“There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees, which are falsehoods on the other.”
Blaise Pascal (French Mathematician, Philosopher and Physicist, 1623-1662)
Your culture consists of beliefs systems, behavioural norms, and judgements that you share with a group of people from a background similar to your own…
It is polite to acknowledge strangers as they pass by
Meetings should end when they come to their natural conclusion, even if this means going over time
Having a lot of friends makes me feel good about myself
It is right to put my family obligations ahead of my personal aspirations
Change is bad—it is better to follow tradition
It’s ok to break the rules
It is a sign of respect to look people in the eye when I am speaking to them
It is immodest to accept a compliment
The best feedback is frank and direct
The extent to which you agree or disagree with each statement above is influenced by your cultural conditioning. You might agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or disagree with a particular statement—or take any other position on the agree-disagree continuum. Agreeing with a statement, however, does not make it true. While it might be valid in your cultural context, people from different cultural groups often have entirely different, even contrasting, perceptions of their world. Conceptions of right and wrong, and good and bad, are relative rather than absolute.
Culture is intimately tied to our self-concept. Differences in values, beliefs, and behavioural norms can trigger emotional resistance or backlash. When you come across a behaviour that is foreign to you, there is a tendency to label that difference as strange or wrong, and to defend your way as the correct and valid way. But to members of another societal group, the behavior or worldview that you label as weird, or bizarre, or wrong might be perceived as normal, valid, and right. There is a flip side to everything.
As you develop Cultural Intelligence, you acquire a set of competencies that helps you move from an automatic and defensive reflex of ‘that’s weird’ towards a curious and accepting mindset of ‘that’s different’. This shift drives huge personal growth. Your cultural conditioning, together with your unique experiences, shapes your meaning system—your understanding of how and why things happen and how things should be. Your meaning system defines your reality, forms the basis of your understanding of your experiences, and guides your perceptions, interpretations, and behaviours. Cultural conditioning shapes your meaning system, but it also limits it to the extent that alternative perspectives are discounted.
For meaning systems to grow, two things must happen. Critical reflection involves an objective analysis of your assumptions and beliefs. Rational discourse involves discussing your assumptions and beliefs with other people in a way that highlights inconsistencies, biases, or blind spots. Those two activities encourage you to consider how your existing worldview limits the way you perceive, understand, and feel about your world. That awareness helps you to overcome habitual ways of thinking. Singular, rigid worldviews are replaced with more inclusive, expansive, flexible, and integrating outlooks. Future experiences are interpreted with greater curiosity and openness. Meaning transformation has a profound impact on a person’s life—studies show it improves mental health and social functioning.
Personal growth is rare in adult life and is usually triggered by a disorientating emotional event, such as the death of a spouse, a life-threatening illness, divorce, or job loss. But transformation can occur gradually from incremental changes to meaning systems over time as you immerse yourself in a new culture with curiosity and a genuine willingness to engage with and learn from others with backgrounds different from your own.
As you develop Cultural Intelligence, you come to accept that there is more than one way to interpret the world. When you can accept new ideas, you suddenly have a much deeper pool of resources from which you can draw upon to solve problems, make decisions, and innovate. Contemporary leadership problems are global, dynamic, novel, and unpredictable. Reliance on what worked in the past is no longer sufficient. Contemporary leaders need to be adaptable. They must be able to consciously transcend habitual cognitive and behavioural scripts, attend to their new environment through a perceptual filter not tarnished with preconceptions, engage in creative problem-solving through integrating diverse perspectives, and make higher-quality decisions based on widely-sourced, objective information.
Adaptive leadership requires expansive and inclusive meaning systems, which can only be achieved through exposing oneself openly to diverse perspectives and ideas, and through the critical examination of one’s biases and prejudgments.
Not convinced that there is flip side to everything? Watch this 2min entertaining TED presentation by Derek Sivers, ‘Weird, or Just Different’ and flip your world.