All posts by Tom Verghese

Bridging the Cultural Gap – A Case in Point

Having an understanding of Cultural Intelligence in one thing. Knowing where and when to apply it is a different thing altogether.

Photo by Wojtek Witkowski on Unsplash

Over the last few months we have discussed the idea of what Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is, the 4 key components that comprise CQ and how they are can be utilised in the workplace to assist us to work more effectively across distance, culture and time.

From here I will describe some case studies so that you are better able to grasp some of the issues that can arise when working across culture. Then I will explore ways to reduce tension and miscommunication.

Recognising the Cultural Differences

Recently I was with an Australian organisation that has a global presence. As their business grows and matures in the international market, it is becoming increasingly important for them to adopt a more culturally agile approach. During the discussion an incident was raised that did not have the desired impact.

Due to the growing awareness around mental health and the increasing rate of suicide in Australia, a dedicated day called “R U Ok Day” is held on September 12 every year to focus on mental health. The idea of having this day is to encourage people to ask others how they are feeling, if there are issues to share, so that they feel supported and not isolated.

It is recognised in Australia as an important step towards reducing suicide and developing a strong and supportive network for those that may be struggling with mental health.

This organisation extended the recognition of the “R U OK Day” event to it’s international offices, thinking it would be a powerful, well received and progressive gesture.

Despite the good intentions held by the organisation in promoting these values of openness and support, the organisation received a lot of resistance particularly from offices in the Asian countries. The pushback from the Asian offices occurred because, while the organisation acted with the best intentions they did not foresee the impact of those intentions.  

The organisation failed to take into consideration how this kind of discussion might be received in different cultures. In many Asian cultures, discussing mental health or experiencing mental health issues is very taboo.

Admitting you have problems is a source of shame in these cultures so understandably this initiative caused unease and tensions for the offices. The offices felt that this had been forced upon them and it was anything but well received.

Avoiding Cultural Tension

How then can we avoid a situation like this in our own workplaces?

Some points for consideration are:

  • Be Conscious:

Be aware of our own biases – this means being mindful that the way in which you view a behaviour, practice or topic may not be the same as some one from a different culture. Culture is effectively the lens through which you view the world, so it is important that whenever you are working across culture you consider how your actions, attitudes and behaviours will be received.

At the same time, how do you attempt to understand the “other” point of view?

  • Ask Questions:

When introducing new initiatives, it is imperative to ask questions and receive feedback so you are able to gauge the response before putting things into place. Listening to the perspective of those in a different culture will broaden your perspective especially with new initiatives.

  • Be Adaptive:

If an initiative is introduced and not so well received in a different cultural context, then it becomes necessary to consider how to adapt, adopt or modify this so that it can be more easily accepted by the cultural group involved.

These types of situations require the utilisation of all of the components of Cultural Intelligence that we have previously discussed – Drive, Knowledge, Strategy and Action. By incorporating these elements into our cross cultural interactions we are in a better position to maintain and strengthen our relationships, which will lead to better outcomes.

Procurement Across Borders – Understanding CQ Action

Are you able to adapt your behaviours in cross-cultural encounters? Your final step may be to take more account of your CQ Action.

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Throughout this series of articles we have been looking into Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and it’s relevance to working across culture, distance and time.

We have already explored 3 of the 4 main components of CQ which are CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge and CQ Strategy. We will now discuss the fourth component which is CQ Action.

So What is CQ Action?

CQ Action (Behaviour) can be defined as your ability to adapt both your verbal and non-verbal behaviour when engaging in cross-cultural encounters. Being able to flex your behaviour helps you to respond to others in a way that conveys respect, builds trust and rapport and minimises the risk of miscommunications. CQ Action is in effect the manifestation of all of the other aspects of Cultural intelligence. It is behaviour based on motivation (CQ Drive), cognition (CQ Knowledge), and meta-cognition (CQ Strategy).

