A path to cultural intelligence

Foreign Direct Investment
| The European | 20th March 2015
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Sabine E. Baerlocher, owner and CEO, Active Relocation

Sabine E. Baerlocher, owner and CEO, Active Relocation

Everyone agrees that improving intercultural competencies is more critical than ever in the world today. We need to learn about other cultures, find culture “interpreters” and acquire cultural competencies. The media talks regularly about multicultural teams and leadership across cultures.

If we look at the Harvard Business Review it says, “the number one most valuable skill for the 21st century manager is the ability to successfully work across cultures.”

Unfortunately, most intercultural training still focuses only on improving cultural knowledge. We learn facts about various cultures; we study definitions of culture and the implications of cultural dimensions.

Knowing the do’s and dont’s within a particular state is necessary, but unfortunately, this will only help you within that country – and knowing the “rules” doesn’t mean you will be able to play the game if you don’t understand the motivations underlying them.

Many training programmes don’t take into consideration the specifics of the work environment, including corporate culture or differences due to profession, nor differences due to gender, age or social status. For example, a young male Japanese accountant might be able to communicate more effectively with a German counterpart than with a female Japanese human resource manager.

Of course, knowing what would be perceived as rude, disrespectful or even shocking when in a foreign country is useful. However, to thrive professionally and feel integrated personally, we need something more than just facts.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to combine several types of intelligence in order to behave more appropriately and interact more effectively in any social or cultural setting.

To achieve cultural intelligence, or more simply, to improve our communication and behavioural adaptability, we first need to understand culture.

Defining culture

My favourite definition of culture is simple: culture is everything that is considered normal by a group. Culture is therefore the sum of all of the values and codes leading to behavioural action and reactions, both verbal and physical, that are accepted as correct by the members of a group.

This normality is first perceived by an outsider with one’s senses (food, language, clothes, etc.). This tourist-level way of looking at another culture usually focuses on the differences. To acquire deeper understanding of a specific culture, we need to discover the reasons underlying those behaviours and recognise the values they represent. We ought to understand the “why” behind the “how”. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote: “Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants.”

So if most of us are not even conscious of our own values and beliefs, then we are not aware of what drives us to conform to our cultural norms. Not surprisingly, one of the four key elements of cultural intelligence, according to Professor David Livermore, is cultural awareness and one of its main elements is self-awareness.

As psychologist Daniel Goleman puts it: “Self-awareness means the ability to monitor our inner world – our thoughts and feelings.”

Years of experience and studies have taught me that one of the fastest ways to discover our own values is by looking at our own concept of respect and therefore building trust, which is both cultural and personal. When we feel disrespected, we usually get emotional and feel either angry or sad. Usually this reaction means that one of our values has been unsettled. Ultimately, knowing our own values is key to understanding others.

For example, someone needing to build up personal relationships in order to be able to work efficiently with anyone else might feel offended and disrespected by a potential partner starting a meeting without any small talk and going straight to business. This feeling of doubt may very well turn into mistrust against the other, that in turn might have bad repercussions on any future deals.

Since we each have a unique mix of personal and cultural values, how can we discover them? First, we need to be able to recognise our own emotions. Studies underline the benefits of listening to our own body and its reactions, such as practising “mindfulness”.

Once familiar with the physical signs that an emotion provokes in us (raised heartbeat, tickling hands, contracting throat, etc), we can ask our brain to pay attention to these signs in order to inform us when and sometimes even before an emotion appears. Then, we can decide not to react immediately to this emotion and instead think about the reasons behind it to better understand what our values are.

I like to get straight to the point. When someone is talking to me in a convoluted manner, after a while I will start to get nervous and my feet will start to tap on the floor. I used to rather aggressively ask the person to “get to the point” which did not result in anything positive. Having discovered this physical reaction, I have analysed it and realised that I got angry because I was under the impression this person wasn’t respecting me and was making me lose my time.

Changing perceptions

Once we know our values and see how they apply at work in how we react, we can change our own perception of how others act towards us. Instead of focusing on how we feel disrespected, we can focus on what is important to the other person and why. What lies behind this behaviour?

Getting back to the example, I now understand this person is trying to establish a connection with me according to his or her own set of values and communication methods. Knowing what it means for both of us, now, when I sense that my feet are starting to get nervous, I will try to control myself. I will still express my need to get to the point but in a much better way that won’t be perceived as rude by my counterpart, such as, “Sorry, but I have an important call to make in five minutes, how can I be of assistance to you in the meantime?”

To conclude, the better you know yourself the more you are able to stick with the “I feel” rather than the “you did” reproach. And therefore, the closer you get to becoming culturally intelligent.

About the author
Sabine E. Baerlocher lives in Geneva and is the owner and CEO of Active Relocation. Since 2005, Ms Baerlocher has been providing cultural training, individual coaching and conferences in French, English and German, helping people deal with intercultural communication and culture shock and also improve their cultural intelligence.

Ms Baerlocher is a firm believer in vocational training. She is a GMS and MIM holder as well as an EARP Fellow, a CQ Certified Facilitator as well as a Leonardo 3.4.5 Facilitator.

Ms Baerlocher is active within different associations and has been a EURA Council member since 2009. She is also involved on a federal level representing the interests of SME and a labour law judge in Geneva.

Further information
To find out more please visit: www.active-relocation.com

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