Tag Archives: working across borders

Cultural Intelligence – Knowledge

Following from the Drive component of CQ I would like to reflect on the Knowledge (Cognitive) component.  CQ knowledge refers to your understanding of cultural similarities and differences; it includes knowledge of the values, norms and practices in different cultures settings.  This knowledge can be acquired through educational and personal experiences; and encompasses the economic, political, legal institutions and social customs to name just a few.



Why do we need CQ Knowledge?

  • To allow us to have greater appreciation of the systems that shape and cause specific patterns of social behaviours and interaction within a culture
  • Improve interpersonal interactions with people from culturally diverse backgrounds, i.e. communication, relationships and trust
  • Improve your leadership and management skills to ensure that they reflect the cultural setting that you are working, leading and managing in and across
  • To navigate effectively through ambiguity and conflict in culturally diverse settings
  • To have the awareness and skills to instantaneously adjust your behaviours while interacting with people from unfamiliar cultures.

While you cannot be an expert on every culture, you can understand the core cultural differences and their impact on everyday business.  CQ knowledge is not fixed, rather it is a mental habit that can be altered and expanded.  I often find that one of the best methods of seeking new knowledge is from gaining a basic understanding of key past events and basic country history.  This can provide a deeper insight into the general values, behaviours and attitudes that are displayed by individual mindsets and the wider community.

Strategies for Improving CQ Knowledge:

  • Choose a culture that interests you.  Read a novel, magazine or local newspaper from an overseas site; or an author native to that country
  • Listen to overseas radio programs
  • Visit culturally significant places to learn more about them i.e. a mosque, synagogue or sporting venue
  • Visit art galleries or museums that display stories and artworks from other countries. These help you to gain a deeper understanding of why and how they were created and their cultural significance
  • Continuously observe body language, facial expressions, gestures when you are interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, people love to talk about their culture.  This can also be a great way to build relationships.


  • Consider some of your cultural assumptions and expectations
  • How do they impact your views and experiences when you are either traveling or interacting with people of other cultures?
  • How do you gain your CQ knowledge?
  • What are your preferred mediums to attain CQ knowledge? For example is it through reading, travelling, convsersations etc?

You may like to listen to my ‘CQ Knowledge’ Podcast in ‘CQ for Global Leaders’ by clicking here.

Smashing through the bamboo ceiling

Bamboo ceiling

Procurious, is a unique online business networking site specifically designed for procurement and supply chain professionals.

Dr Verghese was interviewed in ‘Smashing through the bamboo ceiling’ to discuss the processes and barriers that serve to exclude Asians or people of Asian descent from executive positions in Western-run organisations.

A provocative article that features some pragmatic strategies toward shattering the bamboo ceiling.



How does Behaviour Inform our Perceptions?


One of the challenges of working across borders is that certain behaviours and styles of communication and body language may not have the same meaning.

For example in countries such as Malaysia the etiquette for shaking hands is a soft hand to demonstrate respect; conversely in Australia a soft handshake can be interpreted as a lack of respect, sign of disinterest, weakness and insincerity. Our mental antenna goes up and we start to look for evidence to support these initial impressions. Are we going to find evidence to support our initial impressions? Most likely yes! The person more than likely will do or say something that will support these impressions. Our biases come to the surface. For example, at the conclusion of a meeting you may be thinking to yourself – “That soft handshake reinforced my initial perceptions. I knew I couldn’t trust him/her.” All of these interpretations can be made from a simple handshake.

I advise clients to not squeeze the hand. Often their response is “but you can tell so much about a person by their handshake.” Think about this for a moment. Is this a universal truth or is it culturally bound? When we interpret behaviours we tend to compare them based on our own cultural practices because we are familiar with them.

There are so many subtle cultural nuances. I had a coaching client from Nigeria who would ask me questions such as, how long do you look at someone in the eye, when does a look become a stare? Have you ever thought about this? My guess is probably no. Conversely, if you are in cultural environments where eye contact should be avoided, how would you know how much is too much?

In countries such as Australia if we go to a bar with friends and colleagues the norm is an unspoken assumption and practice of taking turns to buy the rounds of drinks. We don’t discuss this. It doesn’t matter if you are a guest or not, generally it is an equitable practice where payment of the drinks is shared equally. So imagine this scenario that was shared by one of my clients. He had an Indian manager visiting the Australian office. My client invited him out for a drink after work. My client brought all of the rounds of drinks and was annoyed and irritated that it wasn’t reciprocated. My clients’ internal dialogue was telling him ‘this guy is tight, not generous and has no sense of sharing’.   The following day at work he requested a report that wasn’t delivered on time. The thought processes of my client were, not only is he tight with his money, he is also unprofessional and unreliable. This example demonstrates how one misinformed behaviour can lead to inaccurate perceptions and interpretations. The perception of the Indian manager would have been ‘I am the guest, you are the host therefore you pay. I won’t offend you by offering to buy a drink, and when you come to India I will take you out and I will pay because you are the guest and I am the host.’