There are 3 key aspects to CQ Action, the first is verbal communication. When working across culture it is very important to be conscious of different verbal communication styles. Some cultures are very direct in their communication styles while others are not.

For example, people from South Africa and Israel tend to be very direct and forthright. They readily share their opinions. Compare this to people from Japan or Korea, who are far more indirect with their speech patterns. They tend to be much more circular when they say things. It is important to listen carefully to how people are talking or we may miss the point.

A client shared with me recently that one of their team members realised that the Chinese team with whom he interacted never said ”no” as part of their cultural context. Every time he gave them large quantities of work, they kept saying “yes”, even though they had difficulty in meeting the deadlines. On further investigation, he discovered They simply weren’t explicitly saying “no” in the way he expected or understood.

CQ Actions Speak Louder than Words

The second aspect of CQ Action is around non-verbal communication. This describes your body language – how expressive you are, how you use your hands and your facial expressions. This differs greatly in various parts of the world.

An example of this is touching of the head, in some cultures this is an endearing and friendly gesture, while in others it can be very offensive. Some cultures say a lot without using many words while other cultures use hand and facial expressions to add further meaning to their words.

Developing an understanding of non-verbal cues across cultures can take significant time and patience however by doing so you will better able to adapt yourself into a cross- cultural situation which will hopefully result in more fluid relationships.

Understanding Vocal Cues

The third aspect of CQ Action is Speech Acts. Speech acts refers to how much silence we use when speaking, how often we pause and the time spent in between pauses. If you come from a Western culture, you will understand that when there is a silent pause in a meeting, someone will automatically jump in to break the silence.

In other cultures, people are very comfortable sitting with the silence- no matter how long it continues. Thus, part of CQ Action is becoming familiar with these subtleties so that you have the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures.

When working with a different culture, you may possess a great deal of knowledge, have the best strategy and be really motivated however if you are unable to execute or implement these aspects effectively then success will be very limited.

CQ Action involves implementing the appropriate social etiquette and behaviour to suit a diverse range of situations and people which in turn leads to a diverse and sincere connection.

Procurement Across Borders – Are You Aware Of Your Surroundings?

Are you aware of what is going on in a cross-cultural situation? How do you use that awareness to adapt and manage these situations effectively? 

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In this series of articles we have been discussing the importance of Cultural Intelligence when working across culture, distance and time. Using and developing CQ is a highly effective way to achieve better outcomes and smoother business interactions. We have already looked at two of the four components of CQ, which are CQ Drive and CQ Knowledge and defined some of the characteristics that influence these areas. We will now move on to the third component of CQ which is CQ Strategy.

CQ strategy or meta cognition refers to the extent to which you are aware of what is going on in a cross-cultural situation and your ability to use that awareness to adapt and manage the situation effectively. Employing CQ strategy, requires us to consider diverse encounters ahead of time, during the encounter and after they have occurred. CQ strategy is comprised of three elements, these are planning, awareness and checking.

Planning requires us to take into account the nine cultural dimensions we discussed in earlier  articles as well as any other factors. Some of those factors may include the organisational culture as well as economic, political, social and administrative aspects. By understanding some of the challenges you may face and strategizing actions and behaviours that are appropriate for dealing with the situations you will encounter, you are well placed to anticipate and mitigate tensions and misunderstandings. Some questions or prompts you may like to consider when planning include:

  • What are my goals?
  • What are my client’s/partner’s goals?
  • How will my client/partner’s cultural values and beliefs guide their communication, behaviours and decisions?
  • What do I already know about this person and cultural setting that could guide me?
  • What past experiences can I draw on to assist me?
  • What else do I need to know to achieve my goals?

