Understanding Human Behaviour: How Cultural Intelligence Helps

Understanding Human Behaviour: How Cultural Intelligence Helps

by Felicity Menzies

Understanding, predicting, and influencing human behaviour is essential in business. Whether motivating employees, convincing consumers, negotiating with suppliers, or persuading policymakers, success ultimately depends on working well with others.

But human behaviour is complex. In our day-to-day lives, other people can confuse and surprise and frustrate us. Imagine how much easier your business and personal life would be if you better understood others?

What can help you manage this complexity?

Same…but different

Understanding human behaviour is easier when you consider its core sources of influence: our common human natures, our shared cultures, and our unique personalities. In certain respects, every person behaves like all others: in other respects, like some others…and in some cases, like no others.

Human universals—‘like all others’

All humans share basic survival needs: the need for food and water, the need to reproduce, and the need for protection. Plus we all have a need for stimulation and variety, for social bonding, and for autonomy and control.

Universal behaviours and traits help us meet those needs. We all have psychological abilities to help us navigate our physical world like colour perception, spatial representation, and short- and long-term memory.

In addition, we share behaviours that promote social coordination, like the universal tendency for group living. Group living provides protection from predators, allows resource sharing, and provides access to mates. And language enables us to convey our thoughts and feelings to others.

Cultural anthropologists list over 300 universal human behaviours and characteristics. Recognising our shared human nature promotes inclusion and unity.

Personality—‘like no others’

At the opposite end of the spectrum is individuality. We all possess characteristic patterns in thought, emotion, and behaviour. These patterns stay relatively stable across time and situation and distinguish us from others.

There are five universal personality traits:

  • Neuroticism involves the level of nervousness, anxiety, and lack of emotional control;
  • Extroversion involves the degree of sociability and activity;
  • Openness involves the level of imagination and curiosity;
  • Agreeableness involves the degree of friendliness;
  • Conscientiousness involves how dependable, achievement-orientated, and persistent an individual may be.

These ‘Big Five’ traits promote successful adaptation to our social environment. For example, agreeableness helps us to establish intimacy and neuroticism helps us to identify threats.

All of these five traits are inherited by each of us, to some degree. But a person’s unique experiences also drives their patterning and expression. For example, parenting style predicts personality.

The reverse is also true. Although experience drives our personality, personality drives our experiences.

So experience and personality interact in a continuous loop to influence the behaviours, thoughts, and emotions of individuals.

Complex, right?

Culture—‘like some others’

Culture lies between our shared humanity and our unique personalities. Groups of people develop distinct patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours as they respond to the survival challenges of their shared environment. Survival challenges include external environmental stresses caused by climate or resource scarcity and threats to internal social integration.

While some adaptation is inherited and biological, cultural adaptation involves the use of technology and social organisation to ensure survival. Cultural solutions are shared with other members and passed down to successive generations. Culture has enabled humans to survive in nearly every socioecological environment of the planet.

Shared environments explain some similarities in cultures across large regions. But it would be simplistic to say that culture is determined solely by the environment: societies facing similar challenges have developed different solutions, and other societies have developed similar adaptations despite different environments.

Each environment allows several possible solutions while limiting others. Human agency, creativity, and intelligence play a role in cultural adaptation. Culture itself can also limit or enable options, for example, the state of technological innovation.

All societies possess cultural systems to help meet fundamental human needs, but the form of these varies from group to group.

Managing complexity with Cultural Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence is the capability to manage cultural diversity—the set of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to recognise, understand, reflect on, and adapt to cultural differences.

This includes an understanding of culture and cultural differences. A broad understanding of cultural differences improves your ability to explain and predict the behaviours of groups of people who share similar life experiences.

But no cultural group is homogenous. Individual members differ in their thoughts and behaviours. Group similarities and differences are a helpful starting point, but within-group variation limits the use of generalisations because each new interaction is unique.

Cultural Intelligence extends prior models of intercultural competence. Earlier approaches focused on understanding cultural differences or superficial changes in behaviour. The four-competency model of Cultural Intelligence includes higher-level thinking skills needed for intercultural problem solving as well as an individual’s interest and persistence in diverse settings, including the competencies needed to overcome explicit or unconscious bias.

Cultural Intelligence helps you choose and organise responses in novel and ambiguous settings, test and reflect on the accuracy of your assumptions, and then experiment using other responses. With trial and error, you can construct a cultural profile that fits each new context.

Cultural Intelligence prevents confusion and anxiety in diverse settings and helps you engage with others in a manner that achieves your social and business goals.

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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.