A Leader’s Path to Cultural Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence

“I don’t understand these people!”

My German friend and I had just come out from an unsuccessful business meeting in Indonesia years ago, and he was yelling out his frustration in competition with the noisy millions of mopeds passing us on our way to our humid and humble hotel room.

“We have an excellent product, we can all make money – so what is it they want??” he complained in frustration.

It took me another three months in Indonesia to come up with an answer to his question (…but by then, my friend was already back in Berlin.)

The answer was this:

The Indonesian people want to be successful in business just like the Germans, the Americans, or the Chinese. Each of us just travel a different road to get there.

Carving a New Cultural Highway

From a global perspective, the road we all travel on our economic journey is different depending on our national distinction or culture. When we grow and learn on our path and the paths of others, we gain something called Cultural Intelligence.

But truly, here is the best definition:

Cultural Intelligence is the ability to carve a common highway where different cultures can travel together towards the same exit.

The Top Six

According to a report from the two researchers Marcelle E. DuPraw and Marya Axner cultural differences can be cooked down to six fundamental patterns:

They have different:

1. Communication Styles
2. Attitudes Toward Conflict
3. Approaches to Completing Tasks
4. Decision-Making Styles
5. Attitudes Toward Disclosure
6. Approaches to Knowing

Cross-Cultural Negotiations

The two researchers suggest that we should use their list to “ask ourselves how culture may be shaping our own reactions, and try to see the world from others’ points of view.”

This is indeed what gaining cultural intelligence is all about!

For many businesses leaders, cultural awareness and dialogue is considered a “soft” area that can be taken lightly compared to the “hard” areas like market research and marketing strategies adding measurably value to the bottom-line.

But Cultural Intelligence can become an extremely hard issue when business negotiations begin between real people in real time on location. One might think the difficulties only come into play when negotiating with people from another country far away.

Cross-cultural negotiations, however, might very well start in your own living room.

Who Are We

Professor Horacio Falcao from INSEAD says in an interview that it is a huge misconception to see cultural differences based upon nationality only. Things like gender, religion, race, education, rural, urban, age, and many other elements are serious players when we try to understand the cultural background of another human being.

Our worst enemy is assuming that based upon a seemingly common cultural background we know another person well enough to negotiate successfully.

“The first assumption you should have is that every negotiation is a cross-cultural exercise,” the professor says.

Think about that next time your spouse asks you to do a chore in the house.

The Definitions

According to the cultural researcher Geert Hofstede:

“Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.”

There are many other definitions, but one thing is certain: the subject of gaining cultural intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, and intercultural competence has become synonymous with globalization.

Advanced CQ

For the modern business leader to succeed in a competitive 21st Century cross-border environment it requires high levels of CQ – cultural intelligence – and global leadership competence.

The two authors Chen Oi Chin, Ph. D & Lisa P. Gaynier, M. A. warns in their 2006 research paper Global Leadership Competence: A Cultural Intelligence Perspective about being “color blind.”

They say this:

“It is evident that no company can afford to neglect the cultural context of leadership and that no manager has the luxury of ignoring cultural differences. In fact, the western value of color blindness, while well-meaning, is misguided, because the unexamined assumption underlying color blindness is hat paying attention to color is inherently unfair, possibly racist, “I just see people as people”, when in fact in the opposite may well be more valuable.”

Being Culture Blind

In a multi-cultural environment like the US the warning of color blindness – or culture blindness – is very real. We are raised both morally and intellectually to accept the American melting pot simmering with immigrants from all over the World.

Our politicians and legal system have implemented rules and regulations that try to even out whatever cultural differences might exist in both in our working and private lives.

We are taught to embrace all people.

Yet while the intentions seem good at heart the danger exists that we forget to use those same cultural differences as an advantage both privately and in our workspace. Being culture blind is not the same as understanding other cultures.

The leader who embraces cultural intelligence is bound to not only carve, but to race down the fast lane of our common cultural highway toward global success.


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Claus von Ronnex-Printz is founder & CEO of BrainBridge Institute
He connects organizations to human capital globally
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Skype: BrainBridge Institute | +1.646.504.5059

Image Sources: yaradraws.wordpress.com


6 responses to “A Leader’s Path to Cultural Intelligence

  1. Great post! I like the critical incident with the German businessman which I can really relate to as a trainer.


  2. Pingback: Week in Review: Top Blog Post from Around the World » Preben Ormen·

    • Thank you! I really appreciate the kind comment.


  3. Pingback: Global Leaders carving a Cultural Highway | BrainBridge Institute·

  4. Pingback: » Week in Review: Top Blog Post from Around the World Oct. 23, 2011·

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