Awareness relates to what you are doing during the interaction. It is about being present and mindful of what is occurring around you whilst engaging in a cross-cultural situation. This includes looking for expressions of interest and scrutinizing facial expressions and non- verbal communication as well as verbal communication. Are you understanding what is being said and being understood? Some questions to consider for yourself in relation to awareness in cross-cultural situations are:

  • Am I achieving the goals I need to?
  • What is confusing or unclear for me/my client/ partner?
  • What other questions are being raised?
  • What questions are not being raised?
  • What am I doing that is working/not working?
  • What could I be doing better?

Checking is the third aspect of CQ Strategy. We have mental models, where we make certain assumptions based on our previous experiences. We need to be alert to check that our assumptions are correct. This requires being cognizant and checking in on what is being communicated verbally and non-verbally.  Checking is a key part of evaluating the situation and judging how successful your cross-cultural interaction is. Some questions to consider in regard to checking are:

  • What helped or inhibited my performance?
  • What were my strengths and weaknesses?
  • Did I try anything new? Did it work?
  • What did I find easy?
  • What was most challenging?
  • What did I learn from the encounter?
  • How will I do things differently next time?

These three components of CQ Strategy- planning, awareness and checking provide a useful framework to analyse performance and progress when carrying out cross-cultural interactions. They also provide an opportunity to assess and improve our on our ability to utilise CQ strategy .  When entering new relationships, using these steps can be particularly helpful as a guide to navigating the situation and getting off to a good start that can lead to positive and mutually beneficial outcomes.

Procurement Across Borders – Managing Situations In Which Culture Can Influence The Outcomes

Differences and similarities between cultures can be assessed in terms of core values, beliefs, norms and behaviour…

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In the previous articles, we began looking at CQ Knowledge which relates to your personal knowledge and understanding of other cultures. We introduced the idea that differences and similarities between cultures can be assessed in terms of core values, beliefs, norms and behaviour and provided a cultural mirror which plots Nine Dimensions of Culture.

Having already discussed the first six dimensions, this month we will move onto the seventh, eighth and ninth dimensions, explore their application and give some tips and ideas on how to navigate these dimensions in cross cultural situations.

Dimension Seven: Polychronic- Monochronic.

Polychronic and monochronic are the terms used to describe the time orientation in cultures. The terms were coined by Edward Hall. People coming from Polychronic cultures view time as being very loose compared to monochronic cultures who view time as needing to be managed very tightly.

In monochronic cultures, people believe that time is money and it should not be wasted. Meetings tend to start on time and there is an orderly sense to the way people do things such as queueing and traffic movements. There is a methodical logic in how things work. Countries that are monochronic include the UK, Taiwan and Switzerland.

In polychronic cultures, people believe that time is life – there is plenty of time and you need to be in the present. A meeting set to begin at 9am may in fact start later than that or once everyone has arrived. In these cultures, people don’t generally queue for things and traffic can be chaotic and arbitrary. Cultures with a polychronic approach have a different sense of time which can be one of the most challenging aspects to working across culture. Countries that are Polychronic include Indonesia, Chile and Portugal.

Tips for those coming from a Monochronic Culture when working with Polychronic cultures:

1) Be fluid with timelines

2) Ensure flexibility in setting up appointments and meetings

Tips for those coming from a Polychronic Culture when working with Monochronic cultures:

1) Be punctual

2) Establish timelines for projects and ensure you deliver on them

Dimension Eight: High-Low Context Communication

High and Low context refers to the way in which cultures communicate. People coming from high context communication cultures understand that communication is multi-dimensional. In low context communication cultures, you say what you mean and mean what you say. In these cultures, “yes” means yes and “no” means no. Countries that have low context communication styles include the USA, Germany and Finland.

In high context cultures, “yes” may mean yes, it may mean no or even maybe depending on how the yes is articulated. It is not just about the spoken word, it is also about the facial expression, tone of voice, pitch and body language. Countries that have high context communication include China, Greece and Algeria.

