What's the answer? It depends

Apr 18 2019 by David Livermore Print This Article

Ive gained a reputation for being the It depends guy. When fielding questions during a presentation on cultural intelligence, my default response is It depends!

Whats the best way to manage deadlines when working across borders? It depends! Do Millennials prefer working remotely? It depends! Who should adapt to whom? It depends. It depends. It depends.

Its not that I have no opinion about the right course of action. And its fair for individuals to expect me to elaborate on It depends. But human interactions are far too complex to issue dogmatic answers without understanding more of the situation. More importantly, the most challenging situations that require cultural intelligence often happen with little warning and there isnt time to reference an over-simplified list of dos and don'ts.

Cultural intelligence, or CQ, is not just whether you can spout off the norms of different groups. In fact, as I noted recently, our research confirms that knowing a lot about cultural differences can actually be more dangerous than being culturally ignorant. Cultural intelligence is having the ability to accurately assess a situation and predict the best outcome you can. It provides a mental model for understanding and responding to complex, multicultural situations.

But how do we prepare for the situational complexity of life in the unpredictable, constantly changing world of life and work? Here are a few ways to move from It depends to a culturally intelligent course of action:

1. Know Yourself

It starts with self-awareness. You need to be clear about your core values and convictions and determine ahead of time, what lines you will and wont cross. This might be whether youre willing to flex your dietary preferences or whether you will pay a bribe or have back channel conversations to grease the wheels of the procurement process. CQ begins with a strong understanding of your core sense of self.

2. What behaviors will best express your values in this situation?

People often say to me, Isnt CQ basically about respect? I think respect is a noble value and a really important foundation for cultural intelligence. But the way you express respect is culturally conditioned. I dont need people to address me with formal titles to feel respected. But I cant assume thats true for others. I feel more respected if you give me feedback directly. But I cant assume you feel the same way. Flex your behavior, not your values.

3. Whats the objective?

One of the things Ive learned from working with military leaders is their relentless insistence on mission clarity. When we talk about the relevance of cultural differences with special operations commanders, its all about strategically using CQ in light of the mission. Cultural intelligence isnt the end all. Its a tool for accomplishing an objective in light of the cultural complexities.

The life and death nature of many military operations has a way of forcing clarity about the objective. But its easy to get cloudy on the mission when dealing with the kinds of situations most of us face. Keep the objective in view and determine what kind of action will best support the objective.

4. What adaptations will strengthen what you do? What adaptations will weaken what you do?

Most people criticized Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for dressing like a traditional Indian wedding groom to meet with Bollywood executives. Yet New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised for wearing a hijab in the wake of the Christ Church mosque tragedy. So when does adapting enhance effectiveness and when does doing so undermine the objective?

Companies struggle with this quandary too. When Starbucks first opened stores in China, they designed them to resemble a traditional, Chinese tea house with tea as the main offering on the menu. The Chinese were incensed. They wanted the unique Starbucks experience, not an Americanized version of a tea house. Some adaptation is almost always needed. But remember that the goal is to get to the point where you can leverage the differences involved rather than everyone over-adapting to a boring vanilla middle.

The more you anticipate the kinds of scenarios youre likely to encounter in culturally diverse contexts, the better you will respond during real-life situations. In the stress of the moment, youre unlikely to explicitly recall what youve read or learned about cultural dos and donts. And they might not be accurate for your specific situation. Instead, exercise your discernment muscle during low stress times so that when the real scenarios come along, youll have a subconscious inner compass to assess a situation, predict the outcome, and adapt in a culturally intelligent way.

And whats the worst thing that can happen if you get it wrong? Well, it depends!

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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.