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Learning Cultural Intelligence: THE CULTURALLY INTELLIGENT LEADER - PART 6

This article, Part 6, of a seven part series in culture in the workplace, outlines a framework for developing one's own culture intelligence.


It is impossible to learn the nuance of all the world’s cultures, barring a fully immersive experience, how then, can one adapt to a particular culture and maximise your cross-cultural effectiveness?

By learning to be Culturally Intelligent.

By applying a framework with which to approach any culture, and by understanding some of the fundamental dimensions of the culture, we are able to make deeper, more respectful connections.

A Model of Cultural Intelligence

A major influence in the development of Cultural Intelligence has been the work of Soon Ang & Linn van Dyne (2012).

Delving beyond surface-level cultural differences, Ang & van Dyne postulated intercultural capability as a distinct form of intelligence that can be measured and developed.

Numerous definitions of ‘intelligence’ exist, but for practical purposes, perhaps the simplest definition in a work context is ‘adaptability’.

The ability to adapt to one’s environment, in a manner that maximises one’s effectiveness in dealing with colleagues, customers, competitors and other stakeholders (such as shareholders, suppliers and regulators) is essentially what all modern management theory boils down to.

Being self-aware, open to social cues, and adapting one’s approach requires metacognitive, motivational and ultimately behavioural adjustments.

In recent years a large body of research supports the premise that formal CQ training consistently predicts performance in multicultural settings, a point as mentioned earlier not missed by diplomatic and military organisations around the world.

Source: Soon Ang & Linn van Dyne

Dimension: Meta-cognition = CQ Strategy

Explains how a person makes sense of culturally diverse experiences. It occurs when people make judgements about their own thought processes and those of others. It includes:

  • Awareness – knowing about one’s existing cultural knowledge

  • Planning – strategizing before a culturally diverse encounter

  • Checking – checking assumptions and adjusting mental maps when actual experiences differ from expectations

Dimension: Cognition = CQ Knowledge

Explains a person’s knowledge about how Cultures are similar and how Cultures are different. It includes:

  • Business – knowledge about economic and legal systems

  • Interpersonal – knowledge about values, social interaction norms, and religious beliefs

  • Socio-linguistics – knowledge about rules of languages and rules for expressing non-verbal behaviours

Dimension: Motivation = CQ Drive

Covers a person’s interest and confidence in functioning effectively in culturally diverse settings. It includes:

  • Intrinsic Interest – deriving enjoyment from culturally diverse experiences

  • Extrinsic Interest – gaining benefits from culturally diverse experiences

  • Self-efficacy – having the confidence to be effective in culturally diverse situations

Dimension: Behaviour CQ Action

Manifests as a person’s capability to adapt verbal and nonverbal behaviour to make it appropriate to diverse Cultures. It involves having a flexible repertoire of behavioural responses that suit a variety of situations. It includes:

  • Non-Verbal – modifying non-verbal behaviours (e.g., gestures, facial expressions)

  • Verbal – modifying verbal behaviours (e.g., accent, tone)

Formal CQ training teaches strategies to improve cultural perception in order to distinguish behaviours driven by culture from those specific to an individual. This implies that allowing knowledge and appreciation of this difference to guide responses, results in better business practices.

Cultural intelligence is often described in terms of social intelligence.

Read any job spec for a senior manager at a modern organisation and inevitably the requirement “strong interpersonal skills” features. Yet how many organisations actually monitor or formally develop these interpersonal skills?

One of the realities of intercultural personal skill, is the fact that executives who exhibit great social skills within their home culture; often mistaken this as an ability to interact across culture. In fact the evidence suggests otherwise (Hansen et al. 2009).

The ability to interact effectively in one cultural setting does automatically translate to interpersonal skill in another. Social cues differ.

Often individuals that are considered charming and talented in one culture don’t possess the skills and self-awareness required to perceive diverse cultural nuance. In an attempt to appear personable and affable, they apply the same approach used at home, and when their teams fail to respond, blame ‘the other’ for their lack of effective interpersonal skills.

There is little doubt of the need to develop formal Cultural Intelligence skills in today’s global workplace.

Many employers prefer to hire people that have lived, schooled or worked abroad at some point in their lives.

