Are You Culturally Intelligent?

Photo of two men discussing business while sitting outside.
David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of Leading with Cultural Intelligence, which was named a best-seller in business by The Washington Post. He's president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

How important is the influence of culture on any international venture–be it business, development, diplomacy or travel?

Obviously, I am a bit biased but it's hard for me to think of pretty much any leadership or organizational initiative today that doesn't somehow involve culture. Not only international culture, which probably has the most relevance to what you and I are going to talk about today, but also organizational cultures, professional cultures and generational cultures. It sometimes feels a bit like defining air; we're in the midst of it all the time but it's not necessarily visible to us. We are not necessarily forced to think about it consciously and yet it profoundly influences everything that we say and do.

What do you mean by cultural intelligence?

In our case, it's more than just a creative term for cultural competence. We have actually researched it as a form of intelligence. Most of your readers would be very familiar with the idea of emotional intelligence and social intelligence. This kind of picks up on that same research and essentially it's saying, “How do I have emotional and social intelligence–more practical intelligences–when I am interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds?” You and I come from a similar cultural background and we sit down and we begin talking to each other in a very North American way. You respond and acknowledge my comments, which I find very helpful, while we interact over the phone. But if I am suddenly talking with someone who comes from a different cultural background, they might not say anything and my emotional intelligence would say, “Wow, they don't get it; they are not understanding me,” whereas they might see that as a rude behaviour. So there is a very academic research side to cultural intelligence but it also helps me have the kinds of practical skills that emotional and social intelligence help me to have with people of my own culture when I interact with people from a different cultural background.

The technical definition we give is that it's the capability to be effective in a variety of cultural contexts. In contrast to just being culturally aware or just having a global mindset, we are actually interested in whether you can actually adapt enough to a different cultural situation to be effective in that culture.

Your cultural intelligence (CQ) model has four dimensions and I would like to start with the dimension called Drive. What do you mean by Drive?

What we mean by Drive is the degree to which somebody is motivated and intrinsically interested in things related to culture. During our research, this emerged as such an important capability for those who are more culturally intelligent than others. We found that although you might have someone who knows all kinds of things about different cultures, it doesn't necessarily mean they are interested in them. Many of the downfalls I have seen with our diversity or cross-cultural training here in the U.S. is that we jump right in and start telling people about different cultures but we haven't answered the why question; why does this really matter to me as a human being, as somebody who is in the workplace? Although it's portrayed that way in the book, our cultural intelligence model is not necessarily cyclical but if we could talk about what order most makes sense, we would start with Drive. Without the motivation, it's really hard to get to the other dimensions.

Is it then just a matter of proper selection?

In part for sure, but almost everybody has some motivation for something and you have to find some way to tap into that intrinsic motivation and help them see how that can be connected to something cross-cultural. But you raise a good point, especially as we talk to groups about expat assignments or Foreign Service assignments; if somebody doesn't have any intrinsic motivation then I would see that as a big red flag for putting them on an assignment. I can figure out ways to help them gain the knowledge and strategy but they have got to have some kind of desire for it.

The research done here at the Centre indicates that curiosity and a genuine interest in other cultures are definitely indicators of success.

Our research would reinforce what you have just said. We found of all the different aspects of personality, for example extrovert or introvert, were not necessarily good predictors. For example, an extrovert would mean you probably tend to have higher CQ Action because you just kind of jump in and do it but you might have less CQ Strategy and vice versa. The one personality trait that always predicts higher CQ is curiosity and openness.

Knowledge is the next element of your cultural intelligence framework. This is probably the area most commonly covered by intercultural training.

That's right; we're talking about some of the typical things like how do the Chinese tend to view Power and Authority as compared to the Canadians or the Germans. It is important but that knowledge has to be supplemented. For example, which Canadian are you talking about or what if it's a Chinese-Canadian? Knowledge can actually be a way of helping with Drive; if someone's lack of drive is due to lack of confidence, once they gain knowledge they likely will feel a little bit more confident.

There are certainly huge variances within a culture and its subgroups. Is part of the knowledge component understanding our own behaviour and our own culture?

