All too often intercultural training focuses on rules with “do’s and don’ts of doing business in…”. Those certainly have their place, but how do you move people beyond those strict intercultural intelligence skills frameworks to a more flexible approach? How do we develop true cultural EQ?

For episode 16 of International Expansion Explained I discussed this topic together with Michelle Bradley.

Let me just introduce Michelle

Michelle Bradley intercultural intelligence skills trainer for cultural eq

Michelle grew up in the multi-cultural environments of New York City and Cape Town, South Africa, and has lived in Asia for the past 18 years. She is bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese and is passionate about CulturalEQ – the intersection of Cultural & Emotional Intelligence. 

Based in Taipei, she consults with as well as trains individuals, academic institutions, and companies on intercultural communication as the founder of Elephant Communications (雙象溝通) and has over 15 years of experience working with individuals and groups from all walks of life as a corporate trainer, intercultural consultant and leadership coach. 

She got involved in the field of intercultural communication right after university – her first job after graduation was working in business and content development for a Cultural Awareness training solution provider in New York City. At the same time, Michelle was spending several evenings a week volunteering at a non-profit in Chinatown focused on helping high school students who’d recently emigrated from China to integrate into the NYC school system. Those two experiences created the foundation for where she is today – a consultant, coach, and trainer with a focus on bridging the East and West in the area of soft skills development and communication skills.

She’s also lived in India and Japan.

What is Cultural EQ?

To keep it very brief, this is the intersection of cultural and emotional intelligence. You might also like my discussion with Vivian Manasse which you can find here.

In the past, our intelligence quotient (IQ) was considered the primary measure of success, shaping our education and career paths. However, with the rise of emotional intelligence (EQ), particularly in Western business culture, it has become clear that expertise in a specific field is not enough. Effective communication and negotiation skills are equally crucial. Developing strong relationships with colleagues and external stakeholders is essential for middle management and beyond.

Nowadays, due to budget constraints and the shift to virtual work, teams from different cultures also collaborate remotely, leading to challenges in understanding each other’s feedback and messages. This is where cultural intelligence (CQ) becomes vital. It involves not only being motivated and knowledgeable about other cultures but also having a strategy to adapt and negotiate effectively in diverse settings.

Take a holistic approach

In today’s interconnected and virtual world, it’s crucial to approach communication from a holistic perspective. Combining emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence results in what Michelle calls “cultural EQ,” essential for success in the international environment. Even in domestic markets, workplaces have become multicultural, with diverse backgrounds and beliefs shaping interactions. Thus, developing this cultural intelligence and intercultural competence is essential for thriving in the modern business landscape.

Intercultural Intelligence Skills are not Just Needed Abroad

Recently, I came across a fascinating LinkedIn post where someone shared their positive experience in a new workplace. What struck me was the fact that this office comprised individuals from 18 different nationalities, all collaborating harmoniously. This observation strongly reinforces the notion that crossing cultures goes beyond simply crossing national boundaries; it also involves navigating diverse age groups. Different generations exhibit distinct cultural traits, which is evident even within the same family. As a result, the concept of cultural intelligence holds relevance in numerous scenarios and settings.

Currently, I’m on Lanu Orchid Island, a Pacific island situated off the southern coast of Taiwan. The culture here bears more resemblance to the indigenous people of the Philippines than to Taiwan. The local population is approximately 5,000, and their traditions, family values, business practices, and even language structure are remarkably distinct from what we commonly associate with the mainland, in this case, Taiwan. Despite the mere two-hour ferry ride that separates us, this experience highlights the crucial importance of effective communication within the same national boundaries in today’s interconnected world.
Indeed, when residing in regions with mountainous terrain or on islands, historical circumstances often led to isolated communities with distinct ways of life.

Michelle Bradley

How can you start to move away from strict frameworks?

When many people think about intercultural or cross-cultural training, they often envision a set of strict rules to follow, like a kind of “do this, don’t do that” approach. While these guidelines can be essential for specific cultural practices, they’re just the surface of understanding a culture. There’s so much more to it than merely adhering to protocols. It’s about truly grasping the people and their way of thinking. So, how can we move beyond these rigid frameworks?

Self awareness of your own cultural perceptions is a key to working effectively with multicultural teams

It’s indeed a crucial question, and the answer varies from person to person, depending on their background and experiences. One effective starting point is self-awareness and cultural reflection. Before understanding other cultures, it’s vital to recognise our own cultural biases and the lens through which we view the world. By doing so, we can observe and adjust our behaviour more effectively when interacting with people from different cultures.