Tips for those coming from a Low context culture and working with a High context culture:

1) Be patient and listen carefully to what is the message being communicated

2) Use metaphors and analogies to describe situations and outcomes

Tips for those coming from a High context culture and working with a Low context culture:

1) Be direct and straightforward in your communication

2) Do not be offended by the directness of responses.

Dimension Nine: Femininity – Masculinity

In feminine cultures, there tends to be more of an appreciation of values around cooperation, communication, teamwork, and collaboration. In feminine cultures, males and females will often do all sorts of similar jobs and gender roles are less clearly defined.

When discussing Femininity – Masculinity in terms of the cultural mirror continuum, we refer to the attributes that are most prevalent and valued within a culture.

Some examples of countries with feminine cultures are Denmark and Sweden.

In masculine cultures, there’s a far greater emphasis on competition, being assertive and ambitious and having a strong point of view. In masculine cultures gender roles are highly differentiated. Some examples of countries with masculine culture are Japan, Venezuela and Hungary.

Tips for people coming from feminine cultures when working with Masculine cultures:

1) Be assertive and convey your point of view

2) Be concise and rational in your discussions

Tips for people coming from Masculine cultures working with Feminine cultures:

1) Avoid being overly aggressive

2) Be willing to compromise

In order to be more effective when working across culture we need to be culturally intelligent and develop a repertoire to be able to manage situations in which culture can influence the outcomes. Regardless of where you sit on each element of the continuum it is essential to have the agility to adapt yourself.

Procurement Across Borders – How To Navigate Cross Cultural Situations

Tom Verghese shares his advice on how to navigate cross cultural situations with different attitudes to hierarchy, religion and collectivism…


By Daniel Jenny/ Shutterstock

In our last article, we began looking at CQ Knowledge which refers to your own personal knowledge and understanding of other cultures. We introduced the idea that differences and similarities between cultures can be assessed in terms of core values, beliefs, norms and behaviour and provided a cultural mirror which plots Nine Dimensions of Culture.

Having already discussed the first three dimensions, this month we will move onto the fourth, fifth and six dimensions and explore their application and give some tips and ideas on how to navigate these dimensions in cross cultural situations.

Dimension Four: Collectivism – Individualism

In Collectivist societies, people are concerned about the impact of their behaviour on other people and are more willing to sacrifice personal interest for the attainment of collectivist interests and harmony. Group harmony, loyalty and unity are emphasised. Examples of countries with a stronger preference for collectivist beliefs are Japan, Ecuador and India.

Individualistic societies tend to use personal characteristics and achievements to define self-worth. Free will and self-determination are important qualities. Individual welfare is valued over that of the group and everyone is expected to look after themselves and their family. Examples of countries with a stronger preference for Individualistic beliefs are The USA, Australia and Germany.

Some tips for people coming from a Collectivist culture working with an Individualistic culture are:

– Have a point of view on topics

– Be willing to speak out and challenge in meetings

Some tips for people from an Individualistic culture working with a Collectivist culture are:

– Think more from a ‘we’ than ‘I’ perspective

– Ask more questions to engage and get of sense of people’s thinking

Dimension Five: Religious – Secular

In religious cultures, religion plays a part in the everyday practices of life. This can include things like prayer, eating certain foods, observing special religious holidays etc. In these countries work and religious practices are intertwined. Countries that can be considered to have a stronger religious preference are Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Israel.

Secular cultures believe that there needs to be a separation between state and religion. These types of societies believe that decisions, work and public activities should be free from the influence of religion and religious practice. Some examples of Secular countries are Australia, Mexico and Denmark.

People coming from Religious cultures and working with Secular cultures should:

– Appreciate that others may not share the same beliefs as you

– Avoid bringing up the topic of religion unless asked

People coming from Secular cultures working with religious cultures should:

– Have an appreciation of how religious beliefs impact thinking

– Respect different belief systems

Dimension Six: Hierarchical – Equality

In Hierarchical cultures, inequality is seen as normal and is accepted as part of life. Titles and class position are very important and those in authority tend to exercise power in an autocratic and paternalistic manner. People in these cultures feel dependent on those in authority and are cautious about challenging or disagreeing with them. Countries with a stronger preference for this type of culture include Korea and India.

