by Ursula Brinkmann and Oscar van Weerdenburg

There’s an assumption that by spending time abroad, we invest into our intercultural development and become interculturally competent. Given this popular belief when people, with experience abroad, take the Intercultural Readiness Check they are likely to expect high scores, and might find it hard to accept lower scores. 1:1 feedback is recommended with all assessments, but even more so in cases when there are unexpected results. We recently had experience of this with a senior manager at a European specialty chemicals company.

Mark had spent more than half his life abroad, first as a Third Culture Kid, then as student and expatriate. During an International Negotiations Programme we were facilitating, we came to appreciate Mark as a sociable, open-minded and friendly person – he simply got along well with people. Prior to the program, he and the other participants had completed our Intercultural Readiness Check (IRC; © Intercultural Business Improvement Ltd.), the questionnaire we’ve developed to assess competences that make us interculturally more effective. During the program, participants received their IRC results, an in-depth written report, and 1:1 feedback by an experienced IRC licensee.

Given Mark’s experience abroad, and his general way with people, we had expected him to score high on the IRC. He did indeed score well on Building Commitment and Managing Uncertainty, two of the four competences the IRC assesses. Surprisingly, however, he didn’t score high on Intercultural Sensitivity: a score of 4 on a 9-point scale.

Mark, too, had been expecting a higher score. During the feedback, we looked more closely at the strategies he had developed for getting along with people from different cultures: To focus on what they all had in common, and to downplay their differences. The conversation helped Mark to realise that this strategy might not help him be interculturally effective. He came to consider that in order to understand colleagues and clients from other cultural backgrounds, he might need to complement and reflect upon the differences rather than adopt a disinterest.

Mark was no exception in his quest for intercultural development

Many people spend time abroad without strengthening their intercultural competences.

When completing the IRC, respondents also provide biographical information. Of all respondents who completed the IRC in its current form, 15,141 respondents have spent, just like Mark, more than two years abroad. Of these, 1840 (14%) score like Mark on Intercultural Sensitivity; a further 20% score even lower. Clearly, the popular assumption that by spending time abroad, we invest into our intercultural development is incorrect: We also need to have strategies to turn this experience into an intercultural learning opportunity. We get a suntan or a sunburn by spending time in the sun. But we do not get intercultural competences just by spending time abroad.[1]

Many people are like Mark, with years of experience abroad but with strategies that did not strengthen their intercultural muscle.

But given popular beliefs, they are likely to expect high scores, and might find it hard to accept lower scores. It is therefore even more important to have time to guide them through the result and its implications.

As intercultural professionals we need to carefully think about how we structure the feedback session. We need to bring across general information about the instrument, what it assesses and how scores are calculated. And we need to encourage people to look at their results with a pro-active attitude, so they are curious about the feedback and see it as a service designed to give them new ideas for their next steps.

How important it is to provide 1:1 feedback has also been shown by Dorothea Schnabel (2015) in a study involving 820 students about to start their ERASMUS semester abroad. 351 of the students were in the control group, receiving no feedback or any other treatment between the two measurement points of the study. 396 students received only written feedback, and 73 students received both written feedback and 1:1 feedback by a trained assessor. Students in this last group showed the biggest advancement when tested again: Their competence scores increased, as did their general motivation to change and focus on their intercultural development. They could also more readily see a benefit in being tested in the first place. Conversely many of the students who received only the written report did not get motivated to change but rejected the test instead.[2]

When delivering group training, try and schedule an additional 30 minutes on the phone with each participant, and be ready to explain why your proposal might be more expensive than that of other providers.

Giving 1:1 feedback to each participant may, however, not always be possible. For these cases, we have developed a special process, which we call IRC Action Planning. The IRC Action Planning is designed to help respondents take a pro-active rather than a defensive stance on their results, and to welcome the feedback as a service for them designed to help them decide on their next steps.

How would Mark have responded if we hadn’t been able to explore his strategies together? Both Mark and the study by Schnabel remind us of how carefully we need to design the feedback phase when working with an intercultural assessment tool.

If you want to learn more about your Intercultural Readiness, and how our learning tools and approaches can support you, please contact us at


[1] Ursula Brinkmann & Oscar van Weerdenburg. 2014. Intercultural Readiness: Four competences for working across cultures. London: Palgrave

[2] Dorothea Schnabel. 2015. Intercultural Competence: Development and Validation of a Theoretical Framework, a Cross-Cultural Multimethod Test, and a Collaborative Assessment Intervention. PhD thesis, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen.