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.

10 Things Culturally Intelligent Travelers Do

davelivermore | June 6th, 2014 6 Comments

Some have said, “International travelers are like dogs in an art museum. They see everything and appreciate nothing.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, In fact, when approached with intentionality and reflection, traveling abroad is positively related to all four capabilities of cultural intelligence. Here are ten things culturally intelligent travelers do before and while they travel abroad:

1.     Search the Web Intelligently
The culturally intelligent use the power of the internet to do a quick purview of the history of a place (start with BBC country profiles), the cultural norms (compare your country versus where you’re going using Hofstede’s tool), and look up hot topics in the local news (try searching only sites that originate from your destination; e.g. only search news stories from domains ending in .th if you’re visiting Thailand).

2.  Read Novels or Memoirs about their Destination
Culturally intelligent travelers look beyond TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet and read novels or memoirs for cultural insights about their destination. If you’re going to Cambodia, try Francois Bizot’s memoir, The Gate. If you’re heading to Paris, try David Lebovitz’ Sweet Life in Paris or if you’re heading to the world cup in Rio de Janeiro, try Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant.

3. Watch Movies
Films are another great way the culturally intelligent gain a more visceral understanding of a place they plan to visit. The traveler with high CQ is careful not to assume that A Fond Kiss can be generalized to all South Asians living in the U.K. any more than one should view Motorcycle Diaries as the normative experience for all South American youth; but movies like these are a great way to engage your mind.

4. Take Care of Themselves
Overcoming the physical and emotional drain of travel is vitally important. Culturally intelligent travelers understand that stress and fatigue make them unusually susceptible to culture shock and frustration. When crossing time zones, follow these basic rules of thumb, though this is more of an art than a science:

  • Set your watch to the new time zone as soon as you board your international flight. If at all possible, attempt to follow the “new sleep” and eating patterns even on the trip over.
  • Eat half of what they give you on the plane–if that. And go easy on the alcohol. You’re already getting dehydrated. But drink all the non-alcoholic beverages you can get out of them.
  • Force yourself into the new sleep patterns immediately upon arrival. Don’t take any naps if you arrive in the morning or mid-day.
  • After you arrive, walk or run outside and get as much sunshine as possible. Light is key. Again, stay awake when it’s light but not too late. When it’s dark, sleep. Light is the most important thing that impacts your circadian rhythms.
  • Drink a lot of coffee or tea before noon.If you already drink caffeinated beverages, caffeine can have a strong effect in regulating your wake-up mode. It’s especially effective if you go without caffeine for a few days prior to travel.
  • Consider taking Melatonin before bed. Many people find that melatonin, a natural nutritional supplement, really helps regulate their sleeping patterns.

Attending to your physical and emotional well-being will play a big role in helping you be more ready to fully engage in all that your intercultural experience has to offer.

5. Visit Grocery Stores
Culturally intelligent travelers stroll through the aisles of a local grocery store to see what items are sold, how their displayed, and what people are buying. This is a strategy to use even when traveling to different regions across your own city or country. While you’re at it, buy some of the items that are unfamiliar to you and try them. This is a simple, fun way to experience the day-to-day life of a culture.

6. Compare News Stories
Culturally intelligent travelers compare stories in an international paper like USA Today or the Financial Times with those in a local English newspaper. What gets reported and how? Notice the different perspectives on the same events.

7. Talk to Taxi Drivers
Culturally intelligent travelers look for ways to interact with their taxi drivers. Most taxi drivers have fascinating opinions and perspectives on current events, the places you should visit, their view on the local culture, etc. Learn from their insights!

8. Venture Beyond the Tourist Havens
The culturally intelligent do whatever they can to get beyond tourist haunts. Even if you’re in a major metropolitan place like Shanghai, you can walk out of Starbucks and get on a city bus and suddenly be immersed in the local culture.

9. Take in the Arts
Culturally intelligent travelers don’t only visit world renowned art galleries like the Louvre; they also pop into boutique galleries and museums and check out the art in places like Hanoi, Durban, and Dubai as well as Paris and Rome. One time I stumbled upon an art gallery in Siam Reap and it was the highlight of my visit to Cambodia. It gave me insight into some of the modern day perspectives of the Khmer people that I would have otherwise missed.

10. Laugh at Themselves
The culturally intelligent don’t take themselves too seriously. They try a few words in the local language, sample some foods, and expect to be disoriented at times. An ability to laugh at yourself and learn from your mistakes can make a world of difference in not only behaving appropriately but enjoying the whole experience.

Nothing has the potential of improving CQ like traveling across borders. As you embark on your next business trip, study abroad experience, or holiday, use your travels to learn more about yourself and the world.

What CQ travel strategies would you add?