Why You Need to Stop Teaching Cultural Differences

davidlivermore | December 13th, 2018 No Comments

If you’ve paid any attention to our work in cultural intelligence, you know that we’ve been saying for a while that cultural knowledge isn’t enough. You need more than a seminar on how to do business in India or how to work with Millennials to work successfully with those cultures. But now, a mounting body of research suggests it would actually be better to not teach cultural differences at all if that’s the only thing you’re going to do. Dozens of studies find that cultural knowledge leads to stereotyping and perpetuating bias rather than building cultural intelligence (CQ).

Why?

Knowledge without curiosity leads to stereotypes.
Once you learn characteristics about Indians or Millennials, there’s a tendency to start putting any Indian or Millennial in a box. Then, when you encounter an inexplicable behavior, you fill in the blank with a crass stereotype rather than suspending judgment and seeking to understand more.

Knowledge without cultural humility leads to arrogance.
Once you get some insight into a culture, you may end up being over-confident about your ability to understand what’s going on. It may actually be better to remain open-minded and culturally ignorant than to go in thinking your cursory understanding about another culture means you “get them”.

Knowledge without intersectionality leads to irrelevance.
The groundbreaking work on Intersectionality, referring to an individual’s overlapping identities (race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, function, etc.) illuminates the danger of reducing someone to any one part of their identity. An Indian woman is not only an Indian, she’s also influenced by her gender, social class, professional role, and much more. How will you know which part of her identity will be most relevant when you interact with her?

Knowledge without skills leads to ineffectiveness.
If knowledge was all we needed to work successfully with diverse groups, we should have this figured out by now. But some of the individuals with the highest level of knowledge about different cultural groups can’t for the life of them figure out how to actually get along with people who are different.

I could keep going but the point is, after several decades of courses, books, and videos teaching people about cultural differences, it’s time to stop. Of course, the best choice is to teach cultural knowledge along with the other CQ capabilities that are proven to predict one’s effectiveness in relating and working with people from diverse backgrounds. But it would honestly be better to do nothing at all than only teach cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Here’s a much more strategic approach.

1. Start with CQ Drive
Over the last decade, we have surveyed nearly 100,000 professionals from over 100 countries and there’s only one consistent characteristic among every culturally intelligent individual. It’s not where you grew up, how many languages you speak, whether you’re part of an under-represented group or how far you’ve traveled. It’s your curiosity, or something we call your CQ Drive. This is your interest and openness to other ways of doing things. And it’s your confidence and ability to persevere in the midst of intercultural challenges.

Before teaching about cultural differences, address the motivation by clarifying the goal. What’s the objective behind improving intercultural interactions and how does it relate to the broader goal you wish to accomplish as an individual, team, or organization?

Also keep in mind that no amount of information about how a culture operates means much if you’re physically or emotionally exhausted. There are times when I understand what’s going on in an interaction with someone from a different background, but I just don’t have the energy to deal with it. It starts with CQ Drive.

2. Teach archetypes first, then cultural specifics
I don’t really think you should fully stop teaching about cultural differences. But my overstated title was intended to be more than just an attention-getter. We really must get the message through that if you only teach knowledge about different cultures, it can actually be far more determinantal than doing nothing at all.

However, when combined with the other capabilities of cultural intelligence, the most valuable knowledge to begin with is learning broad archetypes that help with comparing one group with another. These might include:

  • Key Historical Differences
  • Family Systems (Kinship, Extended, Nuclear)
  • Religious Context
  • Cultural Values

Then within those broad archetypes, you can talk about the tendencies of a particular cultural group. In other words, don’t teach about Millennials or Chinese as a stand-alone topic. Be sure the discussion is rooted in a broader taxonomy of cultural systems and values so that individuals are equipped for the intersectionality of individual’s identities and the diversity that exists within any culture.

Rather than working toward a mastery of cultural knowledge, emphasize the kind of information that is most helpful to know and where to find reliable sources.

3. CQ Strategy is even more important than we thought
Based upon a meta-analysis of dozens of academic studies on CQ, we’ve discovered that CQ Strategy, or Metacognitive CQ, is even more important than we originally thought. CQ Strategy strengthens the effects of the other CQ capabilities. It’s what allows you to use your drive and knowledge to make sense of culturally diverse experiences so you can plan accordingly.

