Common Misconceptions about the Intercultural Development Inventory

Aug 10, 2022

One of my favorite tools in my intercultural teaching and learning “toolbox” is the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). If you’re not familiar with the IDI assessment or the Intercultural Development Continuum, the model it’s based on, I encourage you to read this post before continuing.

I became an IDI Qualified Administrator in 2008 and have since used the IDI extensively in research, training, and coaching. A little over a year ago, I joined the team of faculty who facilitate the seminars that lead to IDI certification. I’m often asked about the IDI and have noticed a lot of misconceptions about this popular assessment tool.

For that reason, in this post I’m discussing two common misconceptions about the IDI. Please note that these are personal opinions based on my own experience; they do not represent the thoughts or opinions of IDI, LLC.

Misconception #1: The IDI is THE Solution

The first common misconception is one that often goes unspoken, even unrecognized. It’s the assumption that the IDI is THE solution to an organization or institution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges.

When I attended my IDI Qualifying Seminar back in 2008, it seemed that, like me, most participants were already working in the intercultural or diversity, equity, and inclusion spaces. We were at least somewhat familiar with the IDI, the model on which it’s based, and relevant concepts and ideas. We came to the IDI Qualifying Seminar to expand our intercultural teaching and learning toolboxes.

Lately, the rise in popularity of the IDI (thanks largely and fortunately to increased recognition of the importance of this work), has resulted in more people attending IDI Qualifying Seminars without that foundational understanding or experience. That’s perfectly fine, as the point of the Qualifying Seminar is to learn to administer the assessment and debrief the results ethically and appropriately. The challenge, however, comes when schools or organizations assume that sending staff members to an IDI Qualifying Seminar will enable those individuals to do much more than that.

One thing that’s critical to understand is that the IDI is an assessment tool that can be used many different ways—to get a baseline assessment of an organization or group’s intercultural capacity, for program assessment, for research, or to support group and individual development. Learning how to administer the IDI is not the same as learning to facilitate intercultural development.

The IDI assesses how we tend to experience and navigate cultural differences and commonalities. This information can then be used to work on developing one’s intercultural competence. But that work must be done by the individuals, groups, or organizations wanting to develop their intercultural competence; it won’t be done by the IDI.

Consider language learning for a moment. Imagine you want to learn Arabic. You know some Arabic thanks to past experiences, so before you do anything else, you take a language assessment. That assessment helps identify your current capacity in the language and what to focus on if you want to increase your capacity. But just taking the assessment is unlikely to improve your Arabic. For that, you have to actually put in the effort yourself, do the work. But identifying your current capacity is a critical first step in furthering your language learning—without it, you likely won’t know where to focus your efforts.

Now, imagine that following the language assessment, you’re given an Arabic workbook that is specifically designed for someone with your language capacity. That could be very helpful, right? But again, only if you actually use it, if you do the work. And if you really want to learn Arabic, you probably recognize it would be useful, in addition to going through the workbook, to enroll in an Arabic course, maybe get a tutor or conversation partner, attend language labs, or similar.

Likewise, the IDI assesses your current capacity (as an individual and/or group)—strengths and challenges you likely experience when navigating cultural differences and similarities. Debriefing your (individual or group) results with an IDI Qualified Administrator helps you understand this information in the context of your life/work. If you participate in an individual debrief, you receive what’s called an Intercultural Development Plan (IDP), which is basically a workbook you can use to help develop your intercultural competence—all based on your current capacity for engaging cultural difference and commonality (i.e., it’s filled with developmentally-appropriate activities, reflection questions, and ideas of things you could do in your community). But the IDI—and even the IDP—don’t do the developmental work for you.

So the IDI is a great tool for understanding where individuals, teams, or organizations are on their developmental journey—to identify their strengths and developmental opportunities. If the goal of using the IDI is to get a baseline assessment of intercultural capacity, then yes, the IDI is really the only tool that’s needed. But if the goal is to help individuals or groups develop their intercultural competence, the IDI should be used in conjunction with developmentally-appropriate training, coaching, organizational change projects, etc.

Let’s explore an example of how I use the IDI along with other tools:  True North Intercultural’s aim is to help educators develop (1) their own intercultural competence, and (2) their ability to facilitate intercultural learning through their courses, programming, or other aspects of their work. So, for example, educators in our signature program, Facilitating Intercultural Learning, all take the IDI and get a 1:1 debrief of their results at the beginning of the program. The IDI is a very important part of the learning in that it helps participants understand their own developmental journey. They identify their strengths and challenges when navigating cultural differences, and we also discuss how this might impact their efforts to facilitate others’ intercultural learning.

