Cultural Intelligence

One approach to solving multicultural issues of this sort is to educate each member about the norms and assumptions of each of the cultures involved. I have already indicated that this approach would not only be cumbersome because of the number of different cultures involved but also would have to be so abstract that the learners would not know how to apply what they have been told.

A second approach is to focus on cultural capacities and learning skills, what is increasingly being called cultural intelligence (Thomas and Inkson, 2003; Earley & Ang, 2003; Peterson, 2004; Plum, 2008; Ang and Van Dyne, 2008). Because there are very many macrocultures in the world, to learn their content appears to be a much less feasible approach than to develop the learning skills to quickly acquire whatever knowledge is needed of the cultures that are involved in a particular situation. The basic problem in multicultural situations is that the members of each macroculture may have opinions and biases about “the others,” or may even have some level of understanding of the “the others” but operate by the premise that their own culture is the one that is “right.” Getting multicultural organizations, projects, and teams to work together, therefore, poses a much larger cultural challenge than how to evolve or manage cultural change within a single macroculture such as was discussed in the previous two chapters.

The concept of cultural intelligence introduces the proposition that to develop understanding, empathy, and the ability to work with others from other cultures requires four capacities: (1) actual knowledge of some of the essentials of the other cultures involved, (2) cultural sensitivity or mind­fulness about culture, (3) motivation to learn about other cultures, and (4) behavioral skills and flexibility to learn new ways of doing things (Earley and Ang, 2003; Thomas and Inkson, 2003). For multicultural teams to work, therefore, implies that certain individual characteristics have to be present to enable cross-cultural learning.

In their Handbook of Cultural Intelligence (2008), Ang and Van Dyne present a set of papers that both describe the development of a cultural intelligence scale and show that teams with members that score higher on this measure perform better than lower scoring groups. There are clearly individual differences in cultural sensitivity and learning capacity, and there is a vast psychological literature on what makes people more or less culturally competent, but selecting people for this capacity does not address two problems. First, in many work situations, we do not have choices in whom to assign because of limited resources in the technical skills needed to do the work. Second, if a leader decides to increase the cultural com­petence of employees, what kind of experiences should they have? What should the leader do by way of designing learning processes that will stimu­late such competence regardless of the initial state of cultural intelligence of the participants? The goal in this chapter is to begin to describe such a process.

Because culture is so deeply embedded in each of us, this process must confront the fundamental reality that each member of each culture begins with the assumption that what he or she does is the right and proper way to do things. We each come from a social order into which we have been socialized and, therefore, take its assumptions for granted. Intellectual understanding of other cultures may be a start in granting that there are other ways to do things, but it does little to build empathy and does not enable us to find common ground for working together. More likely we begin by noting how the “other processes or positions won’t work or are wrong.”

To achieve a sufficient level of empathy and a context in which the group is motivated to engage in a mutual search for common ground requires a temporary suspension of some of the rules of the social order. We must be brought to the point of being able to reflect on our own assumptions and consider the possibility that some other assumptions may be just as valid as our own. This process starts with questioning ourselves, not with becoming convinced of the rightness of others. How is this to be done? What kind of social process has to be created to achieve such a state of reflection?

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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