By Ursula Brinkmann, PhD and Oscar van Weerdenburg

Culture’s glass walls can keep your team from making progress. In measurements of mixed-sex groups men invariably speak far more than women. A seminal study by Brigham Young University found that men speak 75% of the time in mixed-sex groups. And 11 years later things are no better – even in the fictional Game of Thrones, Swedish start-up Ceretai’s data showed male speech accounting for 75& of all speaking time across all eight seasons.

It sounds like one of the quaint eccentricities of our society. But silencing members of non-dominant groups causes serious deficits in decision-making by companies, and even by local and national governments and NGOs.

Competences in intercultural communication can offer surprisingly simple solutions even to problems with very deep roots.

About a year ago, I was chairing a meeting in a culturally diverse team for one of our clients. The company supported local youth in developing their artistic talent, and each year two young talents were awarded a prize for the greatest accomplishment. In the meeting, they were brainstorming about how to finance visits by family members to attend the award ceremony in their country’s capital.

In the beginning most people contributed, but after five minutes or so, only three of the fifteen people at the meeting were still talking. The others had become quiet and looked around, apparently accepting that this discussion as well would follow the usual pattern. I could see that one woman was clearly giving signals that she had something to say – signals being unconsciously ignored by her manager, and those still contributing to the discussion.

“Olivia?” I asked, “Would you like to contribute?”

Watch for the ‘I have a thought’ signals

Olivia’s contribution changed the tenor of the meeting and opened a new issue no one had considered. Suddenly great ideas were being poured out by everyone. I continued to watch for the ‘I have a thought’ signals and noticed others in the meeting also now turning to women who were clearly waiting to speak.

The unconscious silencing of women, and members of minority groups, is the kind of problem that is incomprehensible and unavoidable – unless you are interculturally competent and able to fine tune your intercultural communication depending on your audience, which is our company’s specialty.

Intercultural Business Improvement started out running training for international corporations. But then we realised that it was more important to first assess people’s intercultural competences, and then teach them to play to their strengths.

From the start, we worked with academics from the universities of Amsterdam and Groningen, Gent and Toronto to make a questionnaire, the Intercultural Readiness Check, which we refined into 58 questions and have continued to develop over the past 18 years.
This questionnaire assesses four competences:

  • Intercultural Sensitivity
  • Intercultural Communication
  • Building Commitment
  • Managing Uncertainty

The Intercultural Readiness Check has now been taken by more than 70,000 people worldwide. Its results – and the work of training and refining the respondents’ competences – have improved cooperation in numerous teams and organisations.

Some of the results of these years of research are revelatory. Here are some recent findings:

  • The staff of companies with 30% or more women in top management score higher on intercultural competences than those of companies with fewer women bosses.
  • High IRC scores are paired with positive attitudes toward diversity, which is to say the conviction that differences within one’s team are essential for performance. These positive diversity beliefs are known to enhance the effectiveness of diverse groups in organizations.
  • Communication skills are key to navigate different styles in how people convey their thoughts, express their feelings or give feedback.
  • Fault-lines within a team (where the team falls apart into two or more subgroups) are a prime source of conflict, with the team no longer being able to benefit from its diversity. People scoring high on IRC competence Managing Uncertainty report experiencing such fault-lines less often than people who score low.
  • Developing a culturally diverse network of friends from other cultures is essential for developing intercultural competences. Spending time abroad is only part of the story – having such friendships is needed if we want to use the time abroad to develop all competences.

Opening ourselves to people whose (cultural) background differs from ours – and doing it using competences that are already native to us, not to mention hiring people with special competences in this area – can enrich us and our society in every way.

If you want your organization to invest fully into its Intercultural Readiness, contact us at