It’s the culture, stupid: CQ in a globalised world

Cultural intelligence: an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.

 People who are somewhat detached from their own culture can more easily adopt the mores and even the body language of an unfamiliar host.

 You will not disarm your foreign hosts simply by showing you understand their culture; your actions must prove that you have entered their world.

Christopher Earley Elaine Mosakowski from an article on Cultural Intelligence in the Harvard Business Review, 2004


Howard Gardner famously identified eight intelligences musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Later he was thinking of adding existential and moral. Then Daniel Goleman started to popularise research into emotional intelligence. After that came Spiritual Intelligence. Danah Zohar argues that while computers can have IQ and higher mammals EQ, only humans possess SQ. It is linked to humanity’s need for meaning, vision and value. In the words of Zohar it allows us:

to dream and to strive. It underlies the things we believe in and the role our beliefs and values play in the actions that we take and the shape we give to our lives.”

And now along with IQ, EQ and SQ we have CQ. The latter stands for Cultural Quotient, which measures the capability to function effectively in a variety of national, ethnic and organizational settings. Academic researchers have been researching this question for over a decade now. The CQ concept was first introduced by two business researchers, Christopher Earley and Soon Ang, in their 2003 book, Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures. I came across it through the work of Professor David Livermore, President and Partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and author of a number of books on the subject including The Cultural Intelligence Difference and Leading with Cultural Intelligence.

Hard-nosed business leaders may struggle to see the connection between cultural intelligence and the bottom line. But, according to Livermore, both individuals and companies benefit from having a high CQ. Research done among 30,000 professionals from more than 50 countries by Livermore and his colleagues at East Lansing has found that people with higher CQs are consistently more personally and professionally effective. They have an edge in the competitive job market, suffer less burnout and enjoy greater personal satisfaction when posted overseas. Companies benefit too in understanding new markets, carrying out international negotiations, unifying multinational teams and developing global marketing plans. It is not good for a company when an employee working abroad has to go home early because he has been unable to adapt to a new culture.

CQ is not a static number and can be enhanced. There are four capabilities typically present among those with high cultural intelligence – CQ drive, CQ knowledge, CQ strategy, and CQ action. You can see in this video:

Livermore identifies ten dimensions of cultural value that are helpful ways to compare one culture with another. This is an extension of the work of Geert Hofstede. The Dutch social psychologist, a former IBM employee, is Professor Emeritus of Organizational Anthropology and International Management at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He became well known for his pioneering research on cross-cultural groups and organizations. He developed cultural dimensions theory, which describes national cultures along six dimensions. Here I will look at five of them.

Identity: Individualist vs. Collectivist

The cultural value of individualism versus collectivism is about the degree to which personal identity is defined in terms of personal, individual characteristics versus group, collective characteristics. In individualist cultures the ties between individuals are loose people should look after themselves and their immediate family. Collectivist cultures are about strong, cohesive in-groups often the extended family. People see themselves primarily in relationship to others and not fundamentally as a unique individual. The “American dream” is surely the classic representation of individualism. However, it is not about capitalism and socialism which are predicated on individualism and collectivism respectively. Livermore points out that in Scandinavia, which has been socialistic in orientation; everyone is expected to pay very high taxes. Nevertheless, the overall culture is individualist. The highly privatised economies of China and Singapore exist within extremely collectivist cultures. The individualist culture index is dominated by the Anglosphere United States (91), Australia, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and New Zealand. At the other end of the spectre all the countries are Latin American – Guatemala (6), Ecuador Panama, Venezuela and Colombia.

Authority: High vs. Low Power Distance

Power distance addresses the amount of hierarchy and inequality that is regarded as proper and normal within a society. How does your culture teach you to address elders and those with more authority? High power distance cultures expect even adult children to defer to their parents on big decisions. In low power distance cultures, children are treated more equally. In education high power distance cultures tend to emphasise rote learning and mimicking the teacher. The parent-child relationship is mimicked by the role of teacher-child. In the world of work in high power distance cultures, employees often prefer an authoritarian hands-on boss, not the kind who likes to delegate and get ideas from the group. Looking online I found the countries with the highest power distance were Malaysia (110), Guatemala, Panama, Philippines and Mexico. Austria (11), Israel, Denmark, New Zealand and Ireland had the lowest power index.

Risk: High vs. Low Uncertainty Avoidance

The uncertainty avoidance index is the degree to which most people within a culture tolerate risk and uncertainty. Japan (92) has a high uncertainty avoidance index, yet excessive drinking after work is common among many Japanese businessmen. This may be a way of releasing the pent-up anxiety. This difference will play out in educational contexts. Students in the United States consider answering a question even if they are not sure about the answer, whereas Japanese students tend to answer a question only if they are absolutely sure they know the answer. The countries with the highest uncertainty avoidance are Greece (112), Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay and Belgium. On the other hand, Singapore (8), Jamaica, Denmark Sweden and Hong Kong, on the other hand are said to be happy with some ambiguity and uncertainty.

Achievement: Cooperative vs. Competitive.

This refers to the extent to which cultures are oriented around being competitive, focusing on achievement, success, and results, or cooperative prioritising nurturing, supportive relationships. Geert Hofstede referred to this as masculine and feminine, with the idea being that the cooperative cultures are more in line with what has stereotypically been thought of as more feminine traits—nurturing, caring, compassionate—and that the tough, competitive cultures are more in line with masculine traits. Livermore wisely avoids this problematic term. I would have imagined the U.S.A. higher up on the list but the top five most competitive are Japan (92), Hungary, Austria, Venezuela and Italy.  In contrast, Sweden (5), Norway, Netherlands, Denmark and Costa Rica are said to be the most cooperative.

Short-Term versus Long-Term Orientation

There’s one more way that researchers have compared the time orientation of different cultures: short-term versus long-term orientation, or present versus future emphasis. This is largely about how we’ve been socialized to think about how long we’re willing to wait for results and rewards. Is the work we do primarily oriented around seeing some kind of result in the very near future, or is it more oriented toward slow results that will be realized a long way ahead? Long-term orientation is most often associated with Confucian culture, but there are other cultures that operate this way too. With the emphasis on long-term rewards means that there are high savings rates. Anglo cultures like North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia are some of the most short-term oriented cultures; businesses are oriented around quick results that show up in quarterly earnings and booming stock prices. People are usually much quicker to spend money, so the savings rates are much lower. The long term orientation index is dominated by Asia – China (118), Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea top the list. The short-term list is more disparate – Venezuela, Uruguay, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Switzerland. Spain is just above this five.

There are other dimensions explored by Livermore: direct versus indirect communication, being versus doing lifestyle, particularist versus universalist rules, neutral versus affective expressiveness, and tight versus loose social norms. I don’t have space to look into these, but you can find them online.

To be honest, this is too much data to really take in. Defining intelligence precisely is problematic. We are not talking about absolute values here. They are on a continuum. I also think cultures can change. There are myriad examples of this. Schools in the west there used to have a high power distance between teacher and student. Globalisation must also be playing a role in changing national mores, but there can also be important national backlashes. I’m not sure how scientifically rigorous these dimensions are, but they do at least provide an interesting framework in which to think about how cultures differ.


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