectors’ strategic plans. The reasoning is mostly good, although it can sometimes be driven by ulterior motives — such as human relations departments ticking the avoid-litigation-at-all-costs box.

Institutional racism

Dr Shepherd says much of the foundation work for current cultural awareness workshops was spawned by the health disparities literature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reviews at that time attempted to address cross-cultural healthcare discrepancies across a range of indicators, beginning with institutional racism. This, he says, is where a lot of cross cultural awareness training originated.

The literature on cultural awareness training is extensive, with more than 100 academic and research studies. He draws four take-home messages from the meta-analyses and systematic reviews:

  1. A slight improvement in clinical knowledge is detectable after participation in cultural awareness workshops (while acknowledging this is focused on health care settings where the bulk of the training is targeted). Follow up analysis shows awareness tends to tail off over time.
  2. Patient satisfaction shows a minor improvement but with mixed findings
  3. In health care settings, the analyses provided no evidence for improved healthcare outcomes in terms of efficacy. Can patients navigate their way around healthcare settings after a clinician has undergone some cultural awareness training? Do they adhere to treatment and medication protocols, and is there any improvement in their health goals? At this point, there hasn’t been any evidence of improved patient outcomes from conventional cultural awareness workshops.
  4. Many of these studies have poor methodological rigour, making the outcomes of cultural awareness workshops look dismal.

Dr Shepherd referred to the most comprehensive research study on cultural awareness initiatives in business settings. Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, it analysed three decades of data on cultural awareness training from more than 800 US forums, essentially covering the entire Fortune 500 group of companies.

Shaming, blaming, and finger pointing

The study found that three quarters of the workshops used negative messaging, which he describes as shaming, blaming, and finger pointing. This had adverse effects on staff, producing a backlash and subsequently activating bias rather than reducing it.

By contrast, the study found the two most effective solutions were broader mentoring and increasing communication between diverse staff through positive initiatives. While bringing different people together for a shared, overarching appreciation of diversity wasn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, the study found that communication between diverse people within an organisation actually increased cultural awareness, and how it was measured.

Dr Shepherd says most of the traditional cultural awareness workshops in which he’s been involved don’t work because they embrace the superficial. They address what he terms a ‘catalogue of stereotypes’ in an hour-long masquerade of cultural learning.

Museum approach

He dubs it the ‘museum approach’ — you go into a museum, you’re exposed to a display of cultural artefacts, and you leave. The brief contact makes no lasting impact on behaviour.

He also feels much cultural awareness training reduces our inter-cultural understanding to the barest essentials when attachment to culture is multi-faceted. Worse, well-meaning workshops can either exoticise or homogenise belief systems and ignore the diversity of character and nuance within particular cultural groups.

Personal ethnicity and culture doesn’t always monopolise our individual outlook. Interactions readily take place between what Dr Shepherd terms our ethno-cultures: professional, religious, racial, or belief-based behavioural norms that characterise who we are and what we stand for.

Divisive and vindictive

He points out that cultural awareness sessions have often attracted criticism as being both divisive and vindictive. Returning to the healthcare sector, he gives the example of cultural awareness workshops delivering crushing statements such as: ‘The hospital you work at is an extension of colonisation, and all of you are symbols of privilege and oppression.’

Whether we agree or not, he believes that cultural awareness training without the initial and underlying investment in cultural intelligence alienates half the people it’s designed to benefit. Participants are made to feel they can’t ask certain questions, leading to an unsurprisingly negative reaction from those who should be most engaged with the training. Far from positive reinforcement, they perceive the central message as accusatory. They sense a condemnation for their lack of a cultural awareness, rather than recognition of their willingness to learn.


Cultural awareness training workshops also stand accused of impracticality. Dr Shepherd asks how a history lesson, often delivered as an injection of cultural stereotypes, can transform attendees’ work practices. He also questions how participants should be expected to apply these difficult lessons in organisations that rarely facilitate this new knowledge?

He paints a portrait of cultural awareness as aspirational and well meaning but in need of substantial work, refinement, and even reconfiguration. For cultural awareness to work not simply sound good, it first needs a solid foundation of cultural intelligence.

Winding up at the Chasing Our Tales launch, he said: ‘From what I’ve seen so far with Mahana Culture, we’ve got a much more sophisticated approach. Mahana Culture and cultural intelligence are well placed to take us forward in this space.’

By Roger McDonald, Mahana Culture’s roving blogger

To advance the debate between cultural awareness and cultural intelligence, call Tavale Ilalio on 0428 504 240 or visit