With the objective in mind (CQ Drive) and a broad understanding of cultural tendencies (CQ Knowledge), what plan is going to work best? Meta-cognitive CQ, the more precise concept behind CQ Strategy, is a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to relating and working with people from different backgrounds, rather than just blindly assuming that all Boomers want to be treated the same way.

Driven by Difference is almost entirely devoted to CQ Strategy, with specific application to leveraging diversity to drive innovation.

4. Equip for Adaptive Performance (CQ on the fly!).
I’m often asked for advice about how to handle a specific intercultural dilemma (e.g. “Our partner in Brazil consistently misses agreed upon deadlines. What should we do?”). My first response to most of these questions is, “It depends!”. It sounds like a cop out and it’s fair to expect me to offer some additional guidance. But working and living in today’s multicultural, globalized world requires a much more situational, strategic approach that is informed by understanding about cultural differences without over applying them to every situation.

We’re doing a lot of work currently with the special forces community in the U.S. military. Their leaders consistently tell me they have to find ways to equip their officers with “adaptive performance”—the ability to learn on the fly and figure things out as you go.

CQ predicts adaptive performance. But no one CQ capability leads to adaptive performance, and particularly not CQ Knowledge. All four are needed, otherwise, you end up with an insufficient approach.

Information by itself rarely solves anything. We know that, yet it becomes the easy default as soon as we encounter a need to work better with a different group. Clearly there’s a place for teaching cultural differences but resist the urge to build knowledge too quickly. There are far more important components to developing cultural intelligence.

EQ Does Not Equal CQ

davidlivermore | September 13th, 2018 No Comments

My wife and I just dropped off our youngest daughter to start university. To say I was sad to leave Grace thousands of miles away is an understatement. Sure, I’m happy for her to spread her wings and start this new chapter but she and I have always been close and I’m not ready to let her go.

When it came to the dreaded moment of saying goodbye, I worked hard to apply the recurring advice I received from countless friends. “Dave. Hold it together. Nobody wants to see their parents cry and particularly not their dad.”

I watched these farewells play out all weekend as other parents were going through the same ritual. A lot of moms were crying, not many dads, and few if any students. Similar differences played out across different ethnic groups, with affective cultures doing little to disguise their tears and neutral ones looking stoic. Grace knows me too well to not have seen through my artificial smile and wavering voice but I kept a stiff upper lip as I gave her a final hug and watched her walk away.

Emotions play a powerful part in every relationship—first and foremost among our family but also among our friends and colleagues. This is why our social media feeds are filled with articles about things like: “7 secrets to deal with toxic behavior”,”4 ways to project more confidence”, or “5 ways to handle a friend who gives you the silent treatment.” And almost without fail, these articles seem to assume we’re all Westerners interacting with other Westerners. We’re repeatedly told to look people in the eye, speak up for yourself, smile while you speak, and similar platitudes. But many of these tips will get you in trouble if blindly applied to colleagues and friends in a diverse and global world.

Direct eye contact means confidence and respect in some cultures.
Direct eye contact means insubordination and disrespect in other cultures.

Speaking up demonstrates confidence and control in the U.S.
Silence demonstrates confidence and control in China.

A dad crying in front of his daughter communicates weakness in some cultures.
A dad crying in front of his daughter communicates love in other cultures.

So what do we do? “Common sense” isn’t enough but we can’t possibly learn the dos and don’ts for every culture we encounter. Even if we could, those generalizations are often wrong.

Here are a few starting points for handling the emotional side of our day-to-day interactions:

1. Emotional Intelligence is the first step.
Emotional intelligence, the ability to detect and manage the emotions of yourself and others, is proven to play a critical role in being a strong leader, fostering team collaboration, and forging healthy family relationships. But the challenge comes when you detect and respond to the emotional expressiveness from someone who grew up with a different set of guidelines for what’s appropriate when and with whom. That said, I have little confidence you can be culturally intelligent if you aren’t first able to read and react to the emotions of people from familiar cultures. And cultural intelligence is built from a premise of self-awareness, a critical part of emotional intelligence.