It is useful to have a dialogue. It can be uncomfortable raising certain conversation topics but communication and cultural awareness and knowledge can be improved immensely when people can pluck up the courage to raise the uncomfortable, awkward conversations.

The questions that we need to be thinking about are:

  • How can I develop flexibility and cultural agility?
  • How can I learn the important behaviours and values of the cultures that I am working across?
  • How can I understand what are the things in my culture that are important; and what impact do they have when I am dealing with people of different cultures?


Communication Technology and Culture


How does culture impact the effectiveness of communication platforms and apps?

One our Cultural Synergies staff members shared with me a recent article in BRW that reviewed a new app called BLRT. Her interest was piqued since it is an app that has been created with one of the key design requirements being the ability to convey messages, verbally and visually, just as you would in person but without the need to be in the same time zone or location. The app captures voice and gestures and is specifically designed for communicating across different time zones and improving collaboration. As she was describing the app I began to think about how innovative we continue to be in terms of designing and creating new ways of working and communicating across cultures, and also some of the traps that it can inadvertently lead to.

While apps and telecommunication software such as BLRT, Skype, Face Time etc. are all welcome additions to our lives and useful tools for communicating with each other; arguably they still don’t necessarily help us to improve our culturally intelligence. In fact there is the possibility that sometimes they could lead us toward a false sense of our true cultural understandings and knowledge. Accessibility to these platforms is cheap, easy to use and allows us to have cross border conversations at anytime.  Here is my point – even with our constantly evolving telecommunication options, the chances of cultural misunderstandings i.e. missing subtle cues, such as the reason for a seemingly one-way conversation, body language, how our messages were really understood etc continues to persist. While there are clear benefits to working and communicating with these constantly evolving and improved forms of technology, I contend that it doesn’t necessarily translate that we are becoming more culturally aware.

Some useful factors to keep in mind when you are communicating via these technologies are:

  • Be conscious of the speed at which you are speaking. Voice modulation, pronunciation, accents, use of colloquial language etc. all influence how your messages are being received
  • Pay attention to the quieter participants and invite them to speak
  • Summarise what is being said regularly
  • Demonstrate your understandings by paraphrasing the important points to ensure that you have understood the message
  • Spend some time making ‘small talk’. This is invaluable for really getting to know and understand others and in building trust and improving relationships
  • Pay attention to body language, it will help you to understand what is not being said
  • Spend a moment after your conversations and reflect on the success or difficulties that you encountered and seek to understand why they may have occurred and learn from them.

As working across time zones continues to increase we need to regularly remind ourselves that culture will always be a feature that needs to be given the appropriate attention that it demands – this will never change.

Cultural Intelligence – Sharing Stories

It is useful to take a moment to reflect on the CQ success stories and consider what the key principle and techniques were that led to some positive outcomes; and to consider those not so successful outcomes and learn from them. Rather than always reinventing the wheel we would do well to examine how other industries, organisations and governments succeed and fail in their CQ endeavours, strategies and practices.

The Kraft Experience – You may have heard of the Kraft blank cheque principle. It is just that – a blank cheque that is signed by company leaders and distributed to teams in a bid to make them feel more invested, responsible and empowered to make decisions in the pursuit of increased revenues. The concept is that when workers are free from budgetary constraints there is greater creativity and innovation. To qualify for a blank cheque teams must create a business model that demonstrates realistic and viable potential.

The blank cheque principle has had more successes than failures and has supported opportunities to do things differently in other parts of the world. One example is Cadbury India. In 2010, Cadbury India had its best year ever, with almost 28% revenue growth — doubling original growth targets and exceeding the $500 million blank check target. The momentum continued in 2011 with more than 30% growth.

Oreo in China, Tang in Brazil and the Dairy Milk Chocolate Bar in India are further success stories owing to the blank cheque principle. In terms of the Oreo in China it led to further investment in local talent that enabled Kraft to become closer to Chinese consumers. Sales of the diary milk chocolate bar in India exceeded expectations by teams employing alternative methods of displaying, marketing and distributing the chocolate bar. Tang in Brazil followed suite by employing Kraft’s global technology resources to develop flavours that are more in touch with local preferences and tastes such as tamarind and horchata in Mexico, mango in the Philippines, passionfruit and soursop in Brazil.

