I get it. I’m biased. So now what?

davelivermore | September 15th, 2014 5 Comments

Admit it. You like some cultures more than others.

• Headscarves—Yes or No?
• Senior Citizens—Out of Touch or Insightful?
• Southern Accent—Annoying or Charming?

It might not be these differences. But we all have implicit assumptions about certain cultures. And those preferences profoundly influence our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. We’re all biased. And we need bias to survive. It’s the way our brains are wired to alert us to danger. But whether we act upon a bias is another thing altogether.

Unconscious bias training is all the rage these days. Left unchecked, unconscious biases are detrimental to leading effectively in the 21st Century—whether it’s hiring, marketing, or strategic planning. So companies, governments, and universities are investing millions of dollars in teaching staff about the implicit preferences they have for certain groups of people. In 2013, more than 13,000 of Google’s 46,000 employees attended unconscious bias training to expose staff to ways they unwittingly favor certain types of people based upon their upbringing, experiences, and values. Dow Chemical, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and Novartis are also seeing this as one of the most important ways to equip their increasingly diverse workforces; and governments and military forces have jumped on the bandwagon too. A great deal of our work at the Cultural Intelligence Center is working with these kinds of organizations to integrate unconscious bias training with building a more culturally intelligent and inclusive organization.

Awareness of one’s own culture and the potential biases one may have toward others is the first step toward improving your effectiveness with diverse colleagues and customers. But it’s not enough. Awareness doesn’t automatically lead to cross-border results. The inevitable question after unconscious bias training is “Now what? I know I’m biased and so is everyone else. So what am I supposed to do about it?”

I’m a huge supporter of training people about unconscious bias. But it can’t stop there. You have to develop cultural intelligence to move from awareness to intercultural effectiveness. Here are a few ways to do so:

1. Identify your blind spots
If you haven’t been exposed to the groundbreaking work on unconscious bias, start there. Take one of the tests at Project Implicit and consider which groups of people you find most difficult to trust. How might that difficultly connect to a deeply rooted bias? Don’t be too quick to answer. And read Blindspot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, the best book I’ve read on this fascinating subject.

2. Train yourself to think differently
Simply becoming aware of a bias reduces its power to shape our decisions. The conscious side of the brain is very capable of doing the necessary work to train our minds to think differently. Look for where the bias emerges in your thinking and decision-making. Stop yourself when resorting to an unchecked assumption and choose to think differently. And use the power of repetition to regularly remind you of your otherwise overlooked biases.

3. Create practices to prevent bias
CQ Strategy, one of the four capabilities consistently found in those who are culturally intelligent, includes intentional planning in light of cultural differences. This includes developing strategies that account for your default preferences. Have names removed from resumes so you can initially screen candidates without knowing their gender or ethnicity. And tap the power of a diverse team to assess people more holistically. For example, if you have a bent toward hiring outgoing people and overlooking their work experience, involve a co-worker who has more bent toward hiring people based upon their skills and experience. And together, determine the best candidate.

4. Beware your gut
Many point to the gut as a shockingly reliable mechanism for decision-making. And it can be. Our subconscious has been programmed over time and when assessing a familiar situation, the gut often leads to a better result than spending hours reviewing pros and cons. But when the decision involves people and situations from different cultural backgrounds, it’s dangerous to rely upon your gut. Draw upon research-based findings about tendencies among certain cultural groups. Consult with others and consciously suspend trusting your gut. We don’t know yet what happened in the Ferguson, Missouri case that led to a police officer shooting a minor last month. But it’s worth asking how the “gut” guided everyone’s behavior.

5. Develop your CQ™
For organizations that have done very little training on diversity or working cross-culturally, start with cultural awareness. The kinds of things highlighted through unconscious bias training or through assessments that measure ethnocentrism or cultural orientations can be an ideal way to get at this. But once you’ve built awareness, discover which intercultural skills need the most attention.

Developing the skills to work effectively across cultures has always been the focus of our work. We’re working with organizations around the world to provide an integrated training plan that starts with unconscious bias, moves toward cultural intelligence training, and leads toward building an inclusive, culturally intelligent organization.

