Got a little time to kill? As we wrap up this month’s leadership challenge to develop or enhance your cultural intelligence, take a few minutes to watch a series of ads run by HSBC Bank. This link takes you to my favorite among the group of ads, but all these clever ads make the point of the importance of cultural intelligence. They are good reminders to your students and those whom you mentor that being culturally aware or culturally ignorant can be the difference between successful encounters with clients, business contacts, and others, and being perceived as boorish, insensitive, uncaring, or offensive.
Cultural intelligence helps to temper, for example, one’s expectation that a Chinese business partner will push through a proposal with the urgency and expedience of Western business culture when that individual is influenced by her culture that values harmony and waiting until the right moment. Cultural intelligence avoids wrongly concluding that an individual has nothing to contribute during a meeting when in their culture, one does not speak unless invited or questioned.
Developing and continuing to enhance one’s cultural intelligence is hard, and the learning is never done. Impressing that lesson on our students is an extremely valuable gift for their future success.
Something interesting happens at my predominantly white church the Sundays we are slated to worship in the sanctuary of our sister church, a predominantly black congregation. This happens only every other year, with our sister church visiting our sanctuary in the off years. However, there are always a few from my church who shy away from attending the service at our sister church, expecting the service to be too different for their liking. But those who opt to attend church despite their hesitancy often note how enriched they were to experience something very different in terms of music and worship style as compared to our usual Sunday fare. Their openness to experiencing the culture of the black church gives them valuable insight into their neighbors who worship differently. And someone invariably remarks that those who opted to stay home missed something very special. Indeed, they did.
As leaders, it is important to maintain an openness to learning about and even experiencing different cultures as part of our goal to enhance cultural intelligence. According to the experts, the personality trait of openness is generally believed to influence an individual’s ability to deal effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds.
That attitude of openness opens the door to new and different experiences and opportunities to gain an understanding of different cultures. People in other cultures do things differently, have different views, and follow different traditions. To fail to be open to learning about those cultures and, when possible, experiencing them, risks stunting one’s growth in cultural intelligence. The “ugly American” who travels abroad only to spend her time criticizing the different customs and cultures because they aren’t like we do it back home, misses the richness of those customs and cultural traditions. And one doesn’t have to leave the country to be the ugly American and to miss out on fantastic opportunities to connect with those from other cultures in our own backyards.
The good news is we don’t have to leave the country to enhance our knowledge of other cultures. By all means, never miss the chance to visit a new place or to become more at home in a place you’ve visited before, but there are plenty of opportunities even locally. Try the food at the new Ethiopian restaurant, spend a few hours at the Czech festival, visit the Brazilian art exhibit, or even visit the worship service of a different denomination or faith tradition. And talk to the individuals you meet along the way. People are generally happy to share their culture with outsiders who are respectful, non-judgmental, and genuinely curious.
There are certainly plenty of books, blogs, and television shows that provide a glimpse into other cultures, but dare to venture outside your cultural comfort zone, and encourage those who you teach or otherwise influence to do the same. Just as accepting failure as a learning opportunity is a vital component of a growth mindset, embracing uncomfortableness in new environments is a worthwhile endeavor as you open yourself to different cultural experiences. Maybe you’ll like what you experience, maybe not—and that’s okay. It’s the learning, and the openness to learning, that matters.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
–David Wallace Foster
While Foster was urging general awareness of the world, the same should be said of culture. It is so much a part of who we are that it is often easy to forget it until we become the proverbial fish out of water or we encounter others who are unfamiliar with the water in which we swim.
As we continue our focus on developing cultural intelligence as one tool in the leader’s tool kit, the first step is awareness of one’s own culture. Culture, as you will recall, is the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgements about the world. Culture is so ingrained in us that, for example, as Americans, we may fail to understand why people from other parts of the world recoil at our offer of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a quick snack, unaware that while the PB&J sandwich is a well-established part of American culture (according to a survey, the average American adult consumes three PB&J sandwiches every month, and nearly half of Americans regularly enjoy a good PB&J sandwich), many non-Americans find this combination of flavors disgusting, according to delish.com; they prefer other foods that are part of their culture. Vegemite, anyone? How about chocolate-covered locusts?
When we’re talking about culture, there’s rarely a right or a wrong; there’s just different. Different ideas on food are amusing, but imagine how harmful it can be when “different” is viewed negatively. Recently, a colleague relayed a story about an interview to hire a new professor in his department. The male candidate, hailing from one of the African countries, repeatedly referred to his spouse as “Wife” rather than using her given name, a practice the other members of the interview team found demeaning and off-putting, failing to recognize that in the candidate’s culture, his reference to her as, “Wife” was a show of respect to his spouse. They opted not to advance the candidate in the hiring process, perhaps missing out on a wonderful addition to the department. Making a value judgement about another culture, especially a negative one, can harm one’s endeavors and undermine developing the cross-cultural relationships essential to being an effective leader.
