Preparing Interculturally-Competent Students for a VUCA World

Oct 10, 2023
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The term VUCA—which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—was coined by the U.S. Army War College in the 1980s. It’s since gained much wider usage and popularity in describing the current state of the world.

One of the reasons I am a strong proponent of developing intercultural competence through higher education is because I believe doing so better prepares students for this VUCA world.

Let’s dive a little deeper into these two ideas—VUCA and intercultural competence—and explore their relationship.

What is VUCA?

The term VUCA can be broken down as follows:

  • Volatility has to do with the increasing pace of change, which is only likely to become more rapid.
  • Uncertainty refers to the extent to which we can reasonably predict the future.
  • Complexity is about the many different and interconnected parts of problems that we face. When unpredictable things interact, they produce a multiplicity of forces, confounding issues, and unforeseen consequences.
  • Ambiguity stems from not having enough clarity regarding a problem or issue to draw conclusions or make an informed decision.

COVID offered a stark example of how volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous our world is. And it’s only getting more so. We all need skills to not just survive, but thrive, in such an environment.

In their book, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practice for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston write:

"While we have taught leaders around the world and researched, read, and written about leadership, we have found that this rise in complexity, ambiguity, volatility, and uncertainty is not just lingering around the edges of our workdays; it's everywhere. Coping with these changes requires whole new ways of making sense of the world and of taking action to make a difference."

- Garvey Berger & Johnston, 2016, p. xvii

What is Intercultural Competence?

I define intercultural competence as the capacity to engage effectively, appropriately, and authentically across cultural differences, locally and globally. It’s needed not only when engaging with people from other countries, but with anyone who is different from us, whether that’s because their way of seeing and experiencing the world has been shaped by a different religion, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, or all of the above.

Intercultural competence is not something we simply have or don’t have, but a developmental process whereby we increase the complexity with which we experience and can navigate cultural differences and similarities. As we build capacity for navigating more complexity, we develop greater ability to shift perspective and see things—including our own beliefs and behaviors—from other points of view. Eventually, we can develop capacities to adapt our behaviors in ways that are both appropriate and authentic, to be effective in various cultural contexts. However, developing this type of intercultural mindset and capacity requires intentional work.

What’s the Connection?

From global pandemics to global warming and other environmental issues. Immigration. Cybersecurity. Artificial Intelligence. The challenges we face today are much more complex than they once were. However, as Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, scholars and trainers in the area of adult development and leadership, have found, “Our own mental complexity lags behind the complexity of the world’s demands. We are in over our heads” (Kegan & Laskow Lahey, 2009, p. 30).

We need new ways of thinking—new ways of engaging ideas, the world, and one another. If we want to be able to effectively tackle the challenges we face today, and in the future, we need to intentionally develop more complex mindsets.

Due to our diverse backgrounds and experiences, we all have different understandings of the world, others, and ourselves, as well as different ways of doing things, different values, and different assumptions. This is extremely beneficial—critical even—because different perspectives, experiences, and ways of doing things are required to upgrade our mindsets and solve the problems of the 21st century and beyond.

However, the existence—even celebration—of such diversity is not enough. We need to figure out how to make our diversity work. Pluralism moves beyond the traditional “melting pot” myth common in the U.S., or even multiculturalist approaches to diversity. It’s an approach that supports and encourages members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups to maintain and develop their cultural values, norms, and practices within a greater multicultural society (Sorrells, 2016; Geller, 2017).

In their call for proposals for the Difficult Dialogues initiative, the Ford Foundation declared, “Diversity is simply a fact of our local and global world, but pluralism requires engaging that diversity with study, debate, and dialogue; and this constitutes a new intellectual challenge for colleges and universities” (Ford Foundation, 2005, p. 90). Similarly, in the book, Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education, Daryl Smith writes:

“Higher education must play a critical role if we are to achieve the promise of our democracy: developing a pluralistic society that works. Although few of us have lived or worked in such a setting, this is one of the foremost challenges of our day.”

- Daryl Smith, 2020, p. vii

If we want to harness society’s diversity to help us better problem-solve, innovate, and meet the challenges we face today and into the future, we need to get intentional about developing our capacity to live, work and engage effectively, appropriately, and authentically across differences.

That’s exactly what intercultural development entails. It’s about learning to engage more effectively, appropriately, and authentically with people who are different from us. This process also involves developing more complex mindsets, which can help us engage ambiguity, navigate volatility, and hold space for uncertainty.


To summarize, the world increasingly calls on us to engage with more volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Our diversity actually holds within it an opportunity to help us meet these challenges because more diversity of perspectives, experiences, and ways of doing things can result in greater innovation and problem-solving. However, there’s also a risk of our differences leading to division (or worse). What we need is to develop our capacity to engage effectively, appropriately, and authentically across difference. That is, we need greater intercultural competence.

Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to intentionally help all students develop their intercultural competence so they are prepared to not only navigate our increasingly VUCA world, but to foster a pluralistic society that works.


Ford Foundation. (2005). Difficult dialogues: Promoting pluralism and academic freedom on campus (A letter from Higher Education Leaders and Susan Beresford to College and University Presidents).

Garvey Berger, J. & Johnston, K. (2016). Simple habits for complex times: Powerful practices for leaders. Stanford, CA: Stanford Business Books.

Geller, J.R. (2017). Terminology and intersections. In Kappler Mikk, B. & Steglitz, I.E. (eds.), Learning across cultures: Locally and globally. Washington, DC: Stylus Publishing.

Kegan, R. & Laskow Lahey, L. (2006). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Smith, D. (2020). Diversity's promise for higher education: Making it work. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sorrells, K. (2016). Intercultural communication: Globalization and social justice (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.


Photo credit:  Andy Kelly, Unsplash

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