Yes, in fact when I'm training or working with a group, if there is only one take away, my number one desire would be that they leave with an enhanced knowledge of their own culture and background.

I think your third CQ dimension, Strategy, would answer the classic question: “So now what?” People want to know how to use their new knowledge.

It's one thing to have an academic understanding of something but to actually be able to engage in what we call higher order thinking and apply that knowledge to a unique situation is an entirely different thing. That's what we are really getting at with Strategy.

Can you give us an example or anecdote for Strategy?

This is not one that I'm proud. I was standing in line waiting to get on the plane a few weeks ago. I was in the pre-boarding lane and there was a couple in front of me who very much looked like they were from a different cultural background and they were speaking a foreign language. My immediate bias was that these people did not know where they were supposed to be and they were in the wrong line because they looked confused. I wasn't actually flying first class, I was flying economy, but because I fly so much, I was able to pre-board. Much to my surprise, they turned left and went into first class and I entered into economy.

There are a number of things happening there; why did I presume they should be in economy? I think the other piece that relates to CQ Strategy was for me to step back for a second and reflect. Why did I jump to that conclusion? It's less about beating myself up for thinking that way but at least stopping myself to try and avoid jumping to that conclusion in the future. How do I turn off the cruise control before I jump to a judgment?

What recommendations do you have to overcome the challenges of correctly interpreting what one is observing? Whether it's at an airport, a meeting in our hometown or a business dinner in Bangkok?

You hope to do the best you can in the moment and on the fly but more often, as you step away from a situation, you go back and try to figure out if you used the right strategy both by reading about some of the CQ Knowledge stuff again or by talking to someone who can act as a cultural broker. You are less concerned then about every incident as a flawless example of cultural intelligence and CQ Strategy. But you do use every opportunity to grow your overall CQ Strategy. Even if you did make a mistake in Bangkok, you won't keep making the same mistake. You will learn from it and adjust your thinking and assumptions.

Do some people find this whole process exhausting? To a certain extent, you're always “on.”

Absolutely! I would say even for those of us who thrive on it, those who have high CQ Drive, it still can be exhausting. You can't just put the cruise control on. We find it's actually most exhausting to people in social interactions. I might work together all day long with someone and there can be some cultural conflict but then we go together for dinner, I'm not sure if I'm supposed to ask about their family or religion; what should we order or was it okay to ask those kinds of questions?

Your fourth dimension of CQ is Action which includes specific tactics such as adapting your communication style or selection of topics and subjects for discussions. It's where the “rubber hits the road.”

At the end of the day, we might as well not even waste our time with the whole thing unless there's some action and results. Having said that, I would actually say the best way to adjust action is to focus on the first three CQ dimensions because if I work too hard on modifying how far I should bow when I am going to go to do relief work in Japan, it can become paralyzing. And frankly, as I write in the book, the best case scenario is that it can come off as humorous and in the worst case, it can be insulting to others. We want to adjust enough to be respectful, to be effective and to get our task accomplished but not to the point that David can no longer be David.

That may be one of the most challenging aspects: when to flex and when not to flex.

At a corporate organizational level this is the biggest challenge that many of the companies we're working with are facing. They ask themselves as a brand, how much do we adapt and adjust to the various tastes of different markets and to the various preferences of different personnel scattered around the world, and how far do we go until we are no longer the same company?

Is Cultural intelligence a question of nurture vs. nature?

We certainly focus far more on nurture. I think certain individuals intuitively might have a leg up on others. I sometimes think about it in the following context: I am a runner because I have learned to run and like to run. If you put me alongside somebody who has a different physiological makeup than me and exercises as much as I do, I am certainly not going to win any marathons. This individual would outrun me any day. But that same individual who never runs at all, even if they are genetically inclined to be a better runner, I will outrun them if I work at it and they don't. I would say the same thing about CQ. But since we can't really control nature and almost all of us in the 21st century world are going to be called to do engage in some kind of multicultural interactions, our emphasis is on how it can be taught. Obviously it comes back to Drive–we can't force anybody to learn.

Thank you David.

You're very welcome.

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