2. Emotions are universal.
We often stereotype certain genders, ethnicities, and even functions and professions as being the “emotional” types. But if you’re human, you’re emotional. There is a set of universal triggers that elicit the same emotion in nearly all of us. For example, the sight of something coming straight at you triggers fear, regardless of your personality or culture. A similar trigger occurs when experiencing the unexpected, such as rough turbulence in flight. Even seasoned flight attendants admit that when they don’t expect it, a sudden jolt in the air frightens them. In a world of robots and AI, it’s worth coming back to one of the most important elements that connects us as humans—our emotions. There are important norms worth learning for various situations and cultures that guide how much we should unveil our emotions. But we need to free ourselves and others from thinking some people are emotional and others aren’t.

3. We all make the same faces.
Paul Ekman’s groundbreaking work on facial expressions finds that people from all over the world express sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and happiness using similar facial expressions. I was initially skeptical of this finding. But through a series of renowned, peer-reviewed studies, Ekman makes a convincing case that people all over the world signal happiness with the corners of their mouths up and their eyes contracted. Anger is expressed with the corners of the mouth down and sadness is expressed with the eyelids drooping. Even individuals who have been blind from birth manifest the same nonverbal expressions. And Ekman found that indigenous tribes without exposure to outside groups used some of the same basic facial expressions as others around the world.

4. We disguise our emotions differently.
Where cultural differences begin to come into play are the rules for how to appropriately manage emotional expressions. Parents teach children the display rules for various occasions, which get reinforced at school, through the media, and with peers. When should you show emotion, when should you exaggerate it, and when should you mask it? We develop mechanisms for masking seemingly inappropriate expressions and learn when we should fake it. Even though a highly trained expert can spot disgust or sadness across faces from a variety of cultures, most of us miss it when an individual disguises their emotions with a behavior they’ve learned to do so.

5. We feel differently about the past.
I’m an eternal optimist. I don’t spend too much time thinking about regrets and in times of disappointment, part of my coping mechanism is to focus on the positive. Some of that is personality driven, but it’s also a reflection of culture.

A series of studies comparing German’s and American’s sense of time illuminated the role of culture in how people view the past, present, and future. Germans are more likely to look at the negative implications of past events while Americans are more likely to focus on the positive.

American cyclist Lance Armstrong, described cancer as the best thing that ever happened to him, whereas German actor Michael Lesch described cancer as a horrifying experience that continued to create a never ending sense of anxiety for him. This aligns with recurring sentiments found among many Americans and Germans at work. U.S. employees typically resist talking about their failures and indirectly refer to them as areas for improvement. Germans view that approach as rubbish and talk openly about failure and spend little time praising one another for their achievements.

CQ picks up where EQ leaves off.
Cultural intelligence stems from the same body of research as emotional intelligence (EQ). There’s no substitute for emotional intelligence as the first step in improving the way you work and relate with others. But cultural intelligence takes it the next step by allowing us to have those same social sensibilities when interacting with people who behave in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Giggles may mean laughter in one culture and embarrassment in another. Some individuals have been socialized to express anger by yelling while others simmer in silence. Public affirmations may be encouraging in one context and humiliating in another.

There’s certainly value in using some of the tips and pointers from various articles about how to project confidence, get better at small talk, or manage conflict. Just read them with a culturally intelligent eye and consider which tips need to be adapted for various groups.

When “Culture Fit” is Code Word for Affinity Bias

davidlivermore | August 17th, 2018 No Comments

Guest Post By Dr. Sandra Upton

A few months back my colleague and friend, Dave Livermore, wrote an excellent article on cultural fit, which is the likelihood that a job candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization. He provided some great insights on identifying culturally intelligent ways to balance adapting to the organizational culture and being yourself. I’d like to further explore this conversation from a slightly different perspective.

So here’s the question: what if “culture fit” really is code for “if you want to join or be successful in our organization, you need to think and act just like us (the dominant cultural group)”? This what is called Affinity Bias—the tendency to give preference to people like ourselves.

Every organization has a core set of values that guide how they operate and employees should be expected to share those values. But what are the consequences when those values leave no room for the values, identities, and perspectives of those outside of the dominant culture?