Exposure to other cultures, work environments and intercultural friendships are a crucial part of developing the skills demanded in modern cross-border commerce (Johnson et al. 2006); and so too is creating awareness (at the very least) of what it means to be Culturally Intelligent.

How is Cultural Intelligence Developed?

Why are some individuals able to lead effectively across various cultures, while others seem unaware of the cultural impact of their management style?

How are some multinational organisations able to harness the potential of diversity, and have a high-level of awareness of the impact of centralised policy making on employee morale and customer engagement?

Why are others wrought with organisational friction, as educated managers ham-handedly implement head office policy decrees or culturally inappropriate marketing campaigns?

Cultural intelligence skills impact almost every interaction within the modern workplace, so surely it makes sense to:

  • Enhance one’s understanding of how a market responds to a new product;

  • How customers express dissatisfaction differently from one market to the next;

  • Or how decisions made in London affect staff morale in Johannesburg or Singapore.

All organisations these days speak of ‘purpose’ – and some, depending on what culture one finds oneself in, even believe it is their role as employer to help their employees ‘find their purpose’.

This often results in an espoused message by management of creating an environment in which people are encouraged to speak up, share their views and give honest feedback. 'Our people are valued and have purpose after all....' goes the mantra.

This could be an attempt to superficially influence the cultural narrative towards instilling some kind of values-based culture, or motivating employees to believe the work they do really does have some kind of meaning, some kind of lasting positive impact.

Yet many multinational organisations struggle with real bottom-up feedback. Their leadership listen to marketing experts or external consultants but ignore the rich source of information flowing upwards. Line managers spend much of their time managing the flow of information that is allowed to flow upwards.

You have no real 'purpose' in this kind of culture beyond what you are paid to do.

Culturally intelligent leaders understand that in order to truly move an organisation, they must lead in a manner that resonates with their followers. All their followers.

Don’t take it for granted that everyone expects to be led in the same manner.

Just as having purpose may be important for healthy psychological development, so too is being listened to, being heard, being made to feel respected.

High CQ leaders understand that making the effort to listen, understand and connect with people of different worldviews is both worth the effort and personally enriching.

Think for a second about the use of ‘self-deprecation’ in a leader/follower situation such as a meeting or conference. This is a common ice-breaker technique used by managers in the U.K. for example, in which a leader may poke fun at themselves in a bid to connect with their followers, to lighten to atmosphere and set the stage for group participation.

This type of culturally-driven behaviour generally works well in low power distance cultures; it signals humility, fallibility, it seeks to level the power relationship between the leader and followers perhaps. But this type of behaviour is generally not well received in high power distance societies – in Russian businesses, or many African cultures for instance, followers do not expect an authority figure to make jokes at their own expense, or appear vulnerable and self-critical in public; something the culturally intelligent leader will infer, and adapt to accordingly.

A 2008 study found that managers that scored highly using a widely accepted 4-factor Model of Cultural Intelligence found that exposure to diverse cultures by individuals who were mindful about their personal cultural interactions led to improved CQ.

Any person that is exposed to a different environment either responds in a positive adaptive or negative maladaptive manner; hence the need for formal CQ training to provide a more organised approach to responding to cultural information.

While it may sound obvious, adults learn in a very specific manner. As we grow older we tend to contextualise new information before assimilating it. Unlike children, adults first weigh up the new information against what they already know.

An example of this is a theory of language acquisition, which postulates that children tend to ‘absorb’ a language they hear without referencing it to the language they already know. As we grow older, hearing new words are first referenced to the equivalent word in our home language – so adult learning of a new language essentially becomes an exercise in memory recall. Those that have learnt a new language in adulthood, often say the point at which they truly master a new language was when they started to think in their new language too.

Psychologists refer to this process as cognitive overload, a process that requires extra steps in one’s cognitive processing in order to perform a seemingly simple task.

A home language speaker simply speaks, they verbalise their thoughts; while a new-language speaker must first receive the message in a foreign language, translate it into their ‘thinking’ language, devise a response in their mother tongue, recall the equivalent words in the new language, and then attempt to convey the message in a manner that understandable.

All this while trying to preserve their self-image in front of a group of people whose perceptions of them are often implicitly linked to their economic welfare (in the workplace in front of their boss for instance).