However, the IDI is just one of many components of Facilitating Intercultural Learning. The 12-week program also includes online trainings, activities and reflection questions, small group coaching sessions, and more. When designing the trainings, I took into account where educators I work with tend to be in their intercultural development journey. I also try to meet learners where they are in their individual journeys through our 1:1 debrief, the group coaching sessions, and online interactions. So the IDI is used as an assessment tool and to aid development, but the developmental process is supported through significant training and coaching.

Misconception #2: Not Understanding the Culture-General & Developmental Nature of the IDI

I’ve noticed that many criticisms or questions surrounding the IDI stem from people simply not understanding what it assesses (and doesn’t assess). More specifically, they don’t understand the culture-general and developmental nature of the assessment. Examples of the type of concerns/questions I’m referring to include asking whether the IDI is appropriate for individuals from historically marginalized groups, questioning whether the IDI addresses power and privilege, or similar.

First, it’s important to understand the IDI is a culture-general tool, meaning it’s not assessing knowledge, understanding, or anything else related to specific cultures. It’s not measuring racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other -ism. It’s also not assessing personality traits or skills, like “open-mindedness” or “resilience.”

What the IDI assesses is the complexity with which we experience and navigate cultural differences and similarities—in general, not with specific cultural groups. “Culture,” as the term is used by the IDI, is not limited to nationality or ethnicity. It refers to patterns of interpretations (values, beliefs, perceptions) and behaviors learned from any groups that guide individual and group activity. Our culture—or cultures, more accurately—are the lenses through which we make meaning of the world. The IDI assesses the complexity with which we experience such cultural patterns. It recognizes this increasing complexity as a developmental process.

This developmental aspect is also key to what makes the IDI unique from many other assessments. As I discussed in a previous blog post, there exist many different models of development. What they all have in common is that “thinking evolves from a mode of dualistic either/or options to a mode of more complex and relativistic thinking, then to the use of metacognitive skills that enable a person to hold various options in mind while weighing or evaluating evidence” (Adams, 2016, p. 34). It involves an evolution from either/or to both/and thinking.

In other words, development involves expanding and transforming one’s mindset, not just learning new information or even skill building. As Kegan & Laskow Lahey (2009) write, “True development is about transforming the operating system itself, not just increasing your fund of knowledge or your behavioral repertoire” (p. 6). Increasing our intercultural competence is about developing a more complex mindset, heart set, and skillset for engaging across cultures. According to the IDI, intercultural development entails increasing our capacity to shift perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities.

As far as I know, the IDI is the only developmental assessment of intercultural competence. What this means is that the IDI is a tool that can help us assess where an individual or group is on that developmental journey—the complexity with which they currently tend to navigate cultural differences and commonalities. And that information can help identify what that individual or group should focus on if they want to intentionally work on developing their intercultural competence.

As mentioned previously, in order to receive their results, individuals or groups who take the IDI must participate in a debrief with a Qualified Administrator. The purpose of these debriefs is to help the individual or group understand their results in context. This is where the biggest strength of the IDI lies, in my opinion. It’s where we truly see how this assessment can be relevant to people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, including those from historically-marginalized groups. Because in an IDI debrief (especially an individual debrief), you explore your own experiences with cultural differences and similarity—whether those experiences involve migrating from one country to another, living in environments where you were a racial minority, coming out as transgender, living in a family that didn’t talk about race, growing up speaking multiple languages, being neurodivergent, or whatever your experiences entail—and how they have impacted you and the way you currently engage cultural differences and commonalities.

Returning to the concern that the IDI does not address power and privilege, developing our intercultural competence is necessary to be able to effectively, appropriately, and authentically discuss and work with others to rectify societal inequities and similar challenges. Complex problems require complex mindsets.


In my opinion, the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) is a powerful tool. However, it’s important that anyone who is considering using it really understand what the IDI assesses, including the culture-general and developmental nature of the tool. In addition, it’s critical to be realistic and understand that one tool alone is not going to make an institution interculturally competent. For that, we need a robust intercultural teaching and learning toolbox and, most importantly, to use those tools to do the work.

That being said, it’s my opinion that no intercultural educator’s toolbox is complete without at least a very deep understanding of the Intercultural Development Continuum, and most higher education institutions could benefit from learning more about this tool and considering where they are in their own intercultural development journey.

References & Resources

Adams, M. (2016). Pedagogical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams & L. A. Bell (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (3rd ed., pp. 27–53). Routledge.

Kegan, R., & Laskow Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business Press.

IDI, LLC Website

Photo credit: Felicia Buitenwerf, Unsplash

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