Take, for instance, Japanese culture. Knowing practical tips, such as taking off your shoes when entering a house or paying attention to business card exchanges, is helpful. However, the real challenge lies in how well we can adapt and apply this knowledge in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. That’s where coaching comes into play. Combining training with coaching and consulting allows individuals to learn, practice, and fine-tune their cultural adaptability.

Living abroad forces people to confront their own cultural perceptions

Interestingly, many people never really contemplate their own cultural peculiarities unless they’ve spent time living abroad. Living in a different environment forces them to confront their own culture’s uniqueness, even if it’s not far from their upbringing. It becomes a continuous comparison game, even if they don’t realise it on a conscious level.

It’s true; people often don’t consider the importance of cultural support and intercultural intelligence skills until they encounter significant problems. Sometimes, they may not even realise that the issues stem from cultural clashes. They might assume the other person is difficult or uninterested in business. Helping them recognise these problems are culturally rooted and offering training to address team dynamics can make a substantial difference.

In the end, embracing cultural awareness and adaptability can lead to more effective communication, cooperation, and success in today’s interconnected world. It’s about recognising that cultural differences shape our interactions, then being open to learning and growing through the process.

Islands, or remote areas traditionally have a different mentality towards other cultures

Taiwan’s insular nature as an island contributes to what can be described as an “island mentality.” Unlike countries with open land borders, where boundaries may have shifted over time, islands possess a unique sense of isolation. This aspect resonated with me, especially growing up in the UK, where the concept of swiftly crossing borders seemed foreign. However, my perspective shifted when living in Austria, where crossing multiple borders in a short span became a regular occurrence.

Throughout Michelle’s career, she has collaborated with numerous European companies and conducted intercultural training within Europe. She has noticed a remarkable difference in the level of acceptance and understanding of intercultural communication in Europe compared to other regions, including North America and Asia. Europe appears more advanced in embracing the necessity of intercultural communication, which impresses her.

In summary, Taiwan’s island geography influences a distinct island mentality, while her experiences in Europe have demonstrated the region’s forward-thinking approach to intercultural communication and its widespread acceptance.

On the other hand, in her experience, Michelle has found that the majority of companies and programme participants she interacts with are highly receptive to the concepts she presents. Taiwan, being an export-driven nation, engages in extensive communication with companies and individuals from other countries and the international community. Consequently, once people recognise the potential benefits of the tools and approaches she offers in enhancing intercultural communication, they readily embrace and welcome these insights.

Inclusivity could be the answer we need

Peeling back the Cultural Layers

We often generalise cultures, treating vast regions like Asia or Africa as singular entities. While initial generalisations might be acceptable for brief visits, it’s essential to explore cultures deeply and avoid oversimplifications. In her trainings, Michelle therefore shares valuable insights on tools for self-reflection and cultivating a more comprehensive understanding of culture.

An Inclusive Approach to Communication

When we talk here about being inclusive, the intercultural intelligence skills need to encompass various aspects beyond just cultural skills. Leadership capabilities, teamwork, strategic thinking, emotional and physical well-being, spiritual practices, and continuous learning are all crucial facets of effective communication.

It’s a Journey of Self-Development

Once we acknowledge the significance of self-development, then we should also realise that a well-rounded, empathetic, and flexible individual is better equipped to navigate diverse and uncomfortable cross-cultural situations. Combining self-reflection with cultural awareness forms a strong foundation for successful interactions.

Don’t Ignore the Individuality Within Cultures

Even within seemingly homogeneous cultures, each person is unique. Developing effective coping mechanisms is vital, especially when dealing with criticism or hierarchies, as these challenges may arise over time, even within familiar cultures.

Adjusting to Homogeneity and Diversity

Transitioning between low and high context cultures requires time and adaptability. Whether working in a diverse population or a homogenous society, there will be a need for adjustment and ample opportunities for self-reflection.

Embracing Challenges for Growth:

A personal investment in the communication process, viewing challenges as opportunities for self-development rather than reinforcing preconceived notions can help reach that end goal of becoming a well-rounded, open-minded individual capable of effectively engaging with diverse cultures and situations.

Team Dynamics are also important in cultural EQ, not just the individual perspective

The setup of teams and how their operations can significantly impact communication is an important consideration. Whether everyone works remotely or some members are based in physical offices across different locations, the team’s composition influences power dynamics and communication patterns.

It’s important for everyone, but especially leaders, to practice cultural humility, recognising the impact of one’s own cultural background on perceptions and interactions. Coupled with empathy, the ability to see things from others’ perspectives, these qualities form a strong foundation for successful cross-cultural communication.

