What is inter-cultural intelligence and how does it impact business?

As a business leader you can ruin a chance to gain a new client or resolve a problem the moment you meet, even before you’ve sat down to start negotiations.
Subtle differences in the expectations, actions and reactions that you have with others, can be all it takes to get your discussions off to the right start, or end your chances completely.
Whilst it’s true that people are generally the same the world over, there are many nuances and cultural facets that are ingrained in people common with those around them and not knowing these can show a lack of understanding or care to reflect the most basic expectations you’re expected to bring to the table.
Do you bow or handshake when you meet? How firm a grip and for how long do you shake their hand? How do you greet a member of the opposite sex? How do you address someone at a different level of seniority? Do you or they speak first? A first moment can be fraught with opportunities to comfort and delight, or to disappoint and insult.
With an interconnected world, international trade and more mobile workforces, the importance of inter-cultural intelligence has never been higher. It’s seen all the way up to the top level, with global leaders making miss-steps that should have been better briefed.
What is inter-cultural intelligence?
Inter-cultural intelligence (ICI) can be defined as ‘the ability to understand and interpret somebody else’s behaviour and to adjust your own behaviour accordingly’. In other words – it’s showing empathy. Having the right tools in your empathy toolkit to show the appropriate action or response to a given situation is important because the majority of human interaction is what we do, not what we say. We are hard-wired to respond to those most like us and favour those with whom we have shared experience, a connection.
Luckily there’s some fairly simple and well-worn tools that can help interpret inter-cultural situations. The Three Colors of Worldview* looks at situations from 3 aspects, filters through which people view the world and decide how to act. Each is formed from some basic assumptions and beliefs underlying behaviour and culture.
Every culture comprises a mix of the following:
1. A Guilt-Innocence worldview, in which rules and regulations are highly valued, as are written contracts. American and British culture is highly litigious – there’s a law for most things and the rule of law is seen to provide protection and the framework that underpins business.
2. An Honor-Shame worldview which is relationship-driven and concerned with making honourable choices. This is a big part of Japanese culture and the Indian sub-continent. It can be shameful for someone to say they don’t know or didn’t act upon something.
3. A Power-Fear worldview, in which the individual is concerned with who is more or less powerful than them, and where they personally fit into that structure. There is a story of a fateful plane crash where the co-pilot couldn’t bring himself to argue with his captain when he had made a bad piloting decision, because of the culture of hierarchy.
At first glance, depending on your own cultural education, some of these aspects can seem important and others not, but consider what you know from another cultural window, the movies. Would you commit Hari Kari for your shame as in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence?
As in watching movies, the more we are exposed to alternative cultures and the expectations from them, the more familiar they become and the easier it is to accommodate other cultural behaviours naturally into our actions.

So, what does this mean for a leader?
Leaders set not only the rules of the office, but generally also too the tone of what’s expected. What the leader is seen to care about becomes the norm. A potential partner or employee from another culture will see clues to whether their experience with your company will be comfortable or painful, often basing whole decisions on first impressions.
A leader should also know how to get the best out of their team, and employees will go the extra mile when they feel valued and respected, which they will if their inter-cultural needs are taken into account.

What does this mean for day to day business practices?
Amal from MBD has spent a long time in the Middle East and come to understand that there are many differing attitudes to the correct way to do business. “Not only is the UAE set in the heart of Arabia, it is also at the crossroads of East and West, North and South, close to Africa and Asia and has become a hub for global business practices.

As a person with a British background time keeping is one of the big areas of difference I’ve noticed. There can be a more ‘relaxed’ interpretation with regard to what meeting times actually mean. It can infuriate the part of me related to the guilt-innocence worldview. I see it as a sign of rudeness whereas sometimes a more leisurely approach is expected – but that still winds me up!”
Dubai may seem far away if you’re in Durham, but as the trend for mass movement of workers continues to rise and in order to thrive in the global economy post-Brexit, your employees and customers, or even your next boss or client could come from anywhere.
To learn how a greater understanding of inter-cultural intelligence can you’re your organisation thrive, please contact Amal for a free initial consultation.
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*The Three Colors of Worldview is a tool by Knowledge Workx. http://knowledgeworkx.com (embed link)

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