Diversity is the new normal—and we’d better get used to it. Under the impact of migration, globalisation, and the concentration of work in super-connected cities across the world, we are dealing with people of many different national, ethnic, cultural, social, and generational backgrounds on a daily basis.
This means we are now required to develop and use a once neglected skill—cultural intelligence (CQ)—as never before. And yet more than 90 per cent of global executives identify cross-cultural effectiveness as their biggest challenge.
HOW ABOUT YOU?
How about you? Are you one of the fortunate or culturally gifted 10 per cent? More likely, you are among the majority of people who feel their cultural intelligence is not quite as good as it should be.
Perhaps you’re leading or working with multicultural teams. Perhaps you have been assigned to a position overseas. Perhaps your business is becoming more international. Whatever the reason, you have to start your cultural intelligence journey somewhere.
When I say ‘cultural intelligence journey’, I don’t mean that we are all more or less passengers bound in the same direction as soon as we consciously step on the CQ Express—and that we’re all going to end up at the same destination once we have crossed similar mountains, and rivers, and national borders, and cultural barriers.
THE CQ EXPRESS
We all respond differently to the challenges of this complex, cross-cultural world of ours, and each one of us is different and individual. We will have personal and individual reactions to different cultural settings and scenarios.
It is by no means certain where we will end up even when we have developed our cultural intelligence over many years and in many different situations. Your CQ Express might take you anywhere.
For some people—and these tend to be the majority—it is extremely difficult to function successfully when confronted with cultures and attitudes that are not very similar to their own.
Even when they are posted to other countries in their jobs, they often fail to adapt to the prevailing culture or to even set foot outside their own safe expatriate ghetto.
They want everyone they encounter to be ‘just like me’ and to do things ‘just like at home’. And when that doesn’t work out for them, they complain to their expatriate colleagues that they don’t ‘get’ the Chinese, or the Brazilians, or the Indians.
LISTS OF DOS AND DON’TS
They want a system that will enable them to interact safely with the locals, or people from the same region, without having to make any adjustments in their values or behaviour.
Lists of dos and don’ts are often the main support that such professionals use (if they use any), as if a quick rundown of etiquette tips will save them the painful business of overcoming cultural differences and communicating effectively.
This shopping list approach to cultural adjustment is perhaps better than making no effort at all. However, it is unlikely to work when you are confronted (as we all are, sometimes several times a day) by a multiplicity of different cultural situations—ethnic, generational, or organisational.
How do you handle the East Asia portfolio of clients you have been handed when you are told the Japanese are different to the South Koreans, who are different to the Mainland Chinese, who are different to the Taiwanese?
How do you avoid stereotypes when you rely on your etiquette tips and shopping lists? How do you treat a Japanese American differently to a Tokyo-born Japanese?
BECOMING CULTURALLY ADEPT
Don’t get me wrong. A list is an attempt at understanding or fitting in, but it won’t help you respond effectively to a variety of cultural contexts. You will become confused when trying to remember what to do when and in what culture. You will get cultural overload, and you will do what many stressed people do: say it’s all a waste of time, stick to your guns, and not bother.
This is a great shame because with a little help to flex your cultural muscles, you could instinctively adjust to different peoples from different cultures almost without noticing you are doing it.
You might say that all we have to do is treat people as individuals. And you would be right. Beyond the cultural differences, we often find that people are the same all over the world. They have the same needs, and insecurities, and loves, and dreams that we have.
However, to discover and celebrate this, you have to make some effort to get on the same wavelength, to reach out and communicate, and above all to respect others’ beliefs and traditions. Cultural intelligence, which also includes cultural sensitivity, helps you to do this.
This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Bamboo Strong – Cultural Intelligence Secrets To Succeed In The New Global Economy.