Interviewing Policy Leaders to Advance Intercultural Competence Across Boundaries

Feature Slides of Policy Leaders and Project Collaborators

A collaborative project by The Intersection of ICC and Influencers/Policy Makers Working Group


Ongoing efforts to contain COVID-19 and mitigate climate change remind us of our global interdependence and the importance of collaborating with respect, open-mindedness, empathy, and curiosity – fundamental components of intercultural competence (Deardorff, 2006, 2009). If effective communication is critical to promote peace and justice in an interconnected world, how can leaders facilitate more balanced dialogue in the organizations for which they are responsible? Intercultural competence (also referred to as “ICC”) is recognized as a powerful framework for communication across individuals, groups, experiences, and boundaries, yet it tends to be unfamiliar terminology to the general public. Some exceptions include sectors such as business (e.g., Hennings, 2018), education (e.g., Orem, 2019; Pinto, 2018), and healthcare (e.g., Fleckman et al., 2015). For this reason, The Intersection of ICC and Influencers/Policy Makers Working Group launched an investigative project to interview ten policy leaders in various sectors and regions of the world about their understanding of ICC and how they implement it in their day-to-day work and lives. In alignment with the working group’s mission to include, but also reach beyond, educational disciplines in order to advance ICC more broadly and make it accessible to the public, this project is a hybrid of academic and preliminary interviews. The working group hopes that these findings and recommendations will be useful to others who seek to engage ICC in their own personal and professional practices.


The purpose of this collaborative project was to discover gaps between policy making (at the local, state, regional, national, and global levels) and ICC. By interviewing policy leaders, we wished to discover how policy making professionals and those who influence policy making implement ICC in their practice. We sought to understand whether and how policy makers conceptualize ICC, and if not, why not. Understanding that ICC is, at its core, an intersectional practice, the working group also sought to answer how ICC can account for the perspectives of individuals and groups with diverse viewpoints and multi-layered identities, and how to ensure that policies are created with an emphasis on justice and equity for all. Ultimately, we aimed to develop a definition or rubric related to intercultural policy making based on identified characteristics, habits, and practices of intercultural policy makers informed by the findings from this project and from additional research.

Project Contributors

Interviewers consisted of working group members of The Intersection of ICC and Influencers/Policy Makers, as well as ad hoc interviewers. Additional collaborators contributed to the project by coding interviews and writing this article. All collaborators are currently based in the USA, UK, and the Netherlands, and policy leaders interviewed for this project included Americans (from both indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds), a Belgian, Congolese, Dutch, Indian, Indian and adivasi activist from the Oraon tribe, Norwegian, and Portuguese, who work in banking, cross-cultural training, education, government, non-profit management for rainforest preservation, and tribal law.

Key Terms

Intercultural competenceThe lifelong process of developing targeted knowledge, skills, and attitudes leading to behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions (Deardorff, 2006, 2017)
Policy leaders Policy influencers and policy makers
Policy influencerA person who has the power to change things or peoples’ minds, or to make things happen in a recognizable and significant way, without necessarily taking direct action (Ballotpedia, n.d.a); he or she may be a person who inspires or guides the actions of others in order to affect policy (e.g., think tanks, non-profit organizations, NGOs) (Merriam-Webster, n.d.; Ballotpedia, n.d.b)
Policy makerA person who is responsible for making new rules, laws, and plans, especially those that are carried out by a business or government (e.g., politicians, a school board, a corporation’s board of directors) (Cambridge Dictionary, 2021;, n.d.)


In January 2021, the World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence sent out a call for ad hoc interviewers, in an effort to reach underrepresented voices. Together in February 2021, interviewers began inviting policy leaders to be interviewed. Participants (also referred to here as “policy leaders”) were identified using a criterion sampling strategy (Creswell, 2007); they were known personally or professionally by their interviewers, and were chosen based on their familiarity with ICC.

Participants were invited via email, by their designated interviewers, to participate in the study.  Invitations included a description of the process, a request to complete a written statement of understanding and release form, details about the intended outcome, and information about World Council and ICC. Interviews were primarily conducted via Zoom, lasting approximately 45-60 minutes, and they used the same basic questions, with slightly different questions for policy influencers vs. policy makers, to provide a common framework across all conversations. Participants who preferred to submit written responses had the option to do so via a questionnaire. Interviewers then transcribed their interviews and identified the most salient aspects and, ultimately, emerging themes within and across all interviews.

Sample Interview Questions
Question for Policy InfluencersQuestion for Policy MakersQuestion for both Policy Influencers and Policy Makers
Could you talk a bit about your experience with intercultural competence – for instance, how and where you have acquired it and how and where you have observed it being demonstrated by others?Can you tell me about a time when you saw a leader/coworker model intercultural competence? What are some of their characteristics, habits, practices that strengthen this soft skill?How important is intercultural competence and how is it related to your everyday work?
Note: Considering the nature and variety of policy leaders’ work, questions were worded differently for policy influencers vs. policy makers. Interviewers were given the flexibility to modify wording in order to better communicate a similar concept to non-native English speakers.

