Cultural knowledge or cultural intelligence

There is a fashion for mapping out the differences between business cultures. This is, like all the psychological profiles that appear from time to time, an easy way of putting people in neat boxes. But on balance, people should not be put in boxes until they are dead.

Putting people in neat cultural boxes is dangerous at more or less every level. Cultural stereotyping has three main problems:

  1. Many stereotypes are negative. In my research on global teams, over 90% of the stereotypes which were spontaneously mentioned were negative. “If foreigners are different from us, then there is a problem with the foreigners” is a common, but not universal, mindset. Starting with negative stereotypes is not a good way to build a team.
  2. Stereotypes are misleading. It is fair to make an observation that at global meetings, Americans are likely to achieve a higher share of voice at the meeting than Japanese. But that does not mean all Americans talk a lot or that all Japanese are quiet. You have to deal with individuals as individuals and find out what makes them tick.
  3. Stereotyping is lazy and prevents learning. If a leader said “all men are like this, or all women are like that or everyone in that race is this way…” the leader would be denounced as a casual sexist or racist. National stereotypes are as bad as any other sort of stereotype. The best leaders do not rely on stereotypes: they learn and adapt fast to different contexts: culture is only one sort of context to which leaders have to adapt.

Stereotyping is often presented as cultural knowledge. But leaders are not anthroplogists. No leader will ever acquire deep enough knowledge to be fluent in every culture they work with. Even anthropologists can spend a life time trying to understand one or two cultures.

There is an alternative to acquiring deep culture knowledge: cultivating deep cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is a distinct way of thinking, which enables leaders to adapt to different contexts first:

  • Seek to understand, not judge. Be prepared to learn fast about situations and colleagues: see the world through their eyes.
  • Have positive regard for colleagues: start with the assumption that colleagues want to do their best and that mistakes are likely to be misunderstandings, not idleness or folly
  • Be flexible and adaptable: your personal success model based on what you do in your home office is not a universal success model. Work out what works in every new context.
  • Be open minded. Be ready to try new foods, new music, new restaurants and new ways of working. There is a risk you might enjoy them.

In practice, cultural knowledge and intelligence work hand in hand. If you want to understand a place, it makes sense to read a little bit about it before hand. If you know something of the history of the place, and can understand and use (or even mangle) a few words of the language, then most people will recognise that you have made an effort and will appreciate you more.