n-Culturalism: The New Frontier in Leveraging Workplace Diversity

We often throw around words like “diversity” and “internationalism” in corporate environments with progressive ideals. Indeed, when you first hear the term “n-Culturalism”, it is likely to sound like just another addition to the corporate diversity discussion, a synonym for “multiculturalism”. But the distinction between these two words, although somewhat abstract, can help you unleash a lot more gains from the diversity in your employees.


The Continuum: Mono-, Multi- and n-Culturalism

Monoculturalism (having knowledge of just one culture) and multiculturalism (being familiar with more than one culture) probably need little further explanation. Workplaces are becoming more and more ethnically and culturally diverse – in the US, for instance, the percentage of the workforce consisting of employees from minority racial backgrounds is projected to more than double between 1980 and 2020 from 18% to 37% (US National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, n.d.).

Still, despite having a multicultural workforce, companies can struggle with integrating employees from different backgrounds to create cohesive teams (Stoker, "Created a diverse team?," 2015). Multiculturalism by itself has proven insufficient for creating a smoothly functioning diverse workplace – transnational mergers and acquisitions, for instance, are documented as often having failed due to cultural differences (Xu, Yang, & Jiang, 2013). The key to transforming diversity into a positive force that creates new perspectives as opposed to disputes in your workplace may lie a step down the x-Culturalism continuum, in n-Culturalism.

n-Culturals are assets to organizations because they are creative synthesizers… [who] can also serve as models for others who are struggling in a multicultural environment.” (Pekerti, Moeller, Thomas, & Napier, 2014, p. 5)

n-Cultural employees, like multiculturals, have knowledge of different cultural norms and may also identify with multiple cultures. But n-Culturals do not just “switch” between different cultural identities, as multicultural employees are able to do – in addition to being able to take on different cultural identities and roles, n-Culturalism also involves metacognition, a choice to “actively balance multiple cultural identities, frameworks, and salience” (Pekerti et al., 2014, p. 11). This means that n-Culturals often simultaneously juggle different identities with contradicting values when making decisions in everyday situations.

Imagine, for instance, dressing up for an event. If you are going out for a pizza with friends, you would probably put on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, but if it’s a black tie event, you would probably spend at least 15 minutes getting dressed. Having knowledge of the different dress codes for the two events is like being a multicultural – you know what’s expected of you in different contexts. But what if it’s a pizza with your colleagues and your boss? Being able to dress in a way that is casual enough for a pizzeria and yet smart enough for your coworkers is more of an n-Cultural quality.

In your diverse work environment, your employees may not go out for pizza that often but they have to deal with acting in a way that is acceptable to two or more contradicting cultures on a daily basis. n-Culturals are obviously at an advantage here, as they are more practiced at reaching acceptable compromises between conflicting cultural values and behaviours.


n-Culturals in the Workplace

Now imagine the office of a multinational Swiss company located in Zürich which includes American employees. Swiss and American business structures differ vastly; whilst in the US employees are often praised if they speak up and suggest new ideas to their superiors, Swiss firms usually have a very rigid business hierarchy in which only the top management discusses and makes major decisions ("Business culture," n.d.).

Suppose a male American employee tries to give his take on an upcoming decision to his female boss who is Swiss but has also had exposure to American workers and their values. If the boss is a multicultural, she is likely to act in accordance with her Swiss identity and values when working with Zürich and may hence reject the American’s suggestions outright despite knowing the latter’s background and values. However, if she is an n-Cultural, she will be able to simultaneously empathise with the American and hold true to her own values. She may suggest, for instance, that she will take the American employee’s suggestions to the top management for consideration and thus not offend him but also respect the management’s independence in debating and making decisions.


A New Way of Approaching Cultural Intelligence?

“CQ is the reason why some of your colleagues flourish in culturally diverse situations whilst others visibly struggle.” (Stoker, "The beginner's guide," 2015)


By its very definition, cultural intelligence (CQ) – the “ability to function effectively in culturally diverse situations” (Stoker, "The beginner's guide," 2015) – is linked to being able to act in a way that is acceptable to individuals from different cultures, and thus seems intrinsically tied with the idea of being an n-Cultural. So it is possible for your multicultural employees to progress down the continuum, increase their CQ and develop the qualities of n-Culturals? Yes! The Change School has programmes that help your employees reflect on their personal values and cultural identities and develop cultural metacognition, allowing them to become empowered individuals who are able to synthesise their knowledge of different cultures to act and manage difficult situations effectively in your diverse workplace.


Written by Kaushal Alate, an intern at The Change School. Kaushal is a high school student in Singapore who is curious about research in culture and diversity in addition to his enjoyment of maths and science, an interest which comes about as a result of having grown up in three vastly differing cultures. He also enjoys badminton, debate and travel.



Business culture in Switzerland. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.expatica.com/ch/employment/Business-culture-in-Switzerland_102447.html


Pekerti, A. A., Moeller, M., Thomas, D. C., & Napier, N. K. (2014). N-Culturals, the next cross-cultural challenge: Introducing a multicultural mentoring model program. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 15(1), 5-25.


Stoker, J. (2015, May 19). The beginner's guide to cultural intelligence [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://thechangeschool.com/blog/the-beginners-guide-to-cultural-intelligence


Stoker, J. (2015, May 22). Created a diverse team? What next? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://thechangeschool.com/blog/created-a-diverse-team--what-next-


US National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. (2005, November). The U.S. workforce is becoming more diverse. Policy Alert, 2. Retrieved from http://www.highereducation.org/reports/pa_decline/pa_decline.pdf

Xu, B., Yang, J., & Jiang, X. (2013). The effects of cultural difference on cross-border M&A integration. International Journal on Data Mining and Intelligent Information Technology Applications, 3(2), 31-38.