In Equality based cultures, value is placed on minimising levels of power. People expect to have more control and to be involved in the decision- making process. Young people are treated as equals and adults expect to be treated in the same way as those in leadership roles. Countries with a stronger preference of Equality based culture are Denmark and Switzerland.

Tips for people from Hierarchical cultures when working with those from Equality cultures:

– Learn how to express ideas with those in senior roles

– Be courageous to challenge ideas and address others as equals

Tips for people coming from Equality cultures when working with those from Hierarchical cultures:

– Respect titles, age, qualifications, positions and appreciate where you fit in

– Learn how to adapt your tone of voice, pitch and language depending on who you are speaking with.

By taking into account some of the different values and beliefs that cultures may have, we are able to increase our agility and better manage and understand some of the challenges we may face in cross cultural situations. In particular this leads to better results and fewer tensions in the work place.

Procurement Across Borders – Looking Into The Cultural Mirror

A useful tool for developing cultural intelligence is the Cultural Mirror, which plots culture across nine dimensions…

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As part of our ongoing article series on Cultural intelligence (CQ) we are discussing each of the four individual components of CQ and how they can be applied to effectively work across cultures. In earlier articles we discussed what Cultural Intelligence is and CQ Drive, which is the motivation that individuals have in approaching and interacting with different cultures. Now we move onto the next component which is CQ Knowledge.

CQ Knowledge refers to your own personal knowledge and understanding of other cultures. Differences and similarities between cultures can be assessed in terms of core values, beliefs, norms and behaviour.

A useful tool for developing CQ Knowledge is the Cultural Mirror, which plots a culture on nine dimensions. These dimensions are based on the work of anthropologist Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars and Asma Abdullah that I amalgamated. The Nine Dimensions of Culture provides us with a continuum of values and by exploring each of these and where a culture sits on the continuum, we are able to gain insight into the culture itself and how it operates. It is critical to firstly appreciate where you sit on the cultural mirror yourself.

Here is the Cultural mirror and the Nine dimensions:

We will look at the first three dimensions in this article and understand what they are, how they are applicable and provide some tips on how to navigate these cultural differences.

Dimension One: Relationships – Task

In some cultures around the world the focus in the early stages of interactions is on building the relationship. In these cultures, getting to know the people and establishing trust is much more important than simply achieving the task. Examples of countries on the relationship end of the continuum are Saudi Arabia and Brazil. In other cultures the initial priority is on getting the task done. This is not to say that the relationship is not important, however the focus is primarily on getting the task done before building the relationship. Examples of countries that are on this end of the continuum would be Australia, Germany and Finland. In both situations, the outcome is to get the task done but the approaches are different.

Tips for those coming from a relationship oriented culture working with a task oriented culture:

  • Be focused and clear on outcomes
  • Give clear instructions about the task

Tips for those coming from a task oriented culture working with a relationship oriented culture:

  • Spend time initially building the relationship
  • Invest in small talk to make people feel more comfortable

Dimension Two: Harmony – Control

This is the view of how humans deal with the environment, nature and with people around us. People from harmony based cultures believe we need to live in harmony with nature and have an external locus of control. They believe in concepts such as yin and yang, fate, destiny and karma. Countries which are more on the harmony end of the continuum include Pakistan and China. Conversely, people from control based cultures believe that you are the master of your own destiny. You are in control of your life and you need to control the environment. Countries more towardes the control  continuum  are the USA and Switzerland.

