Learning Other Cultures

Cultural intelligence is an essential skill for graduates who take international jobs or work on diverse teams.
Learning Other Cultures

THE RAPID INCREASE of globalization over the past few years means that record numbers of business school graduates now interact with significantly different cultures on a daily basis as they take international assignments or join globally distributed teams. This has created an acute need for employees, managers, and organizations to become more cross-culturally competent.

This need is exacerbated by the fact that 42 percent of overseas assignments are judged to be failures, according to a June 4, 2013, article on QZ.com. Previous research from INSEAD’s Manfred Kets de Vries yielded the worrying statistic that failure rates range anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent, with destination playing an important role in success or failure. Furthermore, expatriate assignments are known to be expensive, sometimes costing more than three times an employee’s annual salary. The cost can be even higher if the assignment is deemed a failure.

Nonetheless, companies will continue sending employees on international assignments and assembling international teams. This means that most executives will find it not only desirable, but essential, to acquire cross-cultural competence. In fact, several studies— including one from Paul Earley and Randall Peterson in 2004 and one from You-Jin Kim and Linn Van Dyne in 2012—have shown just that. The research demonstrates that, when employees are posted overseas or teamed up with diverse colleagues, cross-cultural experiences and skills are direct predictors of managerial performance.

But there are even stronger reasons for executives to develop cultural awareness. Leaders who operate in a global environment need to feel confident and optimistic as they build strong relationships, encourage cooperation, and develop common goals with their counterparts across borders. They must connect people and transfer knowledge on both a local and a global level.

Very often, people think they understand a foreign culture when all they know are the basic do’s and don’ts, such as how to bow or when to hand over a business card. Much more important is the ability to recognize how the culture views right and wrong, what basic values people have, and how other people might interpret events in fundamentally different ways.

For business leaders to develop deep bonds and build consensus with people from different cultures, they first must understand what drives the beliefs and behaviors of their diverse colleagues.


In the management education field, we had been au fait with the idea of IQ (intellectual quotient) for years when Daniel Goleman introduced a new kind of intelligence in 1995. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, examines how we recognize, understand, and manage emotions—our own, as well as other people’s. The concept of EQ often comes to mind when we think of “great” leaders.

Leaders must understand what drives the beliefs of their diverse colleagues.

Yet, in a volatile world where workers move constantly across the globe, we need still another kind of competence: cultural intelligence. CQ combines aspects of IQ and EQ and operates in four areas:

Cognitive CQ is knowledge about context-specific facts, such as social, economic, and legal systems in various cultures. High cognitive CQ helps people form more accurate expectations and makes them less likely to misinterpret cultural behaviors.

Behavioral CQ is the ability to behave according to different cultural practices and to use the appropriate verbal and nonverbal behavior. The classic example is greeting: Do you shake hands, bow, or do something completely different? But, of course, human interactions are much more complex. For instance, verbal behavior will vary according to culture. Who speaks? How loudly? Other implicit codes of communication also come into play: silences, hesitations, instances of uncomfortable behavior, or indirect references.

Motivational CQ is the energy that allows people to deal with unfamiliar situations or to handle the stress associated with problematic interactions. This skill allows people to “become comfortable with being uncomfortable.” People with motivational CQ show that they are interested in the language, the culture, and the history of their counterparts— that they enjoy being there and they are eager to learn.

Metacognitive CQ is the ability to comprehend cultural knowledge and select appropriate responses. Leaders with good metacognitive CQ constantly check that their actions are appropriate for a specific cultural context and develop strategies for future encounters.

While the four CQ dimensions are considered conceptually independent of each other, they tend to work together.


As the workforce grows more diverse and mobile, a range of stakeholders with an interest in business are paying more attention to cultural intelligence. For instance, multinational corporations and other organizations have begun offering special training programs to their expatriate or sojourner personnel.

Young people who are about to enter the workforce are demonstrating a growing cultural sensitivity. Many already have a social conscience and are concerned about issues such as racism and sustainability. When they enroll at a business school, they expect to learn how to have a positive impact on the world through courses on cross-cultural management, ethics, corporate social responsibility, diversity, and global leadership. Indeed, business graduates cited “the ability to make an impact” as one of their chief motivations for changing jobs, according to research from CEMS–the Global Alliance in Management Education. For instance, 80 percent of these students believe their generation will be responsible for finding the solution to climate change.

