Cross-cultural communication

Three myths dispelled about cultural intelligence


A few weeks ago I was reading an article about an interesting experiment. Psychologists have a really weird sense of humour but usually there is a reason behind what they do. They invited 100 people at random and placed them in a room with a door. They offered them $10 if they could open the door. In every case the subject pushed the door, pulled it, and said it was locked. Well… it was not. The door was designed with the hinges on the same side as the handle. Nobody had the flexibility to think “could this door work differently from every door I have used so far?” People get locked into patterns of behaviour and are unable to do anything else except repeat the pattern. It is strange, but generally if people do something that has worked in the past and this time it doesn’t, the first thing they do is the same action again, just harder and when they give up, they blame someone else.

I have had this feeling about the field of diversity, leadership, cultural intelligence for a while. It is almost like running under water… The more you have tried, the quicker you wanted to run, the more the water slowed you down and finally you gave up? I have done it and I still have nightmares about it, one of the most frustrating dreams! That is exactly how I see what is happening in the field of global leadership and cultural intelligence. So much struggle and activity, not much results. Do we approach it from the wrong angle?

In this article I focus on three major questions to find out. The purpose of this writing is not to convince you, but to offer a different perspective, share my findings and solutions with you so you can draw your own conclusions to make a better decision.

Have you ever watched Mythbusters? It is an Australian-American science entertainment television program that started 15 years ago.  The two hosts used elements of the scientific method to test the validity of rumours, myths, movie scenes, Internet videos, and news stories. They used to blow up cars, shoot each other and they did all kind of crazy stuff, but the point was that they wanted to find out what was true and valid or just an urban legend. At the end of the experiment they drew their own conclusion which could be busted, confirmed or plausible. That is exactly what we are doing here…

The first statement is “intercultural training is a good investment”? The second one is “Diversity is good for business” and the third one is “cultural intelligence equals competitive advantage

Lets see how they work out…

Intercultural training is a good investment

When we mention the word cross-cultural training, most people think about countries and nationalities. They think about the five dos and don’ts of different nations and their statistically average values and beliefs.  That is what the last century models focus on or perhaps they test our sensitivity of noticing cultural differences and self-awareness.

The fact is that we all belong to several cultural groups as the same time, they all shape our behaviour and values which can be rather different to the national expectations. If we want to go deeper, then we realise that there are different personality types even in the smaller cultural groups as well with sometimes completely opposing preferences. That is interesting as our personality determines how we want to behave and culture determines how we should behave…that is why they should never be separated. But how could we be an expert in 100s of different countries, generations, professions and personality types? That is impossible and even if the country-specific national scores were correct, what are the chances that we meet a statistically average person? It is next to nothing.

Focusing on one cultural group out of many and expecting a long lasting, sustainable result is naïve. Investing in intercultural training and learning about only nationalities is deceptive, it is international training or a partial intercultural one at their best and that is what 99% of companies buy and sell today. Those models can be useful when moving to a country as it is important to learn about what people are used to, but if our success depends on how well we understand our clients, colleagues or employees, then it is highly unlikely that we are going to deal with statistically average individuals.

Last century solutions  cannot fix today’s issues so this statement is busted. We talked a lot about diversity and its benefits… lets see if we can challenge that assumption, is that really true?

Diversity is good for business

Every company that employs or serves more than one person is multicultural, even if they are not multinational. Every single company is diverse, cognitively diverse, the question is how much they can make the most of that, how inclusive they are. Nowadays diversity is about the superficial level, the identity differences such as gender, generation, nationality and so on, the type of diversity that has no proven benefit.

Two researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis have discovered that the kinds of diversity we most commonly think of — gender, race, age — had no correlation to a team’s performance. What did make a difference was whether the team members had different perspectives and different styles of processing knowledge.

Low cognitive diversity can feel comfortable, no friction between people, they think and behave similarly. It is true, that it feels good, but it is not too efficient. The challenge with cognitive diversity is that it is more difficult to measure and publish the numbers on websites. The good news is that we can help with that.

There is another challenge though… if the team is cognitively diverse, it does not mean guaranteed results… That is up to their level of cultural intelligence and how much they can leverage their personal and cultural differences.

What does the concept of cognitive diversity mean for leaders? It is about being able to see the same situation from different perspectives so they can make a better decision. Relying on common sense and good intention are proven to be insufficient.

It is clear that there are problems at work and it is shocking to realize that 60-80% of them stem from strained relationships between employees. It is easy to fix technology, it is possible to optimize processes but it is very challenging to work with other people.

The top three causes of workplace conflicts are personality clashes, poor leadership and clashing values. All three of them stem from the same source, the capability of recognizing, understanding and optimizing why people think and behave differently. Celebrating diversity is as useful as sending prayers and thoughts to the victims of a mass disaster.

Celebrating diversity is as useful as sending prayers to the victims of a disaster. Click To Tweet

So the verdict is that this statement is plausible. Diversity can increase performance. It depends on your level of cultural intelligence and it has much more to do with cognitive diversity than the visible one that most companies focus on. Cognitive diversity doesn’t improve performance when it comes to routine tasks, like flipping burgers. But when we are dealing with complex tasks like engineering problems, or tasks requiring creativity and innovation, or managerial issues, cognitive diversity is a key variable in levels of performance. On the other hand if a loved one requires open-heart surgery, we do not want a collection of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers carving open the chest cavity. We’d much prefer a trained heart surgeon, and for good reason, so diversity is not always needed.

Let’s see if the last statement is true or false… Is cultural intelligence a competitive advantage?

Cultural intelligence equals competitive advantage

The more complex workforce you have and the more diverse market you serve, the more you need to understand what motivates, drives and satisfies your employees and customers. This is where common sense is not enough. Smart people get hired for their intelligence and then they get sacked for the lack of EQ because their people skills let them down. Successful leaders get promoted for their cultural intelligence which is the ability to manage and serve people from different cultural backgrounds.

Relying on common sense is like taking tic-tac for birth control. It might work but it is not very likely. Culturally intelligent companies grow and they are profitable. They do not spend on trainings because they have a lot of money, they are successful because they invest in this type of skills.

When we can turn diversity into inclusion, that is when magic happens. Usually companies are happy if they can improve their performance by a few percentage points, but if you look at the research, it seems to be clear that investing in people has the best return.

Based on what we have seen so far, we can confirm that cultural intelligence offers a competitive advantage, as long as it focuses on cognitive diversity instead of identity differences while creating an inclusive environment.

Cultural intelligence offers a competitive advantage as long as it focuses on cognitive diversity. Click To Tweet

It is true that complex problems require diverse perspectives, although that is not a solution by itself. That is just the theory and best case scenario. Diversity exists because people found different ways of solving problems, so when you have a wide range of perspectives, you can make a better decision. That is the potential. In real life usually it leads to chaos as people try to convince others that they are right and everybody else is wrong. Second option is that people will conform to the norms, they learn that there is no point in getting into an argument or people wont listen anyway so they just follow the herd.  On the surface it looks more peaceful, however the outcome is very similar to the first option. The optimal option is that the company has managed to create an inclusive environment where everyone can feel safe, trusted and empowered to bring up ideas, question the status quo and challenge long-standing assumptions.

That is what we should aim for. It only depends on our ability to leverage personal and cultural differences as opposed to pointing out national or generational differences. We have to build a common ground first so we can make the most of our differences.

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