What’s your cultural IQ? Professor David C. Thomas kicked off this year’s ‘Learn at Lunch’ series at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) with this compelling question.
Thomas – a professor of international business at the University of New South Wales’ Australian School of Business – defines cultural intelligence as one’s ability to deal effectively with the cultural aspects of their environment.
This is important in an increasingly connected world where we are interacting more and more with people of other cultures. Professor Thomas pointed out that many well-rounded socially and emotionally intelligent people struggle with cross-cultural interaction.
I agree. The good news, however, is that cultural intelligence can be developed using three interrelated elements: knowledge, skills and mindfulness.
Let’s start with knowledge. This can mean having an abstract grasp of the culture concept – being aware that others may be culturally different. It also means having knowledge of different practices and nuances of another culture, and distinguishing between personal behaviour and societal norms.
Secondly, there are a few behavioural skills you need to become more culturally-intelligent. People with good “cultural tact” show empathy, can easily relate to other people, can adapt to various situations, and have a tolerance for ambiguity.
Finally, mindfulness is a mediating step that links knowledge with skills. It lets you stop, take account of the situation you’re in, recall the knowledge about your context, and then apply your behavioural metaskills to behave in a culturally appropriate way.
During his presentation, Dr Thomas mentioned Nissan Motor Co’s president and CEO, Carlos Ghosn as someone who has high cultural intelligence.
Ghosn is largely credited with one of the most dramatic downsizing and turnarounds of a major organisation in the modern business era.
He runs this massive multinational by splitting his time evenly between Tokyo and Paris, both places steeped in distinct, rich cultures and business customs.
Professor Thomas’ lecture resonated with me since I have worked in a number of situations that have required interacting with people with different cultural backgrounds, and reflecting on those situations makes me realise how important cultural intelligence really is.
Many of my work colleagues have come from different cultures, which also provided some interesting challenges.
I once worked with a number of Japanese people. It was my first time interacting closely with people of Japanese background, and I remember getting very frustrated.
We would spend lots of time in deep and intense discussions, which would mostly end in what I thought was an agreement. Later, I would find out that they would renege on that agreement or deny having reached it at all.
After a few of these events, it occurred to me that the reason for this misunderstanding was largely cultural: when they nodded during our discussions, they were just being polite and letting me have my say.
I had taken their nods to mean acceptance, but they were simply nodding in acknowledgement of having heard my point of view.
Once I realised this, I had to change my approach to incorporate this cultural understanding. I re-framed the conversations to try to get their points of view out without pushing mine first, and making sure agreement we reached was explicitly acknowledged as such.
Each organisation has its own unique culture as well. I’ve worked in a large variety of organisations, from two person to 10,000 strong consultancies, government departments, financial services institutions, and global system integrators.
While industry norms exist, company culture usually varies significantly between organisations of the same size in the same market.
What does all of this mean for Australian CIOs?
Given the diversity of cultures that a CIO now has to deal with, it’s well worth paying close attention to, and working on increasing your cultural intelligence.
Most Australian CIOs are leading the IT group at an organisation consisting of people with many backgrounds. Understanding and being able to interact with them in a culturally intelligent manner is key to getting the best out of your team and creating a high-performance work environment.
As we increase our adoption of the cloud, CIOs will also need to interact with vendors that are from and located in other regions and cultures.
Interacting effectively across regional cultures will be a crucial factor in creating strong, collaborative supplier relationships.
Doing business with people across the world is now the norm. CIOs and other IT professionals need to ensure that cultural intelligence is an essential part of their skillset.
Syed Ahmed is Head of Business Technology at Servcorp.
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