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MANAGEMENT: Using Intercultural Intelligence: A Key Ingredient for Leading Your Team to Success
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Once it was thought that the world was flat and ancient mariners were fearful of sailing too far and falling over the edge. Through the explorations of the intrepid, it was discovered that this worldview did not hold true. The globe was opened up in all its cultural splendour and complexity! Here in China, as globalisation is increasingly making inroads, there is a growing need to foster cultural awareness. This may be referred to as intercultural intelligence, or ICI in cross-cultural arenas. It is not something with which one is naturally imbued, but can be learnt over time with openness to the wealth found in all cultures.

 

Cultural Knowledge + Awareness + Cultural Skills= Intercultural Intelligence

 (facts and cultural traits)  (yourself and others)       (behaviours)


‘Culture’ does not simply apply to national cultures, but also to organisational and personal cultures; all stemming from values that are based on beliefs and worldviews. There is an understandable, but less than helpful tendency to overlook these and focus on the behaviours that are more obvious and often become areas of tension and misunderstanding. As a result, teams may struggle.

The seminal author on culture back in the 1950s, Edward Hall, observed that: “Culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. Years of study have convinced me that the real job is not to understand foreign culture but to understand our own”.


An excellent starting point in ICI is to take a long hard look at our own culture and to develop a self awareness about what we do and why. It is helpful to begin to ask how our own culture, at whatever level, be it family, faith adherence, organisational or national, influences our expectations of both ourselves and others. Similarly we should be considering how what we do and say is perceived by others and the effect it may have on them. When we are more practised in this, we can begin to notice the effects on us of what others do or say and begin to unpack why that might be.

 

D.I.E. tool


We are inclined to have kneejerk reactions which lead us to make interpretations and value judgments or explanations from our own standpoint rather than stepping back and describing what is happening: who has done or said what and how, eliciting what response. A simple pneumonic to remember is “DIE”: Describe, Interpret, Evaluate (See Stringer and Cassiday, 2003, Activities for Exploring Values Differences). We begin with what we can see and then begin to consider what we think about it and finally, what we feel about it- which is usually where values and judgements come into play. For example, I might dislike a member of my team (evaluation) and consider her rude (interpretation) because she doesn’t greet me in the morning (description). I might stop her one day and make the observation, using a neutral tone, that she doesn’t greet me when we pass and ask her to help you understand why that might be. It may transpire she is unaware of it and is merely trying to think through all the tasks for the day ahead. In other words, we most likely will not understand someone’s behaviour unless we ask!

 

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Johari’s Window


Another tool that can be applied here is called Johari’s Window after two American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955. They proposed that there are things known and unknown to both self and others and that dialogue between self and others, leads to greater self knowledge.


As others give us feedback about how we come across or ask us questions about our culture, we can become aware of our ‘blind spots’ and areas that we have simply taken for granted or not thought about because we have assumed that it is a universally held value or view. We may also take the risk of asking others to give us such feedback. We may likewise take the initiative to tell people why we do certain things a certain way so that they have a greater understanding and get to look beyond the ‘façade’ that is presented and can be easily mistaken as arrogance. For example, as a South African, I have found some of my fellow South Africans to be self-confident to the point sometimes of brash arrogance. They may not be aware that this is how they come across and others may have no clue that this is a product of the apartheid era when white students received a favoured education that taught them to lead in whatever field in which they were. The all-round benefit of giving/receiving feedback and disclosing information rather than hiding it, means that the unknown area is gradually diminished.

 

Critical Incidents


We can further develop our ICI by taking note of what are called critical incidents. Whenever one goes into another cultural setting whether it be going to work in another country, or another quite different part of the same country (such as south and north China), or being in a foreign business environment within one’s own country, one will certainly come into contact with people different culturally from oneself. When these encounters go wrong, according to Craig Storti who has done extensive research on cross-cultural issues, these are cultural incidents that can prove critical. They are fertile grounds for learning if we choose to use them rather than letting them become a serious threat to effectiveness. When incidents happen that cause strong emotions within us, we need to pause and DIE (see above). We need to examine the deeper causes and ask questions that can provide insight.


Various examples are given in the useful but now dated book Bricks into Jade by Wang, Brislin et. al. (2000), which presents scenarios from the workplace on topics such as relating with colleagues, motivation and negotiations. It usefully suggests various possible explanations for these scenarios which help to increase intercultural insights into the underlying dynamics that are at work.


Let’s ace it! No sane sailor would embark on a journey round the treacherous Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America without map, navigational instruments s/he knew how to use, a good crew, a willingness to take risks and a sense of adventure and an awareness of the dangers of unseen rocks etc. Similarly, teams comprised of people from different cultures require much the same: clear goals, intercultural tools that are put to good use, able teammates willing to take risks in asking questions and exploring their own cultures, and an appreciation for the way in which different, unspoken values can shipwreck any project.
Take to the high seas and enjoy the adventure!

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