How to Develop Cultural Intelligence

Whether in a foreign culture to work or study, people often find themselves in situations where the rules for appropriate behavior are different from those with which they are familiar in their native cultures. Take, for example, the case of one of my former Indian MBA students Partha.

Born and raised in India, Partha came to the MBA program at Brandeis as an information technology consultant with a keen interest in global IT. During his first year, Partha excelled in his classwork, but despite his outstanding academic performance, strong work experience, and outgoing personality, he faced a major stumbling block. Partha struggled to promote himself at career fairs and informal networking events with potential employers. Partha described the deep sense of discomfort he felt when having to network according to American cultural norms: “It was a very bad experience. I felt totally against my values and I was doing something I had thought was bragging and very indecent. I had to project my accomplishments and not be modest… All I wanted was to leave the room.”

I’ve had hundreds of students like Partha over the years – excellent students with top notch qualifications, but who struggle bridging the gap when adapting to American culture. And so to help people succeed in these situations and learn to “switch” their cultural behavior in a foreign setting, I’ve developed a four-step approach — with the acronym DARE: Diagnosis, Action, Reflection, and Evaluation.

Step 1: Diagnosis

Diagnosis involves a set of custom exercises for identifying and understanding the “rules of the game” for a chosen situation. Students work with a team of native-born cultural experts to diagnose the content and style of behavior expected in their switching situations, including distinguishing what I call the “zone of appropriateness” – the culturally acceptable range of content and style permissible in a particular cultural script. For example, appropriate style for making small-talk during an American interview requires interview candidates to behave in a positive, upbeat manner, while at the same time being polite and deferential towards the interviewer.

Acting in an overly positive manner, with an exaggerated smile and high-pitched tone, would fall outside of the zone of appropriateness for the situation, as would behaving with too much deference, bowing, or declining to make eye contact (though these behaviors might be consistent with a candidate’s native cultural expectations for this situation). The zone of appropriateness accounts for the variation in the cultural script in which we can project our own personalities and styles, but helps students understand the outer limits of expected behaviors.

Step 2: Action

Having diagnosed the cultural code, students go off into the world to practice their situations, approaching potential employers at career fairs, making small talk with strangers, and interviewing for jobs. Some of these situations are planned, such as a scheduled job interview; in other cases, students take advantage of unanticipated opportunities, such as networking during an elevator ride with company representatives at a field site for an MBA class project.

Step 3: Reflection

To help people learn from these intense experiences without becoming overwhelmed, I work hard to establish a psychologically safe culture in which they can share stories and examples with each other during our classroom sessions. Students are required to write about their experiences immediately following each attempt, using a structured set of exercises to help them process emotion and make sense of their experiences. For example, they document the level of “value conflict” they experience between the new cultural rules and their existing cultural values. They also capture the emotions they experienced before, during and after the situation and how they attempted to cope with these emotions in real time.

Step 4: Evaluation

Students are evaluated in multiple ways. Sometimes, when appropriate, colleagues can accompany them to their situations and make notes about their progress.  Or sometimes we might ask the other person in the situation after the fact to provide an evaluation. But these external evaluations are only part of the story. Students also evaluate themselves in terms of how authentic they felt.  And they also learn to pinpoint which specific aspects of the situation contributed to these feelings of authenticity or inauthenticity.

The progress students have achieved using this DARE technique has been thrilling to watch.  Students develop a sophisticated awareness of their challenges — why and how they struggle in a particular situation, and nearly all of them also start to imagine a way out.   And to me, that’s the most fulfilling aspect of this whole process.  Students move from feeling hopeless about a situation well outside their cultural comfort zone to feeling hopeful — and, in some cases, even confident — about their cultural intelligence.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017).

Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.

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