How to Improve your CQ (Cultural Intelligence)

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Globalization and multiculturalism have resulted in increased collaboration and exchange between different countries and cultures. We see examples of this in chains such as McDonalds opening more restaurants in China and India with localized menus, and companies like Unilever and P&G launching products tailored to the needs of emerging market customers. It is no surprise, therefore, that multinational organizations view cultural intelligence (CQ), the ability to adapt and function in foreign settings, as a valuable asset in the workplace.

Many assume that contact with those from different cultures will increase CQ, and see investment in ‘study abroad’ programmes and the like as a way to stimulate CQ development. CEIBS Distinguished Professor of Management and ABN AMRO Chair in Management Jiing-Lih Farh designed a research study to test this assumption. He and his co-authors followed a group of 364 Hong Kong university students enrolled in an international exchange programme which saw them spend a semester studying abroad in either the US or Europe, and measured their CQ at various times to see whether and how it evolved during their international experiences. Based on their results, the researchers say that “the bare fact of contact does not necessarily improve intercultural understanding and enhance cultural knowledge.” Instead, CQ is affected by the implicit beliefs that individuals hold about a foreign culture, as well as the quality of their international experiences.

After following the exchange students in the study, the researchers found that positive intercultural experiences reinforce interest in intercultural interactions, leading to increased CQ, while negative experiences tend to lessen interest, leading to lower CQ. Whether an individual interprets their intercultural experience as positive or negative is partially dependent on their implicit cultural beliefs, or the assumptions they make about others from a different culture, and how fixed they are in those beliefs. Those who believe that cultural characteristics are unchangeable are likely to develop what academics call intercultural rejection sensitivity. This term reflects how easily we embrace the challenges inherent in interacting with people who are different from us. In an international exchange context, someone with a high degree of intercultural rejection sensitivity will be extremely anxious about interacting with foreigners, and expect to be rejected by them because of their nationality and culture. The researchers suggest that this pessimistic attitude undermines one’s ability to adjust to a new culture, as it can reinforce biases and decrease interest in the new culture, and therefore hinders the development of CQ. Positive social adjustment will have the opposite result.

In testing their hypothesis with the exchange students, the researchers conducted a series of surveys and focus groups with them at three different stages of their study abroad programme. Three months before the exchange programme began and three months after it concluded, the researchers measured the students’ CQ with a 20-item Cultural Intelligence Scale, and measured their implicit cultural beliefs on an eight-item scale. Three months into the exchange programme, the participants answered a questionnaire that was designed to measure their intercultural rejection sensitivity and cross-cultural adjustment.

The results of the study have some practical takeaways for organizations and educational institutions that aim to develop CQ. For example, organizations who are sending executives abroad or are investing in international exchange programmes may want to find ways to foster more positive intercultural interactions to facilitate CQ development. They may also want to find ways to identify those who experience intercultural anxiety and provide them with training services. In order to be effective, those training services should help individuals be more aware of how their implicit culture beliefs could lead to a self-fulfilling cycle that influences their ability to function well in cross-cultural contexts. 

The results can be found in a paper titled, “Enhancing Cultural Intelligence: The Roles of Implicit Culture Beliefs and Adjustment,” published by Personnel Psychology. Professor Farh’s co-authors are Professors Melody Manchi Chao and Riki Takeuchi. Read the paper here

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