What is Cultural Intelligence?
Several years ago, as an MBA student (the course was External Environment of Business), I was part of a group (there were three groups in all) tasked with developing a plan to introduce a U.S made and FDA approved pharmaceutical drug into several developing countries. We were to assume that we (the United States) were competing against other drug manufacturers from Asia and Europe. Essentially, we had to develop a sales strategy that we would use to negotiate with and penetrate the market in these developing countries (cross-cultural negotiation). Sounds like a simple enough project? It was not.
The results from all three groups were fundamentally flawed and filled with error. The problems were not with expertise, experience, or educational background of the group members. The problems stemmed from a lack of intelligence about the cultures of the economies/countries that were assigned to the group. In other words, none of the groups had adequate knowledge of the cultures of the developing countries. It was also clear that the groups believed (erroneously) that putting together a world class proposal would make up for the lack of cultural knowledge. In particular, the proposals did not address the perception of the potential consumers of the product, including how to dispel suspicion about U.S. made drugs. A case in point – polio vaccines made in the U.S. and Europe were rejected due to suspicions that they were actually drugs designed to sterilize men in the Muslim dominated part of a large West African country. This resulted in a polio epidemic several years later.
In addition, the proposals did not address who was the target market – government, private sector, traditional rulers/monarchs, local doctors (who will prescribe the drug), or patients. This is critical because all these groups have subcultures that play an important role in successful cross-cultural negotiation. A lack of adequate cultural intelligence about these subcultures may result in a failure of the business endeavor.
One look at the source of information about these developing countries told the whole story. The groups relied heavily on books (mostly outdated) written by local American writers and information found on the websites of the embassies of these countries available mainly for vacation destination advertizing. The problem is that without cultural intelligence that is up-to-date and accurate, it is virtually impossible to engage with people that have different cultural orientation without employing stereotyping – and that does not work successfully. So what exactly is cultural intelligence?
When an individual is culturally intelligent, it means that the individual has successfully absorbed the cultural nuances of other foreign cultures with the ultimate goal of facilitating positive outcomes and effective cross-cultural negotiations (Imai & Gelfand, 2010). It important to emphasize that cultural intelligence is critical, not only for cross-cultural negotiation, but also for cultural diversity in the workplace.
Becoming culturally intelligent is a development and learning process that involves understanding and using the four levels of meta-cognitive, cognitive, motivational, and behavioral components to enhance decision making and improve performance (Imai & Gelfand, 2010). Stay tuned for the second article in this three-part series, for information regarding these four components of cultural intelligence, and how they can be used as a four-step model to teach cultural intelligence.
Imai, L. & Gelfand, M. (2010). The culturally intelligent negotiator: The impact of cultural intelligence (CQ) on negotiation sequences and outcomes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 112, 83-98