Managing Complexity with Cultural Intelligence

Managing Complexity with Cultural Intelligence

by Felicity Menzies

There has never been a greater need to manage cultural diversity. Regardless of the industry, location, or size of the company, the globalisation of business means everyone can do business with anyone–and compete with everyone. Plus, leading companies are intentionally increasing workforce, supplier, and partner diversity to understand new sources of growth and drive innovation.

The complexity gap

Managing cultural diversity is difficult. Even established businesses can stumble in their global ambitions. And despite significant investments in building diverse workforces, companies are struggling to create the inclusive workplaces needed to unlock this potential.

Diversity increases the complexity of business—but few organisations have the capabilities needed to manage this complexity.

Why is managing cultural diversity difficult?

There are seven main challenges to managing cultural diversity:

1. Intangible

The most important elements of any culture are its values, assumptions, and beliefs. While these are not visible and are often overlooked, hidden differences typically cause the most problems in our intercultural dealings.

Understanding the core values of a group is critical to bridging cultural differences. Focusing on the visible elements of culture alone, such as symbolic gestures, language, or institutions, is not enough to prevent misunderstandings and conflict.

2. Diverse

Cultural systems display immense variety in their patterns of beliefs and behaviours. Some of these differences are linked to the particular socioecological threats facing a group. But human agency, intelligence, and creativity also play a role in how a society organises itself.

3. Dynamic

Culture is fluid and always changing in response to environmental changes, innovation, and cross-cultural transmission.

4. Imperfectly shared

Culture is not shared equally by all members. During enculturation, there are variations in the interpretation or acceptance of cultural elements. Unique experiences and personality can also cause intracultural differences. While culture provides a general framework for living, its guidelines are flexible. Culture reflects the central tendencies of a group of people but cannot predict with certainty how any individual member of a particular group will respond.

5. Multiple influences

Every individual simultaneously identifies with several cultural groups: national, ethnic, gender, generational, occupational, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status etc. Every individual is a complex combination of different values, beliefs, assumptions, and behaviours. And some of those elements may be in conflict with others.

Relying on a single cultural identity to predict behaviour is of limited value.

6. Arbitrary symbolism

Cultures use symbols to express meaning. Symbols are things, like behaviours, objects, or intangibles, that stand for something else.

Language conveys the beliefs and values of a culture. The tone or pace of speech can convey also meaning.

In addition, we communicate cultural beliefs and values through our body language, for example with gestures, eye contact and the physical distance between two people.

The meaning attributed to a symbol is arbitrary.  The same symbol can mean different things to different cultural groups.

7. Resistant to change

Cultural elements do not exist in isolation. Every cultural feature is a part of a larger, logical, cohesive framework for living. Attempts to change any cultural feature may be resisted because of the resulting effect on core elements, or because of the role that part plays in the system’s overall effectiveness.

Cultural values make up an integral part of an individual’s self-identity. Groups defend their core values if those values are threatened, sometimes leading to protests or even violent conflict.

Reflecting this resistance to change, relative differences between cultures on their core values have remained stable over many decades.

Managing complexity with Cultural Intelligence

Individuals with high Cultural Intelligence (CQ) display four critical competencies for managing the complexity of cultural diversity:

CQ Drive is your capacity for persisting in complex and challenging interactions. Even when confused, frustrated, or burnt out.

CQ Knowledge is your understanding of culture and cultural differences: in particular, an awareness of variations in hidden cultural differences including values, assumptions, and beliefs.

CQ Strategy is your ability to flex mentally. CQ Strategy helps you overcome a reliance on rigid stereotypes. Each new intercultural interaction is unique and CQ Strategy helps you to choose and organise your responses in a novel and ambiguous setting and then test and reflect on the appropriateness of your assumptions…and experiment with other responses. With trial and error, you form a cultural profile appropriate for each unique context.

CQ Action is your ability to decode and use symbolic behaviour to communicate with diverse others.

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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.