Developing Cultural Intelligence: Designing Effective International Assignments

Developing Cultural Intelligence: Designing Effective International Assignments

by Felicity Menzies

Cultural Intelligence develops either on the job or from formal training. On-the-job cultural learning is unstructured, spontaneous, and incidental to everyday duties; it occurs as employees use trial and error to achieve their goals in diverse settings. Cultural learning also results from watching peers or leaders manage diversity.

On-the-job learning is useful for gaining tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is information that resides within a person’s mind. It is not easily articulated or documented. Tacit knowledge includes ‘know-how’, judgement, insights, beliefs, and perspectives as well as memories, attitudes, and emotions.

Cultural learning is largely tacit. It is not easily transferred to others in written or verbal form. Instead, tacit cultural knowledge develops socially.

Authentic intercultural exchanges

Cultural Intelligence develops when individuals engage in authentic intercultural exchanges. Exchanges with diverse others offer opportunities for practising and refining the four competencies of Cultural Intelligence.

Although at first confronted with the disorientating effects of culture shock, the employee gradually develops:

  • an understanding of their own value set and an awareness of cultural similarities and differences (CQ Knowledge)
  • the ability to hold multiple perspectives, make culturally appropriate attributions, and engage in more frequent checking and adjustment of cultural assumptions (CQ Strategy)
  • increased confidence, a greater tolerance of uncertainty, and respect for diverse others (CQ Drive)
  • a new repertoire of flexible, culturally appropriate responses (CQ Action).

These competencies transfer across different cultural settings.

Developing potential global leaders

International and multicultural assignments offer opportunities for authentic intercultural exchanges. Many universities have study-abroad programs for their business students to better prepare them for the realities of global business. Similarly, many organisations recognise the benefits of international and multicultural work assignments as development tools for future business leaders. Any organisation seeking to capture the competitive advantages associated with Cultural Intelligence must commit to offering these opportunities, whether in the form of traditional expatriate assignments or contemporary approaches including short-term assignments, international business travel, multicultural teaming, job rotations, or virtual teaming.

Designing effective assignments

Not every multicultural experience develops Cultural Intelligence. Short-term business trips may not provide the employee sufficient time or opportunity to master new behaviours. More alarmingly, stereotyping, and ethnocentrism may increase over the longer term for some assignees. Multicultural teams are often characterised by communication breakdowns and negative intergroup phenomena that may limit, or even negatively impact the development of Cultural Intelligence.

Exposure to diverse others, per se, does not guarantee a higher level of Cultural Intelligence. The quality and nature of the experience matters. Some experiences may even be ‘mis-educative’ if they limit further learning and development. A miseducative intercultural experience occurs when a person has an experience that reinforces negative stereotyping. Contact does not automatically lead to understanding, positive attitudes, or effectiveness in diverse settings.

Effective development assignments have nine characteristics:

1. High contact

The nature and frequency of the intercultural exchange on assignment is crucial. Workers on international assignment who spend more time interacting with locals develop higher levels of Cultural Intelligence.  High-contact assignments include multicultural or global teams, international meetings, and intracultural mentoring. High-contact assignments provide more opportunities for authentic intercultural exchanges compared to low-contact assignments like short-term business trips. However, even high-contact assignments may vary in effectiveness with respect to the development of Cultural Intelligence.

2. Meaningful engagement

Cultural learning requires meaningful engagement with culturally diverse others, both inside and outside the workplace. Non-superficial engagement is encouraged by structuring interdependent tasks and by ensuring travel schedules and deadlines allow time for engaging either socially or regarding business issues unrelated to the assignment. Cultivating social ties, in addition to business relationships, promotes greater cultural sharing. Efforts should be made to ensure that assignees do not isolate themselves in expatriate communities or business traveller ‘bubbles’.

Assignees should be given opportunities to explore the ideas and perspectives of minority cultures and subcultures that exist alongside dominant societal cultures. This exposure broadens an individual’s appreciation for different worldviews and helps offset national cultural stereotyping. It also educates employees on privilege and power inequalities.

3. Private reflection

Individuals who reflect on their intercultural experiences are more likely to develop Cultural Intelligence. Reflection triggers a critical examination of one’s assumptions and beliefs and enhances one’s understanding of how attitudes and behaviours are culturally conditioned. To encourage reflection, employees must be given mental space and should keep a journal of their intercultural experiences and learnings.

Reflective learning is most effective when an experience relates to the self. Assignees must be prompted to reflect on how their multicultural experiences have challenged or changed them. Assignees should reflect on their attitudes, judgements, and feelings of self-confidence: both where these may have come from and how these may enhance or inhibit their performance in diverse settings. Employees should be encouraged to recognise that every observation or reflection about their novel environment is also a reflection on themselves and that their interpretations are shaped by their values, assumptions, prejudices, and confidence.

The ABC model of reflection may be useful.  In this model, A stands for affect, B stands for behaviour, and C stands for context. Affect involves an exploration of one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions. Behaviour involves identifying one’s own and others’ responses and possible reasons for why they occur. Context involves understanding external influences (examples include social, economic, political, cultural, religion, gender, privilege). This simple model fosters critical thinking by encouraging the assignee to analyse and attempt to understand an experience rather than simply respond to it.

4. Collaborative reflection

While private journaling can be beneficial, collective reflection further enhances learning. Collaborative reflection identifies new ideas that an assignee may have missed on their own. In particular, collective reflection involving a diverse group of individuals can increase exposure to new viewpoints. When conflicting viewpoints are managed in a spirit of openness and cooperation, challenges to one’s worldviews can prompt a deeper, more critical analysis of the experience. Collaborative reflection in a diverse team also teaches individuals how to manage conflict and adopt or synthesise diverse perspectives. Organisations should strive to build a diverse community of cultural learners who support each other in their learning goals.

5. Strategising

Assignees should actively draw on their cultural experiences and learnings to plan for improved future performance.

Organisations can support cultural strategising by providing assignees with training in Cultural Intelligence. Cultural Intelligence training builds skills for detecting cultural nuances and planning for diverse interactions. It also provides information on broad cultural similarities and differences.

6. Practice

Assignees must test and refine their cultural learnings. A learning orientation (as opposed to a performance orientation) recognises that trial and error are important elements of intercultural development. Employees should not be penalised for well-intentioned intercultural failures.

7. Support

All assignees should be supported in their Cultural Intelligence development. Expatriate research highlights the importance of social support on assignment. Cultural Intelligence coaching and mentoring provide instrumental and emotional support. Where possible, using local staff as trainers, coaches, or mentors improves cultural learning.

8. Optimal challenge

Assignments should be challenging—but not overly so. Assignments in diverse settings with a high level of responsibility or those involving the management of equal-status relationships (vs. authority/subordinate) may stretch cultural skills and improve learning outcomes.

Yet there needs to be a balance between programs that are challenging enough that learners grow…but not so challenging that the learner is overwhelmed and panics. As a general rule, moderate anxiety promotes maximum learning. Anxiety threatens motivation, so programs must be tailored carefully to meet the developmental needs of the assignee.

9. Assignment evaluation and assessment

Two measures are relevant to the evaluation and assessment of intercultural assignments: (i) CQ (Cultural Intelligence) Assessment and (ii) program evaluation.

The CQ Assessment is administered prior, during, and post-assignment to track cultural learning. Development outcomes are compared to learning objectives.

Program evaluations survey the assignee’s perceptions regarding program effectiveness as well as their engagement and motivation.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.