A culturally intelligent leader understands these additional cognitive processes, makes allowance for this, listens and supports their points of view in a judgement-free environment. Who would argue that this type of environment wouldn’t engender respect in addition to richer ideas?

Research strongly suggests that CQ is developed and enhanced in primarily two ways.

Experience and Awareness.

While voluntary intercultural experience (vacationing abroad or seeking out intercultural experiences alluded to in the model above) may be difficult to foster in organisations, creating formal programmes and narratives of cultural models can be achieved.

Understanding your own personal cultural framework and how this informs your worldview, enables a process of positive adaption that lies at the core of all measures of intelligence.

Technical skill may count for everything in highly skilled professionals that need to get things done (task oriented); but as potential leaders rise through an organisation the reality is those technical skills begin to matter less than their social intelligence skills.

Formal CQ training provides a framework for leaders to begin the process of enhancing their adaptability to culturally diverse business environments.

Management systems are about controlling and directing resources in an effort to achieve a predictable outcome. Organisational culture is no different. It is a system of expected attitudes and behaviours, a system that allows our people understand what is required in order to achieve a shared and predictable outcome.

References and Further Reading

  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede G. J. & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (3rdEd.).

  • Okoro, E. (2012). Cross-Cultural Etiquette and Communication in Global Business: Toward a Strategic Framework for Managing Corporate Expansion. International Journal of Business and Management

  • Fluehr-Lobban. C. (1995). Cultural Relativism and Universal Rights. The Chronicle of Higher Education. B1. 33-39.

  • O’Reilly, C. (1989). Corporations, Culture and Commitment: Motivation and Social Control in Organisations. Managing Human Resources.

  • Nutt, P. C. (1988). Uncertainty and Culture in Bank Loan Decisions. International Journal of Management Science.

  • Tajfel. H. (1984). Social Dimensions of Attributions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

  • Neisser, U., Boodoo, G., Bouchard, T. J., Boykin, A. W., Brody, N., Ceci, S. J., Halpern, D. F., Loehlin, J. C. et al. (1996). Intelligence: Knowns and unknowns”. American Psychologist.

  • Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences. Beverley Hills CA: Sage

  • Hansen, J. D., Singh, T., Weilbaker, D. C. & Gueslaga. (2011). Cultural Intelligence in Cross-Cultural Selling: Propositions and Directions for Future Research. Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management.

  • Ang, S., Tay, C. & Chandrasekar, N. A. (2007). Cultural Intelligence: It’s Measurement and Effects on Cultural Judgement and Decision Making, Cultural Adaption and Task Performance. Managament and Organisation Review, 3(3), 335-371

  • Johnson, J. P., Lenartowicz, T. & Apud, S. (2006). Cross-cultural competence in international business: toward a definition and a model. Journal of International Business Studies.

  • Chebat, J., Kerzazi, L. & Zourrig, H. (2010). Impact of Culture on Dissatisfied Customers: An empirical study. City, Culture and Society.

  • Ellemers, N.; Barreto, M. (2001). Brown, S. L.; Gaertner, eds. “The impact of relative group status: affective, perceptual and behavioural consequences”. Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Intergroup processes 3 (1): 324–343.

  • Bing, J. W. (2004). Hofstede’s consequences: The impact of his work on consulting and business practices. Academy of Management Executives.

  • Luthar, H. & Luthar, V. (2008). Likelihood to Sexually Harass: A comparison among American, Indian and Chinese Students. International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management.

  • Giles, Howard; Coupland, Joustine; Coupland, N. (1991). “Accommodation Theory: Communication, Context, and Consequence”. In Giles, Howard; Coupland, Justine; Coupland, N. Contexts of Accommodation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

  • Ng, K., Van Dyne, L. & Ang, S. (2012). Cultural Intelligence: A Review, Reflections and Recommendations for Future Research. Conducting Multinational Research: Applying Organisational Psychology in the Workplace

  • Gerstner, C. R. & Day, D. V. (1994). Cross Cultural Comparison of Leadership Prototypes. The Leadership Quarterly.

  • House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W. & Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, Leadership and Organisations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies.

  • Chhokar, J. S., Brodbeck, F. C. & House, R. J. (2007). Culture and Leadership Across the World: The GLOBE Book of In-Depth Studies of 25 Societies.

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