Cultural intelligence is not simply a new label for cultural sensitivity or cultural competence. It’s a form of intelligence that is proven to correlate with how effectively you work and relate across cultures. Assess your development in the four CQ capabilities—CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ Strategy, and CQ Action—and develop an action plan for addressing the areas that need the most improvement.

Intercultural conflicts and discrimination are rarely deliberate choices that are maliciously intended. They simply creep into everyday decisions. But as you account for your implicit biases and develop a plan for improving your CQ, you’ll find you can navigate through most any cultural situation with both respect and effectiveness.

A Culturally Intelligent Way of Handling the Elephant in the Room

davelivermore | August 18th, 2014 4 Comments



I’ve always been a fan of directly addressing the elephant in the room.[1] I don’t enjoy conflict but I loathe avoiding it even more. In this way, I’m terminally a New Yorker. Don’t dance around the issues. Shoot straight with me and tell me what you think! Yet for most of the world, conflict is best addressed more subtly. Harmony and saving face are the driving values.

Direct versus indirect communication is one of the biggest challenges faced by multicultural teams. And the conflict is exacerbated when most of the communication takes place virtually. A blunt email, an obtuse response, or a silent team member can erode trust and productivity.

Most of the teams who take our CQ Assessment have a wide range of preferences regarding direct versus indirect communication, even if they’re a relatively homogenous team. Many things influence how directly you communicate, including your age, gender, personality, upbringing or cultural background. And the more culturally diverse the team, the more likely communication differences will chafe at you.

You might be familiar with Edward Hall’s work on this cultural difference, something he called low versus high context. A direct, “low” context individual draws very little meaning from the context and just pays attention to the words spoken. An indirect, “high” context individual pays as much attention to the context, body language, and to what’s not said as to what is said.

Here are a few thoughts on how to understand either end of the direct-indirect continuum followed by some specific phrases you can try with your teammates.

Understanding Indirect Communicators (High Context)
Direct communicators should beware of assuming indirect communicators are passive-aggressive or dishonest. There’s certainly a possibility that someone is “beating around the bush” to keep you in the dark; but there’s just as much chance the individual sees this as the most respectful way to communicate with you. Most indirect communicators will be hesitant to give you bad news and will avoid giving you a direct answer because they were taught that speaking this way is more polite. They will change the subject or tell a story when put on the spot. To communicate disagreement, an indirect communicator might say something like, “That will be difficult,” or “Let me get back to you on that.” Meanings are implicit and silence is typically used as an expression of respect.

Understanding Direct Communicators (Low Context)
On the other hand, indirect communicators should beware of assuming direct communicators are insensitive and rude. Again, there’s the possibility that’s true but someone who speaks explicitly may just as well be coming from an orientation that says I respect you enough to tell it to you like it is. The assumption is that everyone should be brutally honest because that’s the most efficient, healthy way to work together. Eye contact communicates trust and confidence. Even most direct communicators still value some measure of diplomacy and kindness but they will go to great lengths to be sure everyone “Says what they mean and means what they say”.

Handling Direct vs. Indirect Communication on Your Team
So how do you handle these differences on a multicultural team? Who adapts to whom? It’s difficult for any multicultural team to function in an entirely indirect way. Even if all the team members come from a high context (indirect) orientation, different contexts presume different meanings (e.g. the meaning of who sits where around a conference table may mean you’re the leader in one context and it may mean you’re an outside guest in another).

A few important strategies to address this on your team include:

  • Spend time understanding one another’s preferred communication style. A few minutes doing this can save hours of time and frustration. The Cultural Values section of the CQ Assessments can be an ideal way of doing this.
  • Create a set of communication guidelines for the team. What should be handled via email, phone call, etc.? Be specific and clarify each team member’s understanding of the guidelines. It’s not enough to simply say “Be respectful in your communication” because some define respect as “being upfront” and others define respect as communicating through a third party.
  • Ask those on the extreme ends of the Direct—Indirect continuum to adapt their style as needed. Very direct communicators need to soften their blunt edge and very indirect communicators may need to be more explicit to ensure the rest of the team understands them. Here are a few examples:

The team leader needs to model a culturally intelligent approach to helping multicultural teams address these communication differences. The leader should demonstrate the agility to communicate directly and indirectly as required by the situation, task, and team members involved. Being conscious of these differences combined with an intentional plan for bridging them will improve your team’s productivity.