Europe’s Openness to Cultural EQ

Europe, particularly countries like Denmark, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Spain, exhibits a greater willingness to embrace cultural intelligence. Multicultural interactions and curiosity about understanding other cultures are prevalent among individuals and companies in these regions. Michelle has had positive experiences working with German and Polish students eager to learn about Chinese culture, reflecting a refreshing and insightful approach to cultural exploration.

European approaches often prioritise self-reflection, which can contribute to a more open attitude towards cultural learning and understanding.

Some examples of how team dynamics may play out

Summary of Team Dynamics Examples:

  1. Remote Team Setup: In this scenario, individuals in the team are working from different locations, such as their homes. Michelle highlights that such a setup may promote a sense of equality among team members, as they all share similar remote working experiences.
  2. Dominant Culture in a Physical Office: Another example is a team located in a physical office in a specific country, like France, comprising ten members along with their leader. The presence of a dominant culture within this team could influence communication dynamics, affecting power balances and equitable participation.
  3. Cultural Differences Across Teams: A team physically located in the Netherlands, where direct communication is a cultural norm. However, a team member from Taipei may find it challenging to adjust to this communication style, as it may differ from her cultural background, where speaking up assertively is less common.

Different setups and cultural norms can significantly impact communication styles and interactions among team members so we really need to be aware of cultural perceptions.

it needs cultural intelligence and intercultural competence to manage multicultural team dynamics
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Should we be looking at Similarities or Differences when Talking about Intercultural Intelligence Training?

There’s a well-known analogy about a fish swimming in its own fishbowl. The fish, immersed in its environment, doesn’t even realise it’s in water. This analogy is often used to illustrate the concept of intercultural understanding. If you’re always surrounded by your own culture, it becomes challenging to comprehend the perspective of others in different cultural settings.

The first step towards intercultural understanding is self-awareness and awareness of the environment around you. Having a strong emotional intelligence, humility, and empathy can enhance your capacity to bridge cultural gaps. If you possess these qualities, when learning about another culture, you’ll naturally seek similarities and work to bridge the differences.

On the other hand, if your mindset is more insular, with a rigid perspective on life, focusing solely on differences may reinforce those distinctions even when taught about similarities. Thus, before teaching about cultural similarities or differences, cultivating the right mindset in individuals or groups is crucial. Emphasising similarities can lead to the best outcomes in the learning environment.

In terms of a training programme, a balanced approach is recommended. Using differences in a knowledge-based format and exploring similarities through group projects and experiential workshops can offer participants a well-rounded understanding. The aim is to leave them with a feeling of connection and a mindset that fosters collaboration in future multicultural interactions.

Let Go of Judgement!

It’s essential to release judgment of oneself because often when we judge others or different cultures, it reflects our own self-judgment. The first step is to reflect, embrace, and accept ourselves while continuing to work on self-improvement. Once we cultivate this mindset, we can gradually let go of judgments, especially those based on stereotypes or biases towards others.

Acknowledging that judgment may arise is crucial because it’s natural for most of us. The key is to transform that judgment. We can recognize it as a product of our background and perspective, but it doesn’t have to dictate our interactions with others. Instead, we can rise above it, transcend it, and approach people with a broader, more understanding perspective.

Let me summarise some main points

Moving towards a more flexible approach begins with developing awareness. Awareness of one’s own preconditioning, viewpoints, bias and so on. Once that inner awareness is developed, humility naturally arises and then the real work of being flexible and open-minded can begin.

  • observe and absorb as much as you can 
  • Learn the language
  • read more books
  • ask more questions
  • step outside of your comfort zone
  • be willing to be wrong and challenged continually.

The first question here is how clearly do you see your own cultural habits and viewpoints? If you see them clearly, there is not a huge distinction between differences and similarities as they are integrated into a common experience. 

If you are like the fish swimming in your own fish bowl, you’ll end up finding differences even within the similarities. So, the most important thing is your mindset – how you choose to access, process and absorb external stimuli. 

Michelle and I would both recommend you to meet people from communities different from your own and make genuine friendships and connections across a variety of cultural lines as this will help you develop your own cultural eq.

Full discussion

You can watch the full discussion below:

Michelle works with both multinationals & local companies both in Taiwan and abroad, as well as non-profit organisations. She is a guest lecturer at academic institutions and provides her services to many individual clients on a global scale. Anyone working in a cross-cultural environment, looking to enhance their cultural and emotional intelligence through group or individual workshops, consultancy, or coaching sessions can contact her. Michelle is open to having a conversation and sharing more details to determine if there is a good fit. She is happy to offer her services in both the Chinese and English languages.

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