Harvard Business School Professor, Francesca Gino, has done fascinating research and work on the benefits of helping employees become rebels (in a good way!) inside their organizations. In her study of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform. These organizations unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. When this happens both the employee and organization pay a price—which is manifested through decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation. To the contrary, employees who said they could express their authentic selves at work were more committed to their organizations, thus demonstrating higher levels of engagement, productivity, and innovation.

How To Tell The Difference

How do we know when our judgments and decisions genuinely support organizational values that benefit everyone versus those decisions and actions (conscious or unconscious) that favor the dominant culture? In most organizations, Affinity Bias shows up in one of three places in the organization: hiring, promoting, or day-to-day interactions. The consequences can include missing out on hiring a diverse and highly qualified candidate, promoting the most qualified person into a leadership position, or missing out on difference perspectives and innovative ideas in team meeting or on key projects.

Examples of what someone might think, hear, or say…

Hiring: “That first interviewee did a fantastic job! He reminds me so much of myself when I was younger. I think he’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Promotion/Development: “I’m not sure she’s ready for a leadership position, she just doesn’t quite have the executive presence that I’m looking for and I’m not sure she’ll fit in with the other leaders.”

Day-To-Day: “We think so much alike, I want you working on this big project with me.”

If it is Affinity Bias, what can you do about it? Here are five specific ways to think about how to manage its effect in your organization. By the way, these strategies can also apply to many other forms of bias that show up in our organizations.

How Do We Manage Affinity Bias? 

  • Get out of denial. In a powerful TedTalk, Verna Meyers, a lawyer, activist, and diversity advisor, told the standing room only crowd that one of the first steps to managing our biases is admitting out loud that we have them and that they may be impacting our decisions and actions. It’s not rocket science, but it is truth—and it’s harder to do than most of us think. If our organizational culture is one where we aren’t even willing to create space for the discussion and admit that Affinity Bias may be influencing some of our decisions and actions, we just may be in denial.
  • Start at the top. If leadership isn’t committed to addressing bias in the work environment, your efforts quickly become an uphill battle. In addition, to manage unconscious bias at the organizational level there must be “demonstrated” leadership commitment. This means that leadership must not just say they are committed through verbal expressions and written diversity statements. They must take measurable steps towards the elimination of bias in the work environment. As a leader, you need to create a workplace culture that promotes employee well-being, creates opportunities for positive cross-cultural interactions, and develop policies, practices, and norms that serve as a benefit and not a barrier to embracing all cultural groups.
  • Manage Affinity Bias at all stages of the employee life cycle. This can feel like an overwhelming task and you may not even know where to start. Break down the process and consider it in the three phases highlighted in this article—hiring, promotion/development, and day-to-day. Ask yourself questions such as: Are our hiring policies and practices objective and consistent with all candidates? When promoting people is our criteria for “success” objective, or do certain cultural groups tend to benefit most from promotional opportunities? In day-to-day interactions, do we see certain cultural groups covering up parts of their identity in meetings, on projects, or just in conversations or cross-cultural engagements throughout the day.
  • Track and assess the data. The saying, “we measure what we value” is still true. Because unconscious bias can be so subtle and, well, unconscious, it can sometimes be difficult to quantify its effects. When accessing your efforts to manage bias, look at the hard facts. How diverse is your talent pool? Whose getting promoted? What cultural groups are absent? Why? If the data is revealing tendencies to hire and promote people who primarily reflect the dominant group or certain cultural groups, biases may be at play.
  • Solicit Feedback. Conduct an anonymous company-wide employee survey to understand what specific issues of hidden bias, microaggressions, and inequities might exist in your organization or institution. If you are a leader, solicit direct feedback from your team or colleagues.

Ultimately and most importantly, you must go beyond the unconscious bias conversation. Addressing it is important. In fact, understanding our biases and enhancing our cultural awareness are the critical first steps in the process of learning how to work effectively across cultures. However, awareness alone is no guarantee of success in our intercultural interactions. Not only do we need to go beyond awareness and build habits and behaviors that will help mitigate the impact of unconscious biases, we need to develop our cultural intelligence (CQ). When awareness of these biases and behaviors is coupled with CQ, new habits and behaviors predict intercultural performance.

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