by Sarah Johnston


Effective leaders need to incorporate cultural intelligence into their toolkit in order to survive and thrive in the global marketplace


International trade has been in existence for a long time. But technology-enabled global communication and commerce are moving forward at highly accelerated levels, giving rise to more cross-border and intercultural —both virtual and personal—encounters than before. This is making it increasingly important to be able to communicate effectively across different cultures.

This is according to the executive director of professional education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Bhaskar Pant, who recently visited South Africa to give a talk at the graduation ceremony for the 2014 ILDP (International Leadership Development Programme) that MIT runs in partnership with Regenesys Business School in Johannesburg.

In an interview with Leadership, Pant said, “Intercultural communication happens more today than was the case as little as 10 years ago. This has in turn driven the need to be more culturally sensitive and culturally competent than ever before.”

Studies in business and human resources show that cultural competence is a critical success factor in business leadership, and Pant believes no differently. His talk in Sandton, Johannesburg was focused on cultural competence for the global marketplace.

Becoming culturally intelligent

But what exactly is cultural competence, and how does one acquire it? “Cultural competence, to me, means awareness and acceptance of cultural differences combined with the ability to adapt and work effectively across cultures,” says Pant.

The term came into existence and use not much more than 25 years ago. It came out of academic research and dialogue happening at that time that was related to racial and gender diversity, and sensitivity to race and gender and the power dynamics surrounding these. Most of this research did not address cultural diversity directly, but, concurrent with globalisation, this has changed, according to Pant.

Since then, a number of tests have been devised to measure an individual’s cultural competence, but the most commonly understood basis for understanding cultural competence is the concept of CQ—cultural quotient or cultural intelligence. David Livermore, author of The Cultural Intelligence Difference, defines cultural intelligence as “the ability to be effective across various cultural contexts—including national, ethnic, organisational, generational and ideological contexts.” It is becoming common in the human resources and business fields to use an individual’s CQ as a predictor of adjustment and performance and in multicultural settings.

Natural or learnt behaviour?

Some people seem to have innate cultural intelligence, while others need to learn and improve theirs through experience or training. P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, writing in the Harvard Business Review, say that while cultural intelligence is related to emotional intelligence (EQ), it goes further than emotional intelligence. Having a high EQ helps a person to understand what makes us different from one another, but also to understand, intuitively, what makes us human. Having a high CQ, on the other hand, helps a person to be tease out of a person’s or group’s behaviour those features that are universal, those features that are unique to this person or group, and those features that are neither. “The vast realm that lies between those two poles is culture,” say P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski.

Livermore writes that many of the current approaches to effective intercultural interaction are either too complex (“Don’t go anywhere until you’re a cross-cultural guru”) or too simplistic (“Smile, avoid these three taboos and you’ll be fine”). The tenets of cultural intelligence provide a better—and more realistic—approach.

As mentioned above, cultural intelligence is defined as the ability to operate effectively across ethnic, organisational and national cultures. According to Livermore, four consistent capabilities have emerged out of research on people who behave effectively in culturally diverse contexts (people who high cultural intelligence):

1. Knowledge: Understanding of cultures and how they are different and similar,

2. Drive: A high level of motivation to adapt across cultures,

3. Strategy: Awareness and ability to plan in light of cultural understanding, and

4. Action: Knowing when to adapt and when not to adapt when engaging interculturally.

Livermore writes that an international community of scholars has developed an academically tested scale for measuring these four CQ 

capabilities. “Growing numbers of governments, businesses, and charitable organisations
are using CQ assessments to assess and im-prove their effectiveness in today’s globalised world,” he writes.

Leaders take note

The increased need for cultural intelligence has huge implications for leadership, too. As Livermore writes, “A leader’s cultural intelligence may easily be the single greatest difference between thriving in the 21st-century world and becoming obsolete.”

“Studies in business and human resources show that cultural competence is a critical success factor in business leadership,” says Pant. According to Pant, it is not enough to have the requisite capabilities of a leader, such as the ability to inspire and lead by example; leaders must have the ability to detect and hire competent, multicultural managers in their team and be highly culturally intelligent themselves.

Pant also shares some of the pitfalls of being ignorant or neglectful of the CQ factor. He says many international companies have seen negative outcomes, such as not gaining trust of a potential business partner due to their insistence on discussing business and not investing enough time or effort in building a relationship, as well as not being able to read between the lines, and, therefore, misinterpreting what is being said at business meetings.

“In today’s globalised business world, cultural competence is a necessity, not a luxury,” he says. “There are myriad examples of cross-border deals that have not materialised or collapsed, largely due to lack of cultural sensitivity and/or competence among those involved. Moreover, the workplace itself is increasingly becoming more multicultural, not just in South Africa
but globally. You cannot function well today
as a leader without having sufficiently high cultural intelligence.

The path to cultural competence

Pant himself has ample personal and professional experience in intercultural communication, having travelled extensively. He says, “I was born in Zambia and lived there until I finished my secondary education. I was doing my A-levels in the UK when I was informed by USAID [United States Agency for International Development] that I had been awarded a full scholarship under the African Scholarship Programme of American Universities to pursue studies in engineering at the University of Rochester in New York State.

