Cultural intelligence and the power of attention

2015

If you buy a silver Honda, you suddenly start noticing silver Hondas everywhere. It’s not that there are really any more silver Hondas on the road. But this simple reality demonstrates the power of the mind to more readily notice whatever you’ve been thinking about most. And the more you think about diversity and innovation, the better your climate for culturally intelligent innovation.

Your life has largely been fashioned by what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. If you had paid attention to other things, your reality and life would be very different. And a great deal of research supports that we become what we practice. If you develop patterns of being mean and nasty, you will get mean and nastier. If you practice being kind and caring, you will get kinder and more caring.

The same is true for an organization. The behaviors and respective priorities of a company or university shape what and how they operate. Our individual and organizational personalities become a composite of the things that grab our attention.

When you’re driving that silver Honda and you become engrossed in the news or a conversation on your phone, you become less aware of the scenery. You’ve turned down the sight dial in your brain so that you can allow the auditory inputs to capture your attention. And according to something psychologists call negative bias theory, you pay more attention to unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger, or the annoyance of a bad driver than to positive emotions because the negative ones are more powerful.

Negative bias theory also has enormous implications for a culturally diverse team. Imagine a team meeting that includes a working lunch. Because we’re socialized to eat in a certain way, watching someone eat in a different way can be jarring and strike us as rude or even barbaric. You’re unlikely to notice when someone eats “politely” but you’ll most definitely notice when they don’t.

So our perceptions of good manners, respect and ‘appropriate’ professional behavior are deeply rooted in cultural norms. And just like eating habits, we’re less likely to notice a colleague’s cultural differences when things are going well. He’s just ‘John’ or ‘Jose’ when you’re working without any conflict. But when something negative occurs, the first impulse is to view John or Jose in light of his culture. Suddenly the thinking becomes: “You just can’t trust people from that culture because they end up letting you down”.

But giving undue attention to negative feelings shrinks your world and your breadth of perspective. Focus on the positive and you’ll expand your view. This is the power of attention.

How to Pay Attention to Culturally Intelligent Innovation

Your mind is your most powerful asset for innovation. Spend time thinking about innovation and it will help foster creative breakthroughs for diverse users. Maintaining and developing a climate of culturally intelligent innovation among a multicultural team requires a deliberate, ongoing effort. Our attention and therefore our companies are easily distracted. But there are a few practices that can help.

Map Your Differences
Start by paying attention to your differences rather than tolerating or overlooking them. Identify each team member’s differences. Create a list with names and the most relevant differences they bring to the team. Start with the two kinds of diversity that are most relevant for how you work together: visible diversity and underrepresented groups. Consider other differences that might also be relevant such as personality styles, skills, industries previously worked in etc.

Many of the organizations we work with use each individual’s cultural value scores from the CQ Assessment reports to create a team list that everyone posts by their desks. That gives each person a visible reminder of the different values and orientations each team member brings to the team.

Prime for Innovation
Priming is the process of presenting a particular stimulus to make us feel and act in a certain way, such as a supermarket that puts “freshly cut” flowers at the entrance of the store so you think of freshness from the moment you enter. To what degree do people across your organization share a vision for innovation and looking ahead? And to what degree is diversity consciously linked to innovation as a resource for new ideas?

The most important way to prime for culturally intelligent innovation is for the leadership to surround themselves with a diversity of perspectives, utilizing that breadth to drive their own innovative approaches. Innovation needs to be built into every person’s role and across all the systems and processes for product development and implementation. Images, signs, town hall meetings, and written messaging need to be used to keep everyone’s attention on the customers of tomorrow.

Become conscious of blind spots
Tap into the power of attention by becoming more aware of your subconscious. Take one of the tests at Project Implicit and consider which groups of people you find most difficult to trust. How might that difficultly connect to a deeply rooted bias? By becoming more aware of unconscious bias, you begin to retrain the mind to open yourself and others up to learning from the perspectives of others whom you may otherwise tune out.

Train yourself (and others) to think differently
The brain is an amazing organ. And we can train it to be consciously thinking about innovation through things as simple as taking a different route to work or shifting around our morning routine.

One of the best ways to consciously innovate is to disrupt your habits at least once a day. Make a habit of forcing yourself out of autopilot. Change up your routine. Drive to work a different way. Work from a different space. Don’t always run your meetings the same way or in the same place. When your team comes up with a solution, stop and ask each other whether this is the best option or whether a third alternative is worth exploring.

Beware your gut
The gut can be a shockingly reliable mechanism for decision-making because our subconscious has been programmed over time. When assessing a familiar situation, the gut often leads to a better result than spending hours reviewing pros and cons. But the gut is subject to enormous error when the cultural context changes and as a result innovative solutions are often missed. Consult with others and consciously suspend trusting your gut. Questions your assumptions and proactively seek out third-way solutions.

In Conclusion

Paying attention to culturally intelligent innovation is not enough. You also need to develop a process for effectively leveraging the diversity on your team to come up with more innovation solutions. But there’s tremendous power in what we pay attention to and what we don’t. You can’t force yourself or anyone else to have eureka moments. But the degree to which you consciously utilize the diversity around you and explore creative solutions is directly tied to the probability of producing innovative results.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.