Tips for those coming from a Harmony based culture working with a Control Culture:

  • Be aware that rigorous debate maybe encouraged
  • Be conscious of delivering on timelines

Tips for those coming from a Control based culture working with a Harmony Culture:

  • Be mindful that open conflict is likely to be avoided
  • Learn how to disagree in a polite manner

Dimension Three: Shame – Guilt

 In shame orientated cultures, avoiding a ‘loss of face’ is important. Thus, what others think of you and how they judge you is a strong motivator. Examples of countries which are more on the shame end of the continuum are India and Japan. Conversely, in guilt based cultures, it is more about up to the individual to judge themselves on their conduct. Guilt based cultures include Italy and Argentina.

Tips for those coming from a shame based culture working with those from a Guilt Culture:

  • Allow time for experimentation and brainstorming of ideas
  • Appreciate that candour may be present and encouraged in discussions

Tips for those coming from a Guilt based culture working with a Shame Culture:

  • Encourage participation through group based tasks to remove attention from individuals which may cause “loss of face”.
  • Do not expect public or rigorous debate

For the three dimensions we have discussed, please consider where your cultural preferences are and how that influences your interactions with others from different cultures?

Procurement Across Borders: Advancing Your Drive To Be A Global Player

Tom Verghese provides a list of tips which can be useful in advancing your CQ Drive…

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In my last article I discussed the three associated factors affecting CQ Drive, which are intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and self-efficacy. Each of these components play an important role in understanding your own drive in terms of Cultural Intelligence and how it can be enhanced.

To refresh here are each of the components of CQ Drive.

  • Intrinsic drive is what motivates some people to have interactions with other cultures.  People with intrinsic drive have a deep, personal interest in different cultures and want to understand or experience the different foods, languages and cultural practices of others.
  • Extrinsic drive describes those people that may want to gain experience interacting across cultures to improve their credentials or gain a promotion in their organisation. People with extrinsic drive are motivated by the way in which having interactions with other cultures can benefit them.
  • Self efficacy refers to having the confidence to handle intercultural situations should they arise, especially when you are not in a position to know the best course of action. Often this entails navigating the cues you are receiving and interpreting them to the best of your ability.

A great example of CQ Drive that I noticed recently was the way in which Jacinda Ardern  has been handling the terrible tragedy that occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand. She has exemplified all the elements of high CQ Drive. From my observation, her key drivers have been to understand the perspectives of the communities, particularly the Muslim community and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people of New Zealand.

She has shown great respect to the Muslim community and their culture by choosing to wear a hijab and spend time empathising with the victims’ families. In parliament she quoted an Islamic greeting to begin the session and has already enacted new laws restricting gun ownership in an effort to ensure that the community at large is safe. In taking these actions she has united the people of New Zealand, overcome a difficult cross-cultural issue and shown great leadership. Jacinda has demonstrated high CQ Drive at the intrinsic, extrinsic and self- efficacy levels through her actions and gained support and respect for her leadership and humanity in doing so. It is very encouraging to see this behaviour in a world leader and provides us with a great example of how we can do better at a personal level in this space.

Here is a short list of tips which can be useful in advancing your own CQ Drive.

  1) Take some unconscious bias tests –Click here

  2) Seek feedback from peers about your interactions across cultures.

  3) Reflect on what guides and influences your behaviours and attitudes toward culturally diverse groups

  4) Welcome opportunities to mentor others as a ‘cultural broker’ and to be mentored yourself.

  5) Seek an interest that you have and leverage on it. Connect with culturally diverse peers who may have an interest in the same topic. You may seek to reach out via social media.

  6) Be prepared to make mistakes and to learn from them.

Being clear about ‘why’ you are choosing to interact with others from different cultural backgrounds helps ease the inevitable tensions or misunderstanding that arise. It provides you with a higher level of self-awareness which is essential in all cross-cultural interactions.

Procurement Across Borders: Do You Have The Drive?

Do you have the drive, interest, motivation and confidence to adapt to a multicultural situation?


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In the last article in this series we discussed what cultural intelligence (CQ) is and how it is an important tool in working effectively across distance, culture and time. I described the four main components of CQ, which are CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ strategy and CQ Action. In this article I will be focusing on CQ Drive.