Direct versus indirect communication surfaces everywhere—office communications, classroom discussions, and family interactions. What strategies work for you to effectively approach the elephant in the room?


[1] An English idiom that refers to ignoring a problem everyone can see.

5 Things Culturally Intelligent Universities Do

davelivermore | July 8th, 2014 No Comments

Guest post by Dr. Sandra Upton  

Today more than 2.5 million students are studying outside their home countries. Estimates predict a rise to 7 million international students by 2020. Students from Asia are entering the major academic systems of North America, Western Europe, and Australia and vise versa. Countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have adjusted visa and immigration requirements to attract foreign students. But what happens once they arrive on campus?

In my nearly 18 years of working in higher education I’ve observed the impact of these changes. Smart institutions realize that competing globally means creating culturally intelligent campus communities that embrace and leverage diversity. Those who tie diversity to academic and institutional excellence will be the ones that are most successful.

The colleges and universities making the most strides in becoming authentic, culturally intelligent institutions adopt the following practices:

1. Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is tied to strategic, measurable outcomes.  

For any D&I initiative to be effective, it must be an integral part of the institution’s mission, core values and strategic plan. There must also be a high level of synergy and alignment across the efforts of various departments and divisions. Most significant, and the weakest link at many colleges and universities, is the need to evaluate the effectiveness of D&I efforts with measurable outcomes. It’s easy to engage in a lot of useful activities like diversity fairs, multicultural awareness weeks, and workshops. But the question becomes - Do our D&I efforts support the overall goals and objectives of the university and can they be measured for effectiveness?

2. Diversity is important. Inclusion is even more important.  

I recently heard someone say, Diversity is inviting everyone to the party; inclusion is allowing everyone to dance. Colleges and university’s that diversify and do nothing else set themselves up for failure. The real test comes with creating an environment where everyone on campus thrives and is able to achieve their maximum potential. Inclusively excellent institutions consistently engage in the process of identifying and eliminating racism and other biases (conscious or unconscious) by changing systems, structures, policies, practices and attitudes so that power is redistributed and shared more equitably. This occurs by using the next three practices.

3. Cultural Intelligence is prioritized for everyone on campus – students, faculty and staff.

Recruiting a diverse group of students, faculty and staff is essential but it’s not enough. It has to be followed by a strategic plan that fully equips the entire campus community with the skills to relate and work effectively across cultural differences. Whether it’s equipping Chinese students to engage with their North American peers, supporting underrepresented staff to succeed within the institution, or helping faculty understand the different needs of Latino versus African-American students, the CQ of students, faculty, and staff make or break whether a university truly becomes a more diverse, inclusive place. The conversations, lectures, and group projects that occur behind closed doors ultimately reveal whether a campus is becoming more culturally intelligent. Creating a learning and development plan for improving CQ is essential.

4. Diversity content is strategically integrated into the curriculum.

Since colleges and universities are ultimately about education, diversity must be built into the curriculum. Each department needs to identify learning outcomes and create a rubric for assessing courses and students in light of the priorities of diversity and inclusion. Students need to see how diverse perspectives enhance their understanding of the material being taught and they need to see how hands-on experiences on campus, in the local community and through study abroad programs tie to their personal and professional goals.

5. Leadership Commitment

University leaders (President, Provost, VPs and Board of Trustees) must personally demonstrate cultural intelligence and strategically integrate it across the institution. This means intentionally including the contributions of all stakeholders within the organization by ensuring all stakeholders are represented in every conversation, decision, and new initiative. And it means building an institutional culture that views diversity as an institutional treasure and inclusion as a strategic imperative.

I am thrilled to be joining the team at Cultural Intelligence Center and am looking forward to using my years of experience as a faculty member, administrator and leader in facilitating several MBA global business experiences, to work alongside my colleagues in the higher education space around the globe. Given the global changes coming our way, it remains a critical yet exciting time for institutions of higher learning around the world.