Respect Is Not Enough

davelivermore | October 20th, 2014 6 Comments


Most every time I speak on cultural intelligence, someone asks “Isn’t this basically a matter of respect? If we would learn to respect each other as fellow human beings, most of our intercultural conflicts would go away.”

Yes and no.

I’m happy to agree on “respect” as the driving motivation for cultural intelligence.

But respect is not enough. We can’t always see intent through behavior. You might intend to be respectful when you speak to me in a very blunt way, thinking, I respect you enough to tell it to you like it is. But if I come from a culture that says respect is best conveyed by saving face and speaking more indirectly, what you intend as respectful may actually come off as rude.

Respect is a noble motivation for cultural intelligence. But the way we demonstrate respect is culturally conditioned. Let’s explore a few examples:

Deli in Iowa versus New York
You walk into a deli in New York and you’re greeted with, “Next? What do you want?”. This is the kind of greeting that causes many outsiders to view New Yorkers as rude. But the unspoken principle in a New York deli is to respect customers’ time by getting them in and out as quickly as possible. However, if you walk into a deli in a small town in Iowa and you’re greeted with, “Good afternoon. How you doin’ today?” followed by some friendly chit chat, some customers will view that as welcoming and others will perceive it as rude, inauthentic, and as a disregard for their time.

Royal Treatment versus Green
Last week I talked with an event planner who was organizing a formal dinner in the Emirates to raise awareness and funds for environmental responsibility. The event is hosted by one of the royal families. In reviewing the details of the dinner, the Sheik wanted to ensure that there would be extravagant, large bouquets of flowers on each table. The event planner told the Sheik, “But Sir. It would not send a good message to have a ‘green’ event that includes huge bouquets that will simply be tossed away.” The Sheik was incredibly anxious about the disrespect it would communicate to his guests if the dinner lacked this kind of extravagance and attention to detail. But the organizer convinced him to give guests a potted bamboo plant they could take home with them and nurture.

Respecting a Professor
Or what if you’re a student and your professor comes from a high power distance orientation? Respecting her might mean greeting her by her formal title, standing when she enters the room, and not eating in class. Whereas respect for a professor coming from a low power distance culture would be better demonstrated by coming to class prepared, being on time, offering input, and perhaps reducing the level of formality used in addressing the professor. Respect is conferred and received differently based upon the value orientations of the student and professor.

I applaud any effort to elevate the importance of respect for one another. Respect rests in your intentions and that’s a critical part of cultural intelligence. In fact, CQ Drive–your interest and motivation to adapt to different cultures is the first of the four CQ capabilities. But respect is not enough.

  • Customer service reps need the skills to accurately interpret an interaction and respond effectively and respectfully.
  • Negotiators need culturally intelligent strategies to build trust and close deals across cultures.
  • Organizations need global standards that are applied universally while allowing flexibility for how regions enact standards like responsibility, innovation, and integrity.

These are the kinds of skills we’re privileged to help leaders and teams develop in organizations around the world.

Cultural intelligence has to be driven by respect or it’s simply a tool to manipulate others. But it’s overly simplistic to think what your default social skills and what you intend to be respectful will be enough. The greater the cultural distance, the more likely your respect won’t be interpreted as respect. But as we consciously develop the skills to read a situation, take the perspective of others, and behave with cultural intelligence, we’ll make great strides in being both respectful and effective in our increasingly diverse, globalized world.

Contact us to use a CQ® Assessment, schedule a Developing Cultural Intelligence™ Workshop or to create a customized strategy for building cultural intelligence skills.

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.