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Cultural intelligence: Interview with Dr Tom Verghese

If there’s anyone who is an expert on cultural intelligence, it’s Dr. Tom Verghese.
The founder of Cultural Synergies, an intercultural management consultant firm based out of Melbourne, Dr. Verghese is an internationally renowned expert in the areas of cultural intelligence, inclusive and ethical leadership, and the promotion of sustainable global leadership.
A leader in his field, Dr. Verghese was a keynote speaker at the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) conference that was held in Melbourne in August this year. Last week, I was lucky enough to chat to him about cultural intelligence – what it is, why people struggle with it, and why it’s so important in the modern workplace.

What is cultural intelligence?

While you may not have heard of ‘cultural intelligence’, you will have experienced it at some stage in your life. The phrase refers to the ability of someone from outside a particular culture to interpret, and even mirror, mannerisms and traits that those bound to that culture display.
Take, for example, the act of giving or receiving an item – let’s say a business card. In Australia, it’s perfectly normal to merely pull one out of your wallet and hand it to someone with one hand. However, if you were doing business in Korea, where the custom is to use two hands when giving or receiving items, using one hand would be considered rude.

This ad, for HSBC, was part of a clever marketing campaign from the early 2000s, that focused on the importance of local knowledge (if you did any international travelling around this time, there’s a good chance you saw at least one of the ads from this campaign in an airport or two). The 1-minute long ad highlights the importance of local knowledge, and how differently things are interpreted from country to country.
When I asked Dr. Verghese how he defines cultural intelligence, and what it’s composed of, he had this to say:

Cultural intelligence actually has 4 components – drive, strategy, knowledge and skills. We define cultural intelligence as the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultural backgrounds. And effectiveness is bound to outcomes.

I’ll get to those four components in a moment. For now, let’s focus on how Dr. Verghese emphasises the word ‘effectively’ when defining cultural intelligence. As he states, effectiveness is bound by outcomes, which means, that cultural intelligence is more than just having local knowledge – it’s using that knowledge to achieve goals.

Let’s look at these four components

As stated earlier, there are four components to cultural intelligence – drive, strategy, knowledge and skills. I asked Dr. Verghese to explain those four components to us.

Drive is motivation. Some people have intrinsic drive, a deep down desire to feel like the world is one. These people tend to be involved with NGOs, international volunteering, missionary work, etc. Then there’s extrinsic drive – they’re motivated because it’s part of their job. They’ve been promoted, they’re working internationally now. And for others, it’s part of their career plan. For a lot of multinationals, you’ll need international experience to climb the ladder.

So the first step in becoming culturally intelligent is wanting to be culturally intelligent. It doesn’t necessarily matter if that desire is fuelled by wanting to further your own career, or simply wanting to be a responsible member of the international community.

Knowledge is the information that you have regarding cultural differences and similarities. Subsets of that include values, norms, leadership and expectations.

The second component to becoming culturally intelligent – once you have the drive we just spoke about – is having the right knowledge about different cultures. Think back, for a moment, to the HSBC ad campaign I mentioned earlier. In the campaign’s print ads (like this one, or this one), HSBC emphasised how something can mean something in one country, and an entirely other thing elsewhere. Knowing that Australian football is different to American, that exposing the soles of your feet in Thailand is considered very offensive, or that you should remove your shoes before entering a Malaysian home, are all examples of this kind of knowledge.

Strategy is planning. You have to ask, “What’s my plan?” It’s about having a plan rather than just turning up. It’s planning and checking – looking at it as ‘this is what I thought would happen’ vs. ‘this is what is actually happening’.

According to Dr. Verghese, it’s not enough to turn up somewhere, merely armed with drive and knowledge. In order to interact effectively with people of the culture you’re visiting (and remember, effectiveness is bound by outcomes), you need a plan. Not only do you need a plan, you also need a way to evaluate whether your plan is working.

Skills are where rubber meets the road – it’s the application of what you know. You have verbal skills – such as knowing how to use pauses, the ability to use silence, the ability to paraphrase. Then you have non-verbal skills, which is body language.

It’s one thing to know how you should behave when you’re engaging with people from a culture different to yours. It’s an entirely different thing to put that knowledge into practice.

Which component or stage do people tend to have the most trouble with?