The analysis and coding process consisted of three distinct phases. First, individual interviewers reviewed their transcript question by question to distill the most salient points from each response. Next, individual interviewers conducted analysis on all responses to a single question, in order to gain a cross-interview understanding of the common themes. Finally, the working group convened to identify codes for all interview questions.

Using open coding, relevant text segments from interview transcripts were identified. Lean coding was used to organize information under categories of codes. The group used a combination of open and structured coding methods: open at first, in order to assess the common themes that implied ICC across interviews without assuming any proscriptive conclusions. As we discovered commonalities and recurring keywords within each individual interview as well as across all ten interviews, the coding became more structured, aligning with the common characteristics seen in ICC (Deardorff, 2006, 2009).  The codes were then organized under the following four major themes, which are discussed below.


During the data collection process, policy leaders were asked: whether they use ICC when developing policies, what terms they use when implementing ICC, and how they enhance ICC development in their field of work. In general, ICC was not used as the dominant term. Participants referred to ICC using a plethora of terms (e.g., internationalization, collaboration, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability), and four major themes emerged from data analysis to explain why.

Understand that Humanity is Complex

The complexity of culture within humanity means that implementing ICC is complex.  In general, participants stated that policies do not address the diverse identities of humans. Efforts exist to better serve specific groups, namely based on gender, ethnicity, and class, but a “one size fits all approach to ICC” should be avoided.  One person or members of one marginalized group within a larger culture may hold multiple identities and the intersection of those identities can impact how that segment experiences culture and is impacted by policy.  As one policy leader noted, “if we do not recognize that humanity is diverse, we show a lack of interest for ICC.”  A policy leader who works in government commented on the delicate balance of coalition-building, explaining that one has to “be able to acknowledge that you have to start from scratch.”  Similarly, a policy leader working in banking stressed the necessity of “adopt[ing] others’ culture in order to successfully navigate their responsibilities,” while another policy leader who works in education proposed “link[ing intercultural competences], so that they are visible in the organization.” According to an indigenous policy leader, “What I want to do is invite you to have a seat at my table; otherwise you will not get the opportunity to learn about me.”

Gain Knowledge and Skills

To address the needs of different groups, policy leaders maintained that we need knowledge and skills. As a policy leader currently working at UNESCO commented, “building the competencies for collective action – shared, cooperative work – I think is hugely important.” In broad terms, we need to be aware of differences to be better prepared to function within our culturally complex world. We must learn to listen for understanding. Knowledge helps address biases and blind spots in ICC. Another policy leader pointed out, “we need accountability from various stakeholders to overcome fear of ICC and diverse perspectives.” 

Foster Curiosity and Respect

Acknowledging cultural differences means that we need to be curious about other cultures, and this awareness prompts respect for cultural differences. As one policy leader stated, “We cannot fear different perspectives.” Curiosity about other cultures allows us to reframe existing perspectives in order to consider new ones. Curiosity, acceptance, and tolerance, however, are not enough; we need to foster respect for differences.

As a policy leader who works as a cross-cultural trainer commented, “cultures influence the way we communicate, and every policy maker should be aware of both visible and invisible cultural differences.” In addition, policy leaders need to seek the counsel of local leaders and lean on civil society for wisdom as they seek to understand root causes of societal problems and find solutions that work based on the specific needs of the community. For instance, as another policy leader stated, “In my region, the indigenous people, their traditional culture and knowledge systems have been systematically neglected for gains of dominant and mainstream culture.” By developing community-based policies, they give insight that draws attention to both the visible and invisible.

Collaborate Flexibly

Awareness, knowledge, and curiosity can help us collaborate across different cultural practices. We need skills to create systems of co-ownership, and to collaborate efficiently, locally and globally, and we need to find and respect value systems, work toward the common good, and identify basic needs, in order to be able to collaborate. This requires flexibility, sensitivity, humility, and absence of oppression – namely, a mindset that considers equality and human rights foundational for attaining collective accomplishments.  As a policy leader working on rainforest preservation commented, “I encourage everyone I meet to be aware of the aboriginal people living in the DRC. The DRC used to be colonial, and the aboriginal culture was practically destroyed. However, we are seeing a grassroots effort now, to promote resiliency, awareness, and ecological diversity in my ancestral rainforest home.”  Meanwhile, we also need to identify and explore the things that make us different so as not to overemphasize commonalities.  Moving toward what makes us different allows for appreciation, openness, and cultural competence where inclusion and belonging of nondominant perspectives is critical.  


