Cultural Chameleon BLOG

Overcoming the challenge of values when building ‘Cultural Intelligence’
Posted by admin on 3rd August 2016

In 1995 Daniel Goleman coined the phrase ‘Emotional Intelligence’, or EQ. As he defined it, Emotional Intelligence measured how an individual could regulate and master his or her own emotions. Perhaps for the first time the assessment of an individual’s intelligence was taken beyond their intellectual talent, and using traditional intelligence tests to assess someone’s capability to perform a task was questioned.

This was not the first time that the shortcomings of assessing an individual based on pure intellectual intelligence had been raised. Decades before, Einstein warned of the dangers of assessing human potential based on pure intellect in isolation from other qualities. He stated: “We should take care not to make the intellect our God. It has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve” Goleman, Boyatzis et al. (2003, p.34)
Raising the importance of an individual’s Emotional Intelligence prompted academics to look at how else we can segment and measure human intelligence. Last year the Washington Post published a blog that examined the work of Howard Gardner and his nine types of intelligence, including musical, spatial and logical Intelligence (Strauss 2013).

Arguably receiving less attention than warranted, a further addition to the list is ‘Cultural Intelligence’, or CQ. According to David Livermore ‘Cultural Intelligence is the capability to function effectively across national, ethical and organizational cultures’ (Livermore 2010, l.311). With our increasing reliance on global trade, many companies success is determined by their ability to engage with international stakeholders. To achieve such success, organizations need managers who have mastered CQ and are therefore comfortable communicating, motivating and influencing across a wide range of different cultures. Livermore (2010) states CQ is a skill that can be taught to almost anyone.

Recent research at one of Australia’s leading universities would indicate that Cultural Intelligence can certainly be improved by attending a structured training program. The research tested students CQ prior to and post their participation in an undergraduate cross cultural management course. The results showed a significant improvement in the students’ CQ once the program had been completed.

However, it would be a mistake to say that developing CQ is easy and can simply be mastered after a few training or coaching sessions. It is also important to acknowledge that some people find CQ easier than others. In 2008 Transcultural Leader of the Year and then President and CEO of Renault and Nissan, Carlos Ghosn said in an interview with Stuart Pallister that family background can definitely help (Pallister 2008). Having been born in Brazil from a Lebanese Jesuit family, Ghosn had the advantage throughout his childhood of experiencing many different countries and cultures.
From my own experience, travel alone does not necessarily mean an individual is guaranteed to excel at cultural intelligence.

Someone with strong CQ is able to display high levels of flexibility in many aspects of their lives including their body language and communication styles. However, above all, someone developing CQ has to come to terms with being flexible with their belief system. Cultures are built on behaviours that historically have enabled a society to survive invasion, and thrive under its own specific geographic and climatic environment. These behaviours have then established somewhat unique concepts of what is right and wrong. When we work in a different culture and hold steadfast to our own belief system, judging our new environment as inferior to our own, we are destined to failure. Even if we adopt the culture’s behaviour patterns, people will still be able to see past the acting and feel judged.

Unfortunately having flexibility around our values and beliefs is all too often more easily said than done. When I run workshops I hear people say that they feel it is important to treat others in a way that they personally themselves would like to be treated. This may sound highly constructive at first but what if that other person wants to be treated very differently, or worse – actually finds the same treatment offensive? For example, when Carlos Ghosn first arrived in Japan he was struck by the Japanese practice of men entering a room before women. This was contrary to his beliefs of gentlemanly behaviour. He discusses how he had to move beyond his own values that suggested such conduct was rude and accept the Japanese practice. Without such conscious efforts he could not expect to be fully accepted (Pallister 2008).

At the core of our success when working with a new culture is our ability to sometimes let go of strongly held beliefs and values, and not negatively judge difference. Simply learning new etiquette is not enough to gain acceptance and make a positive contribution to a new culture.

Goleman, D., et al. (2003). The New Leaders Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results London, Time Warner Paperback.

Livermore, D. A. (2010). Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success. USA, AMACOM.

Pallister, S. (2008). “The transcultural leader: Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault, Nissan “. Retrieved 17 July 2014, from

Strauss, V. (2013). Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’. Washington, The Washington Post 2014.

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