Cultural Intelligence and Learning

David Livermore, PhD

President of The Cultural Intelligence Center

First there was IQ, the measure of a person’s intelligence, reasoning abilities and their proficiency on the job. Soon after came EQ, which is the ability to manage one’s emotions and the emotions of others. Today we have CQ, which is the capability to relate and work effectively across culturally diverse situations. In the age of globalisation, it is inevitable that we interact and work with people from diverse cultures.
But… is CQ an innate ability or can it be learnt and developed within us? For facilitators, how can we use CQ to adapt to diverse audiences? How does it look like?
Joining us is Dr David Livermore, President of the Cultural Intelligence Center in the US, who has done tremendous work in research and education.

Podcast Episode Highlights

How do you define culture?

There are a few ways to define culture. The textbook definition says that culture are the values, beliefs, assumptions and behaviours that separates one group from another. A simpler way to explain culture is a term “the way we do things around here”. It is those taken for granted assumptions. First and foremost, when we think about culture we think about nationality or ethnicity.
We define culture more broadly than that. It can be organisational culture, functional culture, generational differences. We don’t use it to constitute any two differences between two human being. Culture relates to any group that has a shared set of assumptions that are their collective way of doing things. Cultural intelligence relates to all those different aspects of culture.

What does it mean when someone is culturally intelligent?

Cultural intelligence is the capability to relate and work effectively across any number of different cultural context. This is someone who can adeptly move in and out of different variety of national context, ethnic differences, generational, et cetera. We are certainly not suggesting you can be an expert in all cultures. Instead, someone who is culturally intelligent, at least can pick up on the cue and have some sense of adaptability.
Even if they don’t know for sure, why someone is behaving the way they are, they have a set of tools that allow them to sort through and gain insights about how to relate effectively.

What is an example of someone who is high in culturally intelligent and low in cultural intelligence? How will they behave?

For example, a low cultural intelligence facilitator might observe a person sitting in the class who is not participating, and the assumption is whatever it may mean in their own culture. From my culture, that means you are bored and disengaged. A low CQ facilitator might start to get more animated or shame or scold them.
Somebody with high cultural intelligence, whose see an individual who is not participating, Might start to consider why is it they are not participating? What does it mean to participate? Are they from a cultural background that might say I shouldn’t participate until invited to do so. Or are they somebody who would feel more comfortable, participating through written input? Or in a small group discussion compared speaking up to the whole classroom?
High cultural intelligence is demonstrated by taking two steps back, read the situation and consider the different factors. A low cultural intelligence person might be more impulsive and take things in the moment.

Is cultural intelligence product of nature or can it be nurtured?

For sure, it is nurtured. We focus specifically in our research and our training on learned nurtured capabilities. CQ is something that can be developed through training, coaching and direct experience.

Based on research, does culture shape the way we learn?

Does culture shape the way we learn? Or do we become socialised based on the way our teachers have taught us? It absolutely does. Using broad sweeping generalisations, Asians tend to take a holistic approach. Westerners tend to take things more piece meal. Practically, the individualism of the western learner is often best when given a task and allowed to go work on it and think about what does this mean for me? How does this relate to my own challenges in the workplace? Or my own pursuits personally and professionally?
Collectivist, where its most cultures around the world, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and Asia, they might be far more likely to approach learning based upon doing things in a group setting and working things through by way of consensus. This influences the way companies set up their training programs. It affects the way we would teach something such as leadership, make assignments and do things. In the Harvard MBA program, 50% of your grade is based on classroom participation. There are scribes sitting at the back of the room and literally write down every time some one says something. For students who have been brought up in western education system, it works fine for them. They are free to voice their opinion, ask a question, even it is a question that is already answered in a reading.
Students come from a collectivist society much less likely to speak up without being invited to do so. Culture plays a big role in how we learn and what we do.

What happens when an individual from collectivist society is put in an individualist classroom and likewise an individualist learner in a collectivist classroom? Would this decrease the chance of success for those individuals?

Research shows elasticity in our brains. My colleague did FMRI scans of Chinese students and US students at the University of Illinois. The brain scans showed a variety of images, and show very different brain wiring from the Chinese students as compared to the US students. She did the same test on the same students a semester after, and found that the brain images of the Chinese students were beginning to reflect that of the US student. This was an encouraging insight because it demonstrated that the way our brain operates and the way we learn doesn’t have to be fixed. But certainly, it will take some intentionality to think in a different way.
In a practical sense, for the collectivist student to learn in an individualist environment, They are going to be judged if they don’t participate, contribute or speak up. They are going to be viewed as shy or not understanding. It might not be true but that might be the assumption of their peers. You can say the same thing of a team meeting that happens in the workplace. In an individualist environment, they might be judged unfairly as not being confident or competent.
My admonition is go outside your comfort zone and find ways to feel more confident speaking up.
What about an individualist student in a collectivist environment? They will have to realise that always speaking up and being the 1st to ask or answer a question or contribute is not necessarily going to be viewed with respect. You might actually be viewed as arrogant. Either direction requires some adaptability.

What are the challenges you face as a cultural intelligence trainer?

Part of my style of facilitation and presentation is to bring a personal element, such as sharing stories about my family and personal incidents. Many US presenters tell self-effacing stories. I ran into stumbling blocks, where I thought I was gaining credibility by sharing a self-effacing story with an audience in China. I found out the translator was not translating my story because they did not know the relevance and was afraid that the organisers would lose face if the esteemed speaker shared a self-deprecating story.
I have to be true to myself and to force myself into something different is not going to be real. On the other hand, for me to be fully unfiltered as how I might be with a US audience may not work with a different audience in China. The message will not be communicated effectively. It is a balance between adapting to the audience and not cutting myself off so that I become ineffective.

What do you do in preparing for a presentation?

If it is possible I would like to have a cultural broker or coach, who knows my culture of origin and knows the culture that I am addressing. They are able to prepare me prior to the presentation and give tips on how the audience may perceive me while I present and tips on what to avoid. Better yet, if they are going to be present and give me unfiltered feedback.

What do you do when what you have prepared for didn’t work out?

Don’t take it too personally. It’s not the end of the world. Thankfully in training, our mess ups are not as if we were heart surgeons. When mess ups do happen, if we can respond with a level of humility, grace and dignity, sometimes those are the most memorable moments for people that show our humanity.
Another tip is to not allow a small vocal majority to assure you that something hasn’t gone well. There were times when I thought that a presentation didn’t go well and had hard push back from the audience. When I read the evaluations, most people found it helpful. When we have learners from different environments, we may be reading inputs, reactions or non-reactions wrong and assume it means something else.
We do need to own our mistakes. Cultural intelligence is never about flawless behaviour. It’s about when I do make a mistake, how do i learn from it so I don’t keep repeating the same mistake over and over again. There might be people in the room who might have something earth shattering going on in their life that you may have no clue about. Don’t take it too seriously because sometimes there might be a situation going on that is not about how you are as a facilitator.


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