“I returned to Zambia after my graduate studies only to find out that, sadly, I couldn’t apply what I had learned in the United States very well in Zambia. So, after a year and half, I emigrated to the US.”

After completing his undergraduate degree in engineering, Pant went on to do a Master’s degree in communications from Indiana University. After this he worked internationally in regional leadership positions for organisations like Turner Broadcasting/Time Warner in India, Sony in the US and Japan, and the Educational Testing Service in Singapore, and so continued on his path from leader to educator in intercultural communication.

“Growing up and working in southern Africa, and then working for global technology and media companies such as Tektronix, Sony and Turner Broadcasting/CNN in North America, I was exposed to intercultural communication in business and social settings on a daily basis, without my consciously knowing it”, Pant says.

“I was finishing my assignment in India as Turner Broadcasting (CNN)’s first President for South Asia, and I began noticing a glaring need, among young IT professionals in India who were being dispatched to international destinations, to develop the necessary 21st-century “people skills” that included cultural awareness.

Pant started teaching global people skills workshops to professionals working at multinational companies in South/South East Asia, via a training company he founded in New Delhi. “I had previously learnt through observation and making mistakes, and it was at this time, when I formed my own professional development company, that I began taking interest in and researching the field of intercultural communication more formally,” he says.“Being the son of an educator, I jumped into the arena of professional education from both business and personal perspectives.”

Bringing CQ to the world

Pant has been an avid practitioner of intercultural communication ever since, delivering his lectures and courses on cultural competence all over the world. “About 10 years ago, after launching my training company from India, I began integrating key research findings into my own experience-based lectures and courses, which I delivered later in other parts of Asia,” he says.

He later addressed wider audiences while heading the professional training arm of the Graduate School for International Training in Vermont, teaching intercultural communication seminars in North America and Asia.

More recently, Pant has conducted intercultural workshops for undergraduates, staff, and professional students at MIT, taught a course at the University of Argentina in Buenos Aires, and taught a management course at the
Harvard Extension.

When asked about the MIT/Regenesys Business School collaborative International Leadership Development Programme (ILDP) for South Africans, Pant says, “The relationship between MIT Professional Education and Regenesys is a vey new one. It came about earlier this year specifically as a result of our agreement to contribute training modules to a leadership programme developed specifically for managers from previously disadvantaged communities working in the Transportation and Logistics sectors. That resonated with our mission of global outreach and our objective specifically of getting engaged more with Africa and with South Africa in particular.”

Pant’s graduation lecture at the Regenesys Business School, “Cultural Competence for the Global Marketplace,” was pertinent to the ILDP course, which is intended to help students become global leaders. Pant says the students left with a radically different way of thinking about, analysing and offering solutions to problems in their respective workplaces.

“They were trained to be able to see things first from a macro perspective, then breaking down to smaller issues that they could address in a systematic manner. Most importantly and happily, they left feeling empowered to be able to recommend and implement solutions to what they may have considered to be intractable problems, even in their own immediate areas.

“We [MIT] consider ourselves fortunate to have been able to play a role in the development of entrepreneurial leadership among what
may very well be some of the future ‘game changers’ in South Africa’s transportation and logistics sectors.”

National CQ

South Africans are arguably already equipped with a measure of cultural intelligence, given our multicultural society. When asked if he agreed with this assertion, Pant says it is a complex question, and that the legacy of Apartheid —which resulted in segregation and division of different ethnic groups, and the institutional dominance of white South Africans over other South Africans—had to be taken into account.

“South Africa’s population of multiple cultures and ethnic groups has provided and is providing today a great backdrop for cultural competence. However, so much of the past experience, due to racial separation and prejudice, was fueled by negative stereotypes. Those feelings still persist in many ways, even today, because the process of reconciliation is relatively new and is still ongoing. Also, South Africa was isolated in so many ways from the rest of the world for so many years.

“That said, I am impressed with the speed with which so many people, particularly members of the younger generation, are adapting to the new, democratic South Africa, working well across racial and ethnic divides and shedding the previously strongly held stereotypes about each other. They are also getting exposed more and more to global business cultures within their workplace. Additionally, I am seeing evidence of inherent fast learning and adaptation among South African professionals. All of
these are good predictors of eventual global cultural competence.

To the question of whether South Africa or the US has a higher average CQ, Pant says that while we should be careful of generalising, South Africans are likely better equipped to communicate interculturally.

“At the risk of generalising, the cultural competence of the average US citizen is lower than it should be for a citizen of a major global economy. The average US citizen hasn’t travelled much within or outside the US and may not have socialised with members of other ethnicities and cultures, even though workplaces have been racially diverse for a very long time.

“This profile is rapidly changing, however, with the advances of the younger generation, who readily socialise with members of other cultures and ethnicities, who travel a lot more than their parents, and who are increasingly involved at work in global commerce. Cultural competence, however, needs training and
practise to supplement cultural awareness—it is not automatic.” 

Sarah Johnston

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