Cultural diversity is becoming a more and more relevant issue, both in companies, and in society in general. Within many companies, especially the larger ones, it is quite common to have people from five, ten, or even more different cultural backgrounds, all working together. And certainly, our societies are becoming increasingly multicultural. But without also developing Cultural Intelligence, this can lead to misunderstandings, fear, xenophobia, or isolation of specific cultural groups.
Whenever we learn about other cultures, we inevitably focus on the differences between our culture and theirs. This is normal, and necessary. However, too often, this approach can also — albeit unintentionally — reinforce the perception that the people in those cultures are exotic, weird, strange, different, etc.
However, regardless of culture, all humans share certain things in common — particularly emotions, desires, and personalities. And a crucial aspect of developing your Cultural Intelligence is learning to recognize those universal commonalities that underlay different behaviors and reactions.
Take emotions for example. All humans, regardless of culture, share the same emotions — love, hate, joy, sadness, excitement, boredom, etc. However, the way they express those emotions may be quite different.
All humans, regardless of culture, share the same emotions — love, hate, joy, sadness, excitement, boredom, etc. However, the way they express those emotions may be quite different…
I have a friend who comes from a culture that is very physical in expressing their emotions. Whenever he meets friends, or is introduced to a new friend, he would hug them, kiss them on the cheeks, etc. And in his own culture, this was perceived as normal, friendly, and certainly non-threatening. But when he went to another culture, where such displays were extremely uncommon, women in particular were very threatened by his actions, perceiving it as an unwelcome sexual advance from someone they barely knew; and many men perceived his behavior as indicating a homosexual interest in them. And he, by contrast, felt that people in that culture were cold and unfriendly, even though that was not actually the case. A person with low Cultural Intelligence will easily see that there are differences in how people greet each other, and show affection; but a person with high Cultural Intelligence will be able to recognize that in both situations, there is a desire to show friendship and warmth…it is just shown in different ways.
How about desires? All humans, regardless of culture, share the same desires — the desire to be loved, the desire to be successful, the desire to be safe, the desire to be part of a community, etc. However, the way they express those desires may be quite different.
In one company that I was consulting for, they had brought in a team leader from a culture that was very individualistic. He motivated his staff using the ‘management by walking around’ philosophy…to walk around the office, noticing what people were doing, and praising those who did particularly well. The result of this was generally quite positive, as other employees saw that their efforts would be recognized and rewarded. However, when he was transferred to a collectivist culture, this method backfired entirely, actually resulting in decreased motivation for employees. Why? Because if one person was singled out, even if that person had done an excellent job, the rest of the team had also contributed, and they knew that person could not have done everything on their own. Their reaction was to do less work (“If he’s going to get all the praise, then he can do all the work”), and to ostracize that employee (with the result that he’d also decrease his own efforts, in order to be accepted as part of the team again). The manager in question had to change his tactics to both praise and punish the team as a whole, rather than as individuals. A person with low Cultural Intelligence may recognize that a strategy that was successful in one culture is not working in another; but a person with high Cultural Intelligence will recognize that all the people involved are motivated by a desire for reward and recognition — the former reward and recognition of individual effort, the latter the desire for reward and recognition of group effort.
And then there are personality types. All humans, regardless of culture, share the same personality types in common — aggressive, passive, independent, dependent, extroverted, introverted, etc. However, the way they express those personalities may be quite different.
I was working with a manager who had recently moved from a collectivist culture, to an individualist culture. In his own culture, he was perceived by everyone as being a strong and aggressive leader; but in the new culture, he consistently received reviews that said he lacked leadership and initiative. The problem was that in his own culture, he had displayed leadership by quietly working in the background to build consensus, before doing anything publicly, so that every announcement he made was a fait accompli, with others unable to oppose him. But in the new culture, because he didn’t speak up and push aggressively for his ideas from the beginning, and spent so much time first trying to get people to agree with him behind the scenes, he was perceived as weak, and even a little dishonest. People with low Cultural Intelligence will recognize that his behavior is different; but people with high Cultural Intelligence will be able to recognize that both behaviors, within their appropriate cultural context, can be indicative of a leader’s personality.
One of the most common causes of cultural conflict is when people interpret the actions of someone from another culture within their own cultural context. But a deeper, more fundamental problem is the inability to recognize where behaviors that may appear to be entirely different, may actually be demonstrating identical emotions/desires/personalities.
Developing our Cultural Intelligence, and our ability to look beyond surface behaviors to deeper, more fundamental issues, will significantly improve our ability to promote cultural diversity, both within companies, and society as a whole. It is important to recognize and value the things that make us different…but equally important to be able to recognize and value the underlying commonalities that all of us share as members of the human race.