Cultural Intelligence – Go Beyond ‘Cruise Control’ Mode

Working with people across international boundaries has swiftly moved from being an incentive to top performers to becoming an imperative for tomorrow’s leadership positions. Leadership development for top talent today is incomplete without developing core competence in managing across cultures. It’s not just about being culturally intelligent but also about leading teams with cultural intelligence.

History is witness to many examples of individuals or even organizations failing due to lack of cross cultural understanding. For example, Electrolux, the Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer used the following line for an American campaign “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”. My guess is, not many people in America will be willing to put their money in a vacuum cleaner that the company itself labels as ‘it sucks’!

Situations like this show the consequence of looking at things only from the existing cultural perspective and not from the perspective at the other (receiving) end. This in cross cultural terminology is what we refer to as cultural “cruise control” mode.

The term “cruise control” is borrowed from automotive terminology. This mode allows you to cruise along at a steady speed without having to worry about keeping your foot on the accelerator. But when taken in the cultural context, this cruising along can have serious repercussions.

It may make you overlook two important steps.

  •  Being aware of when you need to change speed and
  •  Having the requisite knowledge/skill to actually change the status quo depending on the desired speed and the terrain you are driving on.

Clearly, cruise control mode doesn’t factor in driving over “rolling” terrains!

As an example, consider recruitment for cross-cultural assignments. As research indicates, a majority of organizations are selecting potential candidates based on their performance in domestic assignments. The assumption is that domestic success predicts international success. This often leads to visible and early failures in overseas assignments. As is evident in this case, recruitment is being looked at through “cruise control’ mode and is thus being executed without factoring a candidate’s ability to manage across cultures.

Another situation where cruise control mode affects business results is in managing of foreign companies acquired by national companies. The euphoria of buying a “foreign” company soon translates to concern when companies try to figure out the best way to run and integrate these companies with their existing set up. An Indian company which buys an European company often ends up complaining about Europeans not being willing to work beyond scheduled working hours. The converse reality, of far greater efficiency during working hours, is often lost in translation. Failures in these cases is often due to another dimension of cruise control- transferring current management styles ‘as is’ to another cultural context.

These are just a handful of examples. There are many more such situations, from project
management to conflict management and beyond, where the cruise control mode creeps in.

We all know that the cost of failure in international assignments is significant. This is in terms
of the high investment and high stakes involved. Now the question is how do we address this
“cruise control” mode?

Well, that’s where Cultural Intelligence or CQTM comes in.

The concept of cultural intelligence provides a comprehensive framework to address these issues. It is the first ever academically validated instrument to measure cultural intelligence and is developed from the theory of intelligence. CQ has been tested across 36 countries and has demonstrated significant correlation with proven measures of performance. It is rated as a top global cultural competence assessment tool based on its statistical robustness. Recently, Harvard Business School has adopted CQ for all of its MBA students.

The best part is that contrary to the prevalent belief that ‘you either have it or you don’t’, CQ is something you can easily develop yourself. Its four parameters (i.e. CQ drive, CQ action, CQ knowledge and CQ strategy) provide a holistic as well as step by step frame work for developing cultural intelligence.

CQ Drive – one’s interest, drive and confidence to adapt to multicultural situations.

How motivated are you to adapt /assimilate to other cultures? Are you more positively disposed towards some cultures as compared to others? Do you like the idea of moving to an unfamiliar work or country culture? Does the idea of working or traveling abroad bring in joy or anxiety?

CQ Knowledge – one’s understanding about how cultures are similar and different.

This is probably the most visible part of cultural interventions. Organizations today spend considerable resources in sensitizing their people on knowledge (primarily do’s and don’ts) about specific target cultures. However too much emphasis on knowledge often leads to strengthening of stereotypes about other cultures.

CQ Strategy – one’s awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions.

This needs to be an important part of any cultural intervention where we move away from mere tactical preparation. An important first step here is to stop interpreting actions/behaviors of others from one’s own worldview. Observation is the key.

CQ Action – one’s ability to adapt when relating and working inter culturally.

Clearly, all the above stages (in terms of CQ – drive, knowledge and strategy) will fail to have an impact unless we demonstrate cross-cultural competence through our behavior. Practice is the key. 

Thus, knowledge based cultural interventions can be fun and engaging, but the question is, “is it sufficient to break the cruise control?” Well, it is necessary to tie in that knowledge with awareness about one’s culturally influenced stereotypes/biases, planning & preparation for real cross-cultural interactions and adapting/practicing necessary skill sets. For instance, the way we partake routine activities like listening, giving & receiving feedback, managing meetings etc. are in most cases a reflection of our habitual way of doing things. As the saying goes, habit is just ‘behavior on cruise control’. A glance through any cultural sensitization literature on India suggests that Indians are habitually late, habitually bad listeners, habitually non-assertive etc. These are issues when working within a culture, but they become significantly bigger challenges when working across cultures. Now if habits are nothing but behavior on cruise control, then to break a habit all we need to do is BREAK (or, rather BRAKE!) THE CRUISE CONTROL.

 Dr. Anindita Banerjee

Dr. Anindita Banerjee is an MBA and PHD in cross-cultural management and she is presently leading the Diversity & Inclusion practice at Renaissance Strategic Consultants Pvt. Ltd. She is involved in some fairly interesting and cutting edge work in the area of Cultural Intelligence (CQ), Gender Inclusion, Inclusive workplace culture and others. She is a visiting faculty in IIM Calcutta, Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts and others.

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