Developing Cultural Intelligence in an Interconnected World
THE BULL IN THE CHINA SHOP Barbara Bull, the American public relations officer of a Beijing hotel, was annoyed with Weixing Li, a Chinese staff member who had repeatedly turned up late.
“Do you know what you did wrong?” His response was a blank stare. “Do you know what you did wrong? Do you know why I am
upset?” Another blank look. “Do you know what you did wrong?” “Whatever you say I did wrong, I did wrong,” he replied. Barbara was taken aback. What did he mean? “I want you to
tell me what you did wrong!” she said. “Whatever you say I did wrong, I did wrong. You are the boss.
Whatever you say is correct. So whatever you say I did wrong, I admit to.”
This made her even angrier. So she told him exactly what he had done wrong, describing his irresponsibility, immaturity, and failure. He apologized and said no more. He looked downcast. Did he understand the problem? Would he change?
Later, Barbara had a conversation with her fellow manager Chrissie, who has been in China for several years. When Barbara described what had happened, Chrissie nodded. What Barbara had experienced, she explained, was a common problem. Barbara simply did not understand the importance of mianzi to Chinese people.
“Mianzi is what Westerners would call ‘face,’ as in ‘saving face’ or ‘losing face.’ In Chinese culture it is the motivating force
behind many actions. Chinese employees tend to see things from a hierarchical viewpoint. Weixing probably knew he had done something wrong, but he would have handled it by letting his boss point out what he should have done. Instead, you made him lose face, which was bad for his commitment to the company, though fortunately you didn’t reprimand him in front of others. But he would see the loss of face as applying not just to himself but to you. Instead, you might have explained how his actions had caused both you and the company to lose face. That would have caused him shame, and he might have learned.”
“Wow! I’ll try to remember that next time I want to blow my top. But being in a foreign country is like walking on eggshells. People’s egos are so easily crushed. How am I supposed to know these things? How can I practice?”
This case presents a paradox of cultural intelligence. The paradox is this:
In order to acquire cultural intelligence you must practice, by living and working in culturally different environments, or by working with culturally different people.
In order to live and work effectively in culturally different environments, or to work successfully with culturally different people, you first need to acquire cultural intelligence.
This is a difficult problem. It means that Barbara and Weixing and others like them must do two things at once: continuously observe and learn cultural intelligence at the same time as they practice it. Barbara was too intent on getting Weixing to diagnose his own error, and Weixing held on to his Chinese beliefs about hierarchical relationships. Perhaps both will learn enough from their encounter for it to transfer to the next intercultural situation. And by sharing the problem with an experienced colleague, Barbara has been able to add to the knowledge component of her cultural intelligence. This aspect of the case reminds us that cultural intelligence is not developed through mere exposure to other cultures but requires conscious effort.
Characteristics Supportive of Cultural Intelligence Some characteristics that individuals already possess or can develop make them more willing and better able to increase their cultural intelligence.
For example, personality traits such as openness to new experience, extroversion, and agreeableness, improve the capacity to acquire the necessary skills. Again, mindfulness is key because, combined with the active pursuit of opportunities for cross-cultural interaction, it lays a foundation for developing greater cultural intelligence.
Developmental Stages of CQ The development of cultural intelligence occurs in several stages.
Stage 1: Reactivity to external stimuli. The starting point is a mindless adherence to one’s own cultural norms, typical of people with little exposure to, or interest in, other cultures. These people may not even recognize that cultural differences exist, or may consider them inconsequential. They may say things like “I don’t see differences. I treat everyone the same.” Stage 2: Recognition of other cultural norms and motivation to learn more about them. Experience and mindfulness produce a new awareness of the multicultural mosaic around us.
The individual is curious and wants to learn more but may struggle with the complexity of the cultural environment and search for simple rules to guide behavior. Stage 3: Accommodation of other cultural norms in one’s own mind. Reliance on absolutes disappears. A deeper understanding of cultural variation begins to develop. Different cultural norms and rules become comprehensible and even reasonable in their context. The individual knows what to say and do in different cultural situations but finds it difficult to adapt and often feels awkward. Stage 4: Assimilation of diverse cultural norms into alternative behaviors. At this stage, adjusting to different situations no longer requires much effort. Individuals develop a repertoire of behaviors from which they can choose depending on the situation.
They function in different cultures effortlessly, almost as if they were in their home cultures. Members of other cultures accept them and feel comfortable interacting with them. They feel at home almost anywhere. Stage 5: Proactivity in cultural behavior based on recognition of changes in cues that others do not notice and changes in cultural context, sometimes even before members of the other culture
recognize them. Individuals at this stage are so attuned to the nuances of intercultural interactions that they automatically adjust their behavior in anticipation and know how to execute it effectively. Such individuals may be rare, but they demonstrate a level of cultural intelligence to which we might all aspire.
Culturally intelligent people have a cognitively complex perception of their environment. They can make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. They describe people and events in terms of many different characteristics and can see the many links among these characteristics and the coherent pattern in a cultural situation. They see past the stereotypes that a superficial understanding of cultural dimensions —such as collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, and power distance (Chapter 2)—provides. Knowledge of these dimensions is only a first step in developing cultural intelligence.1 Culturally intelligent people see the connections between a culture and its context, history, and values.
The Process of Developing Cultural Intelligence Raising your CQ requires experience-based learning that can take considerable time. You need a base level of knowledge, the acquisition of new knowledge and alternative perspectives through mindfulness, and the development of this knowledge into behavioral skills. The process is iterative and can be thought of as a series of S curves, as shown in Figure 8.1.2
The acquisition of cultural intelligence involves learning from social interactions. Such social learning is a very powerful way of transferring experiences into knowledge and skills.3 Social learning involves attention to the situation, retention of the knowledge gained from the situation, reproduction of the behavioral skills observed, and finally reinforcement (receiving feedback) about the effectiveness of the adapted behavior.
Improving CQ by learning from social experience means paying attention to, and appreciating, critical cultural differences between oneself and others. This requires knowledge about how cultures differ and how culture affects behavior, awareness of contextual cues, and openness to the legitimacy and importance of different behavior. To retain this knowledge, we must transfer our learning from the specific experience to later interactions in other settings. To reproduce the skills, we need to practice them in future interactions. To reinforce the skills, we need to try out behaviors frequently and mindfully.
As implied by Figure 8.1, improving your CQ takes time, and you must be motivated to do it. The iterative and long-term nature of gaining cultural intelligence is illustrated in the following example.