Accrediting bodies also are reflecting this new imperative for cultural awareness. For instance, the accreditation standards of AACSB International explicitly state that business programs should foster sensitivity to global perspectives, expose students to cultures different from their own, and prepare graduates to pursue careers in a diverse global context.


To meet this burgeoning demand for a culturally sensitive workforce, business schools are offering a wide range of academic and experiential opportunities. Many have added cross-cultural management (CCM) courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Students take such courses to learn to be more effective in the cross-cultural encounters they will experience in their international management careers.

While the content of CCM courses varies according to the school and the teacher, programs might include topics such as leadership, identity, gender, diversity, global teams, and the role of language and language policy in determining culture. Many instructors use short cases that allow students to analyze how managers rely on different aspects of CQ in specific situations.

Some schools also promote CQ by creating class situations with mixed groups learning alongside one another. These settings make students aware of their own and others’ cultures.

Another way schools can help students develop CQ is by making language learning a priority. We know that bilinguals see the world through two different conceptual systems, which enhances their cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking, and creativity. In fact, it doesn’t seem sensible to expect a manager with only one language to be open-minded and sensitive to nuance. Therefore, CCM programs often require fluency in more than one language.


The question remains: Are programs and courses like these enough to enable business schools to teach cultural intelligence effectively? A few years ago, I worked with CEMS colleagues from the Cross-Cultural Management Faculty Group on a study that investigated the impact of CCM courses on the cultural intelligence of global students studying for the master’s in management degree. (Read more in the Academy of Management article.)

We found that CQ indeed can be enhanced via training and experience. For instance, our study showed that CCM courses act as “experience equalizers,” allowing students with less international experience to catch up with their more well-traveled peers, thus minimizing the cultural competence gap between the two groups.

Bilinguals see the world through two different conceptual systems.

More important, we found that after students took CCM courses, their overall CQ was higher, particularly in the areas of cognitive and metacognitive CQ. On the other hand, CCM classes had little effect on students’ motivational and behavioral CQ. These dimensions showed greater improvement when students had the opportunity to live for a significant amount of time in another culture.

From these results, we concluded that any education program aimed at future global leaders should include both academic and experiential cross-cultural opportunities. School leaders should realize that short-term experiential multicultural exposure, even if it is rich, does not suffice as a cross-cultural learning intervention unless specific cross-cultural training runs alongside it—and the reverse is also true.

Our conclusions are supported by several other studies. For instance, Kerri Anne Crowne’s 2008 piece on “What leads to cultural intelligence?” finds that certain types of experiences—such as study or employment abroad—increase CQ. And in research published in 2007 by Steve Sizoo, Hendrick Serrie, and Morris Shapero, the authors determine that people do not increase their cultural expertise merely by living abroad unless they also have cross-cultural training.

We aim to provide both academic and experiential opportunities through the CEMS alliance, which includes 32 international business schools, 70 multinational companies, and seven social partners. CEMS schools run international business projects with multinational business partners, and they also give students a chance to spend a semester immersed in life at a second school located in a different country and culture.


Once business schools realize that graduates with high CQ will be better employees, they should make sure corporate recruiters also understand how CCM courses prepare students to cope with culturally diverse situations and build culturally competent workplaces. Furthermore, they should encourage international companies to get involved with university programs that offer CCM training and long-term international experience.

When students—or executives—get to know and understand different cultures, they realize that there is more than one way of thinking and that no one way is better than another. Cross-cultural learning helps them become better employees, negotiators, leaders, and international citizens.

As we in the business school community educate the next generation of business leaders, we have a responsibility to nurture our students’ cultural intelligence. When carried out in the right way, CCM training creates managers who are more tolerant, accepting, and appreciative of difference—and more likely to be successful in their international endeavors.

Marie-Therese Claes is a professor of cross-cultural management at the Louvain School of Management at the University of Louvain in Belgium. She teaches on the CEMS Masters in International Management team and is part of the alliance’s Global Leadership Faculty Group.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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