Based on the information shared by policy leaders, the authors recommend that intentional effort be made to take ICC into consideration when formulating policies, in order to make it an integral part of policy development. A clear outline of ICC terminology can help. The purpose is to show respect for diversity and move away from historical dehumanization of marginalized and underrepresented groups, through dialogue and shared experiences. Ultimately, including ICC in policies that impact society at large may help pave the way towards a policy making process that embraces visibility of different groups and adopting a decolonial approach to policy-making. 

Finally, the goal of infusing ICC in policy is to help ensure that ICC is practiced and maintained in human values and behaviors for all peoples.


Policy leaders demonstrate ICC when they identify policy gaps, by listening to communities for understanding, by listening to members of opposing political parties, and by placing the nuanced nature of the common good above their own agenda. Reflecting diverse voices in policies can lead to broader support for decisions and choices to help create a more inclusive, just, and peaceful society. As policy influencers and policy makers take on different roles, their power and positionality may also influence the terminology used or the way they model ICC. While further research is needed to develop a more robust definition of intercultural policy making, the interviews conducted in this project point toward common characteristics of policy leaders, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, respect for difference, collaboration, and listening for understanding, which strengthen their ability to advance ICC in their respective fields.

While most policy making professionals and those who influence policy making recognize the complex nature of humanity, intentional efforts to take ICC and its intersectional dimensions into account when making policy are often missing in policy making processes. Efforts exist to include ICC in policy, albeit through different terms and in targeted policy areas. Whereas common use of ICC terminology still needs to transcend its traditional fields, the value of ICC is recognized and valued by both policy makers and policy influencers; therefore, identifying a shared language may be the key to better adoption of ICC in order to promote peace and justice in an interconnected world.

What’s Next?

As the working group continues to identify gaps between ICC and policy making, we welcome your feedback about ways to broaden our understanding of how ICC influences policy in various sectors, globally. Meanwhile, we look forward to hosting presentations and co-creating resources with project collaborators in order to further acknowledge visible and invisible aspects of the intersection of ICC and policy making and policy influencing, for example with regard to indigenous communities and racial reckoning.

Additionally, we extend our appreciation to each of the policy leaders who generously participated in this project, including by offering suggestions about how the working group and the World Council might create resources or initiatives to support them in their work. We look forward to continuing the dialogue together.

Reflection Questions

  • As you think of intercultural competence (ICC), how do you consider the views and perspectives of or possible impact on non-dominant groups (racial and/or ethnic minorities, indigenous people, women, people experiencing poverty, minority religious groups)?
  • How might the global pandemic of COVID-19 have made ICC more critical in policy leadership?
  • In what ways might climate change make ICC more timely worldwide?
  • How does ICC address the root causes of cultural upheaval (e.g., corruption, dominance, negligence) to promote long-term sustainability and benefits – both locally and globally?
  • The article mentions policy leaders’ reflections on finding commonalities vs. acknowledging differences. Are there certain ways you have found useful to balance recognizing and highlighting differences and identifying commonalities? If so, what are some examples? Regardless of your answer, what might be some ways you could (continue to) foster this mindset for yourself and others?
  • The article also mentions policy leaders’ reflections on visibilities and invisibilities. How might intercultural policies support accountability, or address biases in order to further recognize invisibilities and work toward justice?
  • Can you think of examples where policy makers or policy influencers demonstrate ICC? If so, what are they and how might they become more common practice so that ICC is accessible to the general public?


Ballotpedia. (n.d.a) What is an influencer?. 

Ballotpedia. (n.d.b) Influencers by policy. 

Cambridge Dictionary. (2021). Policymaker – definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. 

Creswell, J. (2007). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Deardorff, D. K. (2006). The identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization at institutions of higher education in the United States. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10 (3), 241–266.

Deardorff, D.K. (Ed). (2009). The SAGE handbook of intercultural competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Deardorff, D.K. (2017).  The big picture of Intercultural competence assessment. In  D.K. Deardorff, D.K., & L. A. Arasaratnam-Smith. Intercultural Competence in Higher Education: International Approaches, Assessment and Application (1st ed.). Routledge.

Fleckman, J.M., Dal Corso, M., Ramirez, S., Begalieva, M., & Johnson, C. C. (2015). Intercultural competency in public health: A call for action to incorporate training into public health education. Frontiers in public health, 3, 210. 

Hennings, J. What is intercultural competence and why is it important to business? [working paper]. (2018, August 15). 2018 Engaged Management Scholarship Conference: Philadelphia, PA.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Influencer. 

Orem, D. (Fall 2019) . On my mind: Teaching cultural agility. NAIS.

Pinto, S. (2018). Intercultural competence in higher education: Academics’ perspectives. On the Horizon 26(2), 137-147. (n.d.) Policy maker – Dictionary definition.

Leave a Reply