Cultural intelligence is not the point

Dec 06 2012 by David Livermore Print This Article

Sometimes I talk to cross-cultural gurus who get all worked up about people who just "don't care" about intercultural issues. These conversations usually include rants about corporate executives who are clueless about cultural differences and organizations that aren't willing to invest in cultural training for their teams.

But hearing these conversations makes me wonder whether we're missing the point. I confess. I'm not very interested discussing cultural differences in and of themselves. Sure, for a little while it's interesting to hear which cultures peel a banana starting with the stem and which start with the other side. But so what?

Most organizations and leaders I encounter are really pressed for money and time. If you follow this column on Management Issues, you know I regularly write about "Cultural intelligence" or CQ - a research-based way of assessing and improving global effectiveness. But CQ is not really the point of what we're after in our research and work at the Cultural Intelligence Center. It's a means to other more important objectives.

This means a shift from how many managers approach the topics of cultural competence, diversity and inclusion, and global understanding:

From Diversity TO Innovation

Diversity is important to me. I'm the first to scan an organizations' "Meet our Team" link on their website or a list of conference presenters to see if they have a diversity of perspectives. But diversity by itself isn't enough. In fact, one of the research presentations that will be shared at our upcoming CQ Global Summit describes how homogenous teams actually outperform diverse ones when CQ is low.

But with increased CQ, diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones in coming up with innovative ideas. Diversity PLUS cultural intelligence leads to innovation. Not either one by themselves.

From Kumbuya TO Solutions

U.S. news outlets got a lot of mileage out of the collaborative spirit represented by political opponents President Obama and New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. But they didn't hang out together just to dialogue and have a conversation. A crisis brought them together and suddenly the arguments about private enterprise and big government became secondary to solving the immediate problem.

Interfaith conversations and cross-cultural dialogues are usually filled with people who already believe that dialogue and understanding are important. But crises have a way of forcing unlikely partners to work together. I have little hope that sitting around signing resolutions and snapping Benetton-inspired photos is going to do much to solve the biggest problems facing us. But as you and I bring our ideas together, with the help of cultural intelligence, we can create better solutions than either of us can apart.

From Silver Bullet TO Strategic Maneuver

Sometimes there's the temptation to oversell cultural adaptability and cultural intelligence as if it alone will ensure profitability, leadership success, and world peace. In our ambitions to gain attention, those of us working in this space must avoid overstating what CQ can do.

I'm hard pressed to think of any objective you want to accomplish that won't be enhanced with improved CQ. And it can be the critical difference between success and failure. But we'll have more credibility when we demonstrate how it integrates with several other critical considerations that are necessary.

When cross-cultural experiences are moderated with higher levels of CQ, there's a big difference. For example:

International Travel + Low CQ= Ethnocentrism and Confirmation Bias

International Travel + High CQ= Lifetime Impact

Diverse Teams + Low CQ = Frustration and Low Participation

Diverse Teams + High CQ = Engagement and Innovation

Expat Assignment + Low CQ = Stress, Burnout, and Financial Loss

Expat Assignment + High CQ = Satisfaction, Cost-Savings, and Profitability

Cross-Cultural Interactions + Low CQ = Judgment and Mistrust

Cross-Cultural Interactions + High CQ = Broadened Perspective and Effectiveness

Leadership Skills + Low CQ = Glass Ceiling

Leadership Skills + High CQ = Borderless Possibilities

Cultural intelligence is not ultimately the point. But it is the difference between gridlock and innovation, frustration and insight, loss and opportunity. And for that reason, I'll continue to devote my energies to this topic.

more articles

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.