CQ Drive is the interest, motivation and confidence to adapt to a multicultural situation. There are three main areas of CQ Drive, these being:  

  • Intrinsic drive which is what motivates some people to have interactions with other cultures.  People with intrinsic drive have a deep, personal interest in different cultures and want to understand or experience the different foods, languages and cultural practices of others
  • Extrinsic drive describes those people that may want to gain experience interacting across cultures to improve their credentials, gain experience or gain a promotion in their organisation. People with extrinsic drive are more motivated by the ways in which having interactions with other cultures can benefit them
  • Self efficacy refers to having the confidence to deal with intercultural situations should they arise, especially when you are not in a position to know the best course of action. Often this entails navigating the cues you are receiving and interpreting them to the best of your ability

To further exemplify CQ drive in action I would like to share a story about a client. I was engaged recently to work with a scientist who is on a one year assignment in Australia from Germany. He works for a Biopharmaceutical organisation that has operations in both Australia and Germany. Apart from the technical side of his role, his brief is also to help bridge the different operational styles in the laboratory between the two countries.

 In terms of his intrinsic motivation, he really wants his assignment to be a successful one, has an interest in being of service and helping the organisation to grow through gaining experience in Australia and understanding how the business can operate optimally in a different context.

His extrinsic motivation is through knowing that having this experience will help him further his career and gain recognition and promotion in the future. This international exposure will be an essential component of his ambition to become a global leader.

He has also shown a high degree of self efficacy. Upon arriving in Australia, the organisation provided him with an apartment in a high rise development located in downtown Melbourne. He found over the first few weeks that he was quite lonely and had few people to talk to. Having had previous experience travelling through Europe, he decided to register himself at a Youth Hostel to enable him to meet other travellers and increase his friendship circle.

So, this is an example of someone with high CQ drive in all aspects. I encourage you to reflect on your own levels of CQ Drive in terms of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and self-efficacy. In my article next month, I will share some tips and techniques on how you can improve your CQ Drive and the kind of outcomes this can bring.

Procurement Across Borders – Understanding CQ

In the first of a series of articles, Tom Verghese introduces Cultural Intelligence (CQ), what it means and why it is so important in business today.

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Last year, one of my clients returned from a holiday to India. She expressed to me her dismay at the different entrance prices at various monuments and tourist site sites that she had visited. She believed that the different pricing structures for locals and tourists was unfair. and that there should be one price for all entrants, regardless of their status.

I reminded her that she was a visitor and that what she considered to be fair pricing was reflective of what she was familiar with. For example, in countries like the US and UK the pricing structure tends to objective, and having one price for all is considered to be fair and equitable. However, in many parts of the world pricing is subjective with many variables influencing price such as how well I know you, the relationship we have, the company that you represent, the links and connections that you have, and even what time of day it is.

This example serves to demonstrate how ‘culture’ can play a part in even the simplest everyday situations at both a personal and professional level. In this story, the conflict of one set of cultural norms over another highlights how cultural differences can create conflict and misunderstandings.

Let’s take a look at some of the defining features of culture so as to better understand how we interact with culture. Culture is the lens through which we view the world.

  • Culture is subjective. That means we use our own culture as a reference point. The practices in our culture are what we use as norms and we use these to compare other cultures
  • Culture is deep. Culture is mostly transmitted through stories, which provide a history of that culture. When we look at tensions or animosity and hatred that passes from one generation to another, it’s because those stories are passed on and perpetuate a view that may no longer be accurate
  • Culture is biased. This means that each one of us interprets and makes judgements by the standards inherent to our own culture
  • Culture is tacit. That is we never really consider or think about our culture until we are outside of it. Culture is important because it essentially impacts the way we think and behave and impacts our worldview.