So far, we’ve learned that there are four components to cultural intelligence, and realistically, they’re all relatively straightforward. That said, with such a dearth of cultural intelligence in the world we live in, one or more of those components must be proving difficult for people. I asked Dr. Verghese which component he believes trips people up the most.

Where are people lacking the most? Skills. So a lot of people have the motivation, they may have the knowledge, they may have a plan, but the difficulty is in the application.

Dr. Verghese goes on to explain that another barrier to people being truly culturally intelligent is people assuming that they’re far more culturally intelligent than they are – simply by virtue of living in a multicultural society.

There are some common myths when it comes to how culturally intelligent we think we are. If you picture a 2×2 grid, with confidence on the y-axis, and competence on the x-axis, most people would place themselves in the top right of this competence and confidence framework. Everyone thinks they’re better than they are. How do we increase the competence?
In Australia, when you talk to most Australians about cultural intelligence, most people will say, “Look, I went to school with people of different cultures. I work with people of different cultures. I’ve been to Bali. I eat sushi, I eat curry.”

How does cultural intelligence differ between large and small organisations?

If you do a little of your own research on cultural intelligence, you may get the impression that it’s really only relevant for large, multinational companies. If you’re, say, the owner of a small retail business in Melbourne, how does cultural intelligence apply to you?
I spoke to Dr. Verghese about why smaller organisations should concern themselves with cultural intelligence, if at all.

“When you are a larger firm, you’re dealing with people across borders. Suppliers, customers, stakeholders, so then it becomes much more important. If you’re only focused on domestic market, it doesn’t need to be a high priority.”

Can we engage with other cultures with appropriating those cultures?

The phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ has featured heavily in the media in the last twelve months.
If you’ve somehow escaped the phenomenon, cultural appropriation is a concept in which members of one culture adopting or using elements of another culture is deemed to be inappropriate at best, and offensive at worst.
It’s a concept that’s gained a lot of traction in recent memory. A number of well-respected music festivals across the globe – including Glastonbury, Electric Forest and Australia’s own Meredith Festival – have banned the wearing of Native American headdresses. Fashion designers Junya Watanabe and Valentino have both been heavily criticised for curating African themed runways recently. Online fashion retailer Asos recently pulled bindis from their line after coming under fire.
Given that cultural appropriation is such a hot-button issue at the moment, I wanted to get Dr. Verghese’s take on it – and whether he thought there was a way to engage with other cultures without being guilty of appropriation.

I think it starts with a mindset – if the mindset is one of respect.
It’s very hard to say that’s my culture, and that’s yours. Take chopsticks for example. Yes, Chinese chopsticks are different to Japanese different to Korean. If I’m eating there, do I need to use chopsticks? No. But if I make an effort, then people appreciate it. It’s about building a cultural repertoire.

As Dr. Verghese tells us, the key to engaging with other cultures, without being appropriative, is to approach things respectfully. However, it’s also important to have adequate knowledge of what is and isn’t acceptable in a particular culture. There are things – like using chopsticks – that are not necessary, but appreciated. Then there are other things, that are absolutely necessary. Dr. Verghese explains:

In some cultures, there are things that are core to their culture. For example, if you go to the Middle East, as a young, modern Australian woman, you might not cover your head, and that’s okay. However, in somewhere like Saudi Arabia, it would be dangerous not to – because head covering is core to their culture. However, in Malaysia, it’s not as core.

So what can we take away from all of this?

In the world we currently live in, regardless of the size or scope of your business, being culturally intelligent is an asset.
We know now that wanting to be culturally intelligent is not enough – you also need to have the knowledge and skills to back it up, and a plan to do so.
Each culture – and even the subcultures thereof – has its own distinct set of values, codes and norms. By learning what those are, and how they differ from the values, codes and norms of our own culture, we can ensure that all of our dealings with people of different cultures is respectful and appropriate.
Dr. Verghese leaves us with this:

Culture is very subjective, and it’s relative. Similar to a goldfish in water that doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out, you’re not aware of your own culture until you’re outside of it. It’s a different set of rules. In your own backyard, there are so many things we take for granted.
That’s why multinationals have organisational culture – because then there’s a commonality. It binds people together. This is how we work. This is how we operate.

Thank you to Dr. Tom Verghese from Cultural Synergies for allowing us to interview him. You can find out more about Cultural Synergies at www.culturalsynergies.com.au. Dr. Verghese’s book, ‘The Invisible Elephant: Exploring Cultural Awareness’ is available on Amazon.

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