Why you need to stop teaching about cultural differences

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Dec 20 2018 by David Livermore Print This Article

If youíve paid any attention to our work in cultural intelligence, you know that weíve been saying for a while that cultural knowledge on itís own isnít enough. You need more than a seminar on how to do business in India or how to work with Millennials to work successfully with those cultures.

But now, a mounting body of research suggests it would actually be better to not teach cultural differences at all if thatís the only thing youíre going to do. Dozens of studies find that cultural knowledge leads to stereotyping and perpetuating bias rather than building real cultural intelligence (CQ).

OK, but why?

Knowledge without curiosity leads to stereotypes. Once you learn characteristics about Indians or Millennials, thereís a tendency to start putting any Indian or Millennial in a box. Then, when you encounter an inexplicable behavior, you fill in the blank with a crass stereotype rather than suspending judgment and seeking to understand more.

Knowledge without cultural humility leads to arrogance.

Once you get some insight into a culture, you may end up being over-confident about your ability to understand whatís going on. It may actually be better to remain open-minded and culturally ignorant than to go in thinking your cursory understanding about another culture means you ďget themĒ.

Knowledge without intersectionality leads to irrelevance.

The groundbreaking work on Intersectionality, referring to an individualís overlapping identities (race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, function, etc.) illuminates the danger of reducing someone to any one part of their identity. An Indian woman is not only an Indian, sheís also influenced by her gender, social class, professional role, and much more. How will you know which part of her identity will be most relevant when you interact with her?

Knowledge without skills leads to ineffectiveness.

If knowledge was all we needed to work successfully with diverse groups, we should have this figured out by now. But some of the individuals with the highest level of knowledge about different cultural groups canít for the life of them figure out how to actually get along with people who are different.

I could keep going but the point is, after several decades of courses, books, and videos teaching people about cultural differences, itís time to stop. Of course, the best choice is to teach cultural knowledge along with the other CQ capabilities that are proven to predict oneís effectiveness in relating and working with people from diverse backgrounds. But it would honestly be better to do nothing than only teach cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Hereís a much more strategic approach.

1. Start with CQ Drive

Over the last decade, we have surveyed nearly 100,000 professionals from over 100 countries and thereís only one consistent characteristic among every culturally intelligent individual. Itís not where you grew up, how many languages you speak, whether youíre part of an under-represented group or how far youíve traveled. Itís your curiosity, or something we call your CQ Drive. This is your interest and openness to other ways of doing things. And itís your confidence and ability to persevere in the midst of intercultural challenges.

Before teaching about cultural differences, address the motivation by clarifying the goal. Whatís the objective behind improving intercultural interactions and how does it relate to the broader goal you wish to accomplish as an individual, team, or organization?

Also keep in mind that no amount of information about how a culture operates means much if youíre physically or emotionally exhausted. There are times when I understand whatís going on in an interaction with someone from a different background, but I just donít have the energy to deal with it. It starts with CQ Drive.

2. Teach archetypes first, then cultural specifics

I donít really think you should fully stop teaching about cultural differences. But my overstated title was intended to be more than just an attention getter. We really must get the message through that if you only teach knowledge about different cultures, it can actually be far more determinantal than doing nothing at all.

However, when combined with the other capabilities of cultural intelligence, the most valuable knowledge to begin with is learning broad archetypes that help with comparing one group with another. These might include:

  • Key Historical Differences
  • Family Systems (Kinship, Extended, Nuclear)
  • Religious Context
  • Cultural Values

Then within those broad archetypes, you can talk about the tendencies of a particular cultural group. In other words, donít teach about Millennials or Chinese as a stand-alone topic. Be sure the discussion is rooted in a broader taxonomy of cultural systems and values so that individuals are equipped for the intersectionality of individualís identities and the diversity that exists within any culture.

Rather than working toward a mastery of cultural knowledge, emphasize the kind of information that is most helpful to know and where to find reliable sources.

3. CQ Strategy is even more important than we thought

Based upon a meta-analysis of dozens of academic studies on CQ, weíve discovered that CQ Strategy, or Metacognitive CQ, is even more important than we thought. CQ Strategy strengthens the effects of the other CQ capabilities. Itís what allows you to use your drive and knowledge to make sense of culturally diverse experiences so you can plan accordingly.

With the objective in mind (CQ Drive) and a broad understanding of cultural tendencies (CQ Knowledge), what plan is going to work best? Meta-cognitive CQ, the more precise concept behind CQ Strategy, is a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to relating and working with people from different backgrounds, rather than just blindly assuming that all Boomers want to be treated the same way.

Our book Driven by Difference is almost entirely devoted to CQ Strategy, with specific application to leveraging diversity to drive innovation.

4. Equip for Adaptive Performance (CQ on the fly!).

Iím often asked for advice about how to handle a specific intercultural dilemma (e.g. ďOur partner in Brazil consistently misses agreed upon deadlines. What should we do?Ē). My first response to most of these questions is, ďIt depends!Ē. It sounds like a cop out and itís fair to expect me to offer some additional guidance. But working and living in todayís multicultural, globalized world requires a much more situational, strategic approach that is informed by understanding about cultural differences without over applying them to every situation.

Weíre doing a lot of work currently with the special forces community in the U.S. military. Their leaders consistently tell me they have to find ways to equip their officers with ďadaptive performanceĒ - the ability to learn on the fly and figure things out as you go.

CQ predicts adaptive performance. But no one CQ capability leads to adaptive performance, and particularly not CQ Knowledge. All four are needed, otherwise, you end up with an insufficient approach.

Information by itself rarely solves anything. We know that yet it becomes the easy default as soon as we encounter a need to work better with a different group. Clearly thereís a place for teaching cultural differences but resist the urge to build knowledge too quickly. There are far more important components to developing cultural intelligence.

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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.