The Honda Experience – Honda has demonstrated flexibility and innovation as they have entered new emerging markets. Senior management toured some local villages in India to observe and understand the environment and local market needs and demands. Some of the observations and changes that were incorporated into the design of motorbikes for the Indian market were:

  • Designing sturdier motorbikes suited to Indian terrain rather than lightweight bikes that have greater appeal to the Japanese market
  • Designing stronger bikes that supported heavier loads
  • Longer seats that accommodate for 3-4 people
  • Improved headlights
  • Incorporating new colour schemes that riders were observed wearing
  • Dedicated a place for riders to write their names on visors (which were observed as a preference)

The Starbucks Experience – CEO Howard Schulz made a visit to India in 2011. From this visit came a variety of localised initiatives:

  • Sale of distinctly Indian Chai Tea Latte
  • Store designs that incorporate local themes
  • Food and coffee offerings in line with local preferences
  • Following research that identified a more leisurely café culture in India than in the West (where it tends to be more on-the-go) Starbucks stores offer larger stores for sitting in
  • Increased their tea offerings to satisfy the greater demand for tea rather than coffee

The Lenovo Experience – When Lenovo a Chinese computer company acquired the personal computer division of IBM in the U.S. only one member of the team spoke English. Even when the Chinese executive team began learning English it was quickly recognised that the cross border challenges were greater and deeper than anticipated. Different management, communication and decision- making styles were just some of the obstacles the Western and Chinese managers identified.

Some of the initiatives that have and continue to evolve are:

  • Lenovo has developed its decision-making processes, combining the best of the Chinese long-term focus on strategy with the West’s focus on meeting quarterly targets
  • A new generational attitude toward the traditional top-down management style
  •  Key managers undergo intensive training in business skills
  • Development of procedures to share and leverage the failures, experiences and successes of cultural practice differences in areas such as design, technology and marketing preferences, local preferences for smartphones as opposed to tablets, etc
  • Executives meet yearly with managers of acquired companies to explain and reinforce the global strategies and how where they fit into the strategies
  • Focus has been on breaking down silos and building a consistent global methodology.
  • Strategies such as cutting back on KPI’s and bringing key-decision makers together to reach solutions that draw on the cultural and organisational diversity that exists within Lenovo.

There is a lot of value in documenting, exploring and sharing where successes have been made and lost in terms of going forward. Too often I see global organisations making the same mistakes within their organisations because there is no cross fertilization of information across departments, regions and countries.

If you have any CQ success and/or failure stories please click here and share them with us.

Culturally Intelligent Negotiations


Last month there was a great article published in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network titled ‘Empathetic Negotiation Saved My Company’.

The article explores a business agreement between an Indian supplier and a European trading company (who had no previous dealings) that could have had disastrous implications in terms of customer relationships and industry credibility, not to mention a sizeable financial loss for both parties if not for the CQ of one of the trading company managers.

The supplier miscalculated their costs and increased the price by 40% higher than originally quoted to the trading company.  The European trading company’s response was anger and panic while the suppliers’ response was embarrassment and avoidance. The initial situation was one of reaction rather than response.  (See our August newsletter)

What was at stake here?

  • The future relationship between supplier and customer
  • A significant financial loss to the trading company who had to honour their price commitments to their client
  • Financial loss to the supplier from loss of future business
  • The reputation of the supplier

Some of the CQ characteristics that were demonstrated in this case study were:

  • Awareness  – the ‘other’ perspective was explored
  • An understanding of what motivated the supplier to increase their quote was sought out
  • Effective communication that involved listening and active engagement with the intent to solve the problem was demonstrated
  • Adoption of a collaborative mindset that entailed face to face meetings in India, flexibility, empathy and compromise
  • Ability to influence colleagues to source and support alternative options

Some of the questions to ask in a situation such as this are:

Why would the supplier have reneged on this deal?  The answer will promote an exploration and understanding of the other party’s motivations.

How can both parties work collaboratively together to create a viable strategy that will allow them to compromise, while still maintaining integrity and values?  The answer to this question creates a dialogue and strategy to move forward.

What are the suppliers’ constraints?  What are some strategies that will serve to alleviate their constraints and help them to deliver on their original quote?  This question ensures that there will be a desired outcome for both parties.

When working across borders the approach and manner in which problems are addressed or not addressed are culturally determined.   For example high context and shame-based cultures will deal with conflict in a completely different manner to a low context, guilt-based culture.  An individualist culture will have a preference for blaming individuals and tackling the situation head on which merely seeks to damage relationships and compromise any chance of disclosure and collaboration.

Flexibility, empathy, humility, value on relationships and seeking to understand the motivations of others are reflected as positive behaviours in all cultures.  Loss of temper, anger, avoidance and intimidation are road-blocks that only create cross-cultural misunderstandings and potential monetary losses.

I urge you to read the HBR article and discover the outcome that CQ afforded these companies…