Are You Culturally Intelligent?

by Jessica Zartler / January 19, 2016

Did you know that you aren’t supposed to cross your chopsticks? And definitely don’t stick them upright in a bowl - that’s an omen of death.

You may have heard some cultural don’ts like these from Asia, or perhaps another laundry list of crossing and uncrossing your legs, how you should or shouldn’t shake hands (especially not with your dirty left hand) or how your yellow clothing could offend people in Malaysia.

Cultural intelligence is more than knowing how to hold chopsticks.

The term cultural intelligence was originally developed in organizational psychology and there have been several books in the last two decades written on the subject.

People who are culturally intelligent are not experts on every culture, but they do have high emotional intelligence and are highly observant. The cultural intelligentsia can pick up on the values and attitudes of people around them as well as read body language for clues as to why their colleagues act the way they do or better yet, how to respond.

40 percent of managers sent on foreign assignments end them early.

With globalization and increasingly diverse cross-cultural teams in business, knowing how to manage these teams is incredibly valuable - millions of dollars valuable. According to research in David Livermore’s book Leading with Cultural Intelligence, up to 40 percent of managers sent on foreign assignments end them early. The reason? Not job skills, but an abundance of cultural problems. Companies in the study say each incomplete assignment costs them between $250,000 and $1.25 million (USD). Also cited in the book, a survey of top management in 68 countries - 90 percent of whom said cross-cultural leadership is the biggest management challenge of the century.

Even if you work for a small, local business and not a multinational corporation, you may still experience cultural complexities within your community or customer base that can cost you money or even your job. Cultural complexities not only involve different cultures as in different countries, but culture extends to all behavior in an environment. The more you can develop your awareness of cultural awareness, the easier your interactions at work become.

Rather than reading seven books on the subject to improve your cultural intelligence, here is a breakdown and some quick tips based on the Seven Dimensions of Culture by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.

1. Universalism vs. Particularism

Universalism - Rules before relationships
TIP: If you are managing a Universalist, help them understand how their work ties into their values and give them time to make decisions. Provide clear instructions, be consistent and explain your decisions objectively.

Particularism -
Circumstance dictates rules
TIP: Allow the Particularist colleague the independence to make their own decisions. In your decision-making, respect others’ needs and be flexible. If there are any rules that cannot be bent, make sure you highlight these to the Particularist.

2. Individualism vs. Communitarianism

Individualism - Personal freedom responsibility and achievement
TIP: Make sure you praise and reward an Individualist’s performance and allow them to be creative and learn from their mistakes. When the group or company’s needs become important, explain it to the Individualist in terms of people’s needs within the organization.

Communitarianism - The group is more important than the individual
TIP: Praise and reward the group’s performance and do not praise individuals publicly. Avoid showing favoritism to these folks and allow them to involve others in their decision-making process.

3. Specific vs. Diffuse

Specific - Work life and home life are separate
TIP: With the Specificists, be direct and to the point always keeping the objective ahead of personal relationships. Provide clear goals and instructions and allow them to keep their professional lives separate from work.

Diffuse - There is an overlap in personal life and business
TIP: Focus on building a good relationship with the Diffuse person before focusing on objectives. Try to find out as much as you can about these people and the organizations they work with knowing that they’ll want to discuss business at social occasions and personal topics at work. Diffuse appreciate you accepting social invitations.

4. Neutral vs. Emotional

Neutral - Conceal their thoughts and emotions
TIP: The Nuetralists are not only reluctant to show their emotions but are carefully watching others. As a manager to these people, manage your emotions and be mindful that your body language isn’t negative. It’s also helpful to stick to the point in meetings and interactions.

Emotional - Culturally accept showing emotion and want to express themselves
TIP: With Emotionals, learn to use positive body language and emotions to communicate objective and open up to build rapport. These colleagues tend to take things personally so make sure you are adept at managing conflict and keeping it business related.

5. Achievement vs. Ascription

Achievement - You are what you do
TIP: With Achievers, make sure you reward their performance and only use titles when it’s relevant. It’s also important to set a good example.

Ascription - Who you are matters (power/positions/titles matter)
TIP: Ascriptionists want you to use titles to clarify ranking within an organization and they also expect you to respect people in a position of authority, especially when challenging an idea. Although they respect titles, they also expect people in those positions to also perform well.

6. Sequential Time vs. Synchronous Time

Sequential Time - There is a schedule, stick to it
TIP: Sequential Time colleagues only focus on one project at a time. They expect their managers to be on time, set clear deadlines and be punctual.

Synchronous Time - Past, present and future are interwoven; plans are flexible
TIP: People who do their work in Synchronous Time are great multitaskers. Allow lots of flexibility with how they do their projects but if punctuality is really important on a particular project or objective, make sure to highlight that to this colleague.

7. Internal Direction vs. Outer Direction

Internal Direction - Internal locus of control; I can take initiative
TIP: Allow the Internal Direction colleagues to take control of their learning and skill development. As a manager, set objectives that they can agree with or be open about conflict and engage in constructive debate.

Outer Direction - External locus of control; I should wait for a directive
TIP: Provide the Outer Directionists resources to do their job and give them regular feedback about how their work is affecting the environment. Gently encourage these colleagues to take ownership of their work and do what you can to help boost their confidence, balancing critical feedback with positive feedback.

Do you work with more Individualists or Communitarians? Do you have more Sequential Time colleagues or Ascriptionists? Whatever the mix, we hope these tips helped to boost your CQ.

If you are looking to employ some of these techniques, like setting clear deadlines, try Taskworld. It’s a project management application that makes communicating in any culture clear and allows everyone, no matter what culture they subscribe to, to get things done and stay on the same page.

Sign up here for your free 30-day trial. 

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