The first step to being a leader who can interact effectively with people of different cultures is to become aware of the water in which we swim. We can’t understand other cultures unless we are sensitive to our own. A simple exercise, adapted from an article in the Journal of Management Education, gives you and the individuals you teach or mentor a chance to consider your own culture. For this exercise, consider how you would describe your culture, focusing on what distinguishes you culturally from others, describing some of the customs, rituals, and ceremonies associated with your cultural group. Continue by considering a member of your cultural group, excluding family members, who is a good role model for others in your cultural group and what makes them a good role model. Finally, consider a situation when you felt out of place because of being different from others. What was it that made you feel different? To take this exercise a step further, answer the same questions, placing yourself in the shoes of a person from a different cultural background.
As you think about your culture, keep in mind that you are influenced by many cultures of which you are a member: American culture; legal culture; the culture of your race or ethnicity; religious culture; and many others. Developing cultural intelligence is not a one-time goal to be checked off on the to-do list of effective leadership. Rather it involves regularly engaging in activities to enhance one’s cultural intelligence, and regularly thinking about this first step. It’s not an easy step to take, but it is well worthwhile.
To get a better sense of your culture, consider the following questions:
How do people in your culture greet each other? With a hug? A handshake? A kiss on the cheek?
How do you address people in your culture? With a title? By first name, regardless of the age of the speaker or the listener? As Auntie or Uncle?
What response is appropriate when those in your culture are paid a compliment? A simple thank you or a compliment in return?
How do people in your culture disagree with each other? How do they criticize or correct each other? Who is allowed to be critical?
How do people in your culture treat individuals that are outside the group?
This is a non-exhaustive list (obviously) to start to focus on those parts of the cultures in which you swim that may differ from those outside your culture. Please feel free to share your thoughts about this exercise and your observations about culture in the comments below.
Multiculturalism. Is it just a buzzword, a New Age fad for the new millennium? Or is it a meaningful concept, important to leaders now and in the future?
Growing up in the Midwest, I learned that America was a melting pot in which different cultures contributed their own distinct flavors, literally and figuratively, to American culture. There is no doubt truth to that, but how limited my worldview was through college and even into my early career. Other than a girl named Tiku, who joined my 7th grade class as an immigrant from Uganda following Idi Amin’s seizure of power, my exposure to people from different cultures was fairly limited to the occasional missionary who visited my church, often a transplanted Westerner who shared his or her experiences working in some far-flung place. In fact, there wasn’t a lot of focus on the distinctly different cultures in America, for example, African American culture or Native American culture, or even Southern culture, beyond a few units in Social Studies from time-to-time. I daresay, that was the experience of most of my friends—eating tacos (our version of Mexican food), chop suey (the only Asian meal anyone I knew ate), and of course spaghetti and pizza did little to expand our knowledge or understanding of other cultures. Misperceptions about different people, who hailed from different cultures, abounded.
Since my childhood, American has experienced a sea change in culture, perhaps because of the growth in population of individuals from different cultural backgrounds because of immigration and shifts in birth rate. Perhaps the changes are attributable to less of a willingness of immigrants to assimilate to the extent immigrants did in the past–many immigrants indeed are proud of their cultural heritage, continuing to speak their language and observing their traditions openly. Or perhaps the change is because we are more cognizant that we are part of a global economy, involving a great deal of movement of people, goods, and services that require interacting with individuals from a variety of different cultural backgrounds in a variety of different settings.
Whatever the explanation, we assume, in fact we hope, that most leaders recognize and accept the premise that to be effective leaders in this multicultural world, one must intentionally work to develop and maintain cultural intelligence, which moves beyond learning about differences to connecting on deeper and more meaningful levels. Cultural intelligence starts with pursuing cultural competence which is the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures. Culture is defined as the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave and make judgement about the world. As my colleagues outlined in Chapter 17 of their book, Fundamental of Lawyer Leadership, developing cultural competence involves five steps: 1) being aware of differences; 2) addressing implicit bias; 3) developing an attitude of openness; 4) gaining knowledge and understanding of different cultural practices; and 5) developing cross-cultural skills.
Toward that end, this month’s challenge involves a focus on cultural intelligence. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will address these different steps, and as we do, we invite you to share your thoughts and experiences about cultural intelligence.