Most people believe that they have some degree of cultural awareness. This may mean they can identify the languages, foods or traditional dress of certain countries, or other defining characteristics.

However, in our increasingly interconnected and globalised world, as organisations are being required to source talent and conduct business across multiple countries with people from a diverse range of backgrounds, a broader understanding of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is necessary. Having an understanding of what CQ is and how to practically apply it can make it easier to navigate different cultures. For specialists in procurement, the ability to use CQ is particularly relevant. One of the biggest challenges when working across cultures is that we have expectations that people are similar to us and operate according to the same rules. This is a grave error.

What is CQ?

CQ is the capability to work effectively in culturally diverse situations. It goes beyond existing notions of cultural sensitivity and awareness to highlight a theoretically-based set of capabilities needed to successfully and respectfully accomplish your objectives in culturally diverse settings either locally or globally.

CQ can be broken into four components. These components can be both inherent and developed. These four components are:

  1. CQ Drive – The interest, motivation and confidence to adapt to a multicultural situation. It consists of intrinsic (i.e. meaningful work) and extrinsic interests (i.e. financial rewards) and the drive to learn and understand cultures, their norms and behaviours
  2. CQ Knowledge – Understanding cultural similarities and differences. This includes knowledge of the values, norms and practices in different cultural settings
  3. CQ Strategy – Awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions. It incorporates how we apply our CQ Knowledge insights
  4. CQ Action – The ability to appropriately adapt verbal and non-verbal communication in cross cultural situations, including how well we can adapt when things don’t go according to plan

Over the next 12 months we will be discussing each of these components, what they are and the ways in which you can further develop your own CQ and make improvements on your performance when interacting in cross cultural situations to obtain better outcomes.

Talk Less, Ask More

Procurement leaders must create more opportunities to be open with the levels of the organisation below them and consistently request feedback… Talk less and ask more! “When you’re the CEO of a large organisation – or even a small one – your greatest responsibility is to recognise whether it requires a major change in direction. Indeed, no bold new course of action can be launched without your say-so. Yet your power and privilege leave you insulated – perhaps more than anyone else in the company – from information that might challenge your assumptions and allow you to perceive a looming threat or opportunity. Ironically, to do what your exalted position demands, you must in some way escape your exalted position.” – excerpt from Bursting the CEO Bubble, Hal Gregersen. Harvard Business Review, March – April 2017.

This passage stuck a chord with me and I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly.

The majority of feedback given in organisations tends to flow in a downward direction; people in higher levels of an organisation are giving feedback to people in lower levels. People may be asked to provide feedback in the opposite direction – back to their superiors – but it is rarely given freely and without careful consideration.

I believe many people don’t give feedback to their superiors out of an instinct of fear. That is not to say they are scared of their managers, but more that there is a sense of uncertainly around how their feedback will be taken and any resulting consequences. The safer option tends to be to bite one’s tongue and keep quiet.

The impact of this behaviour is that people, or groups of people, can feel stressed or excluded, and ultimately become disengaged.

I also believe that many leaders don’t ask for feedback from lower levels of their organisation because their information “feeds” are so broad in our modern era.

CEOs have so many sources of information to consult and deal with that they are spending more and more of their time in a scanning mode rather than a deep analysis mode. Consequently, as their decision-making time is continually reduced they have to use their bias to make quicker decisions.

Important decisions in any organisation deserve careful consideration. Bias tends to work as an opposing force to this process. As the excerpt above suggests, and that I strongly agree with, our leaders  must expand on their process of discovery. They must create more opportunity to be open with the levels of the organisation below them and consistently request feedback, particularly on their own performance. Not only will staff feel listened to and more engaged, but also this process will invite alternative perspectives – alternative ideas, alternative ways of thinking, and alternative cultural outlooks.

It is this diversity of thought – the diversity of their entire organisation – that should be informing our leaders’ decision making process.

This article, by Tom Verghese,  was originally published on Cultural Synergies. 

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