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Are you grappling with a cultural puzzle? Then I heartily recommend this article from the Harvard Business Review by Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, which I find to be very much in sympathy with my approach to working across cultures.

The article identifies a number of contexts where cross-cultural intelligence becomes essential. There are a number of examples quoted involving much more than just nationality; corporate culture, gender, norms of different disciplines and professions as well as individual personality all show up as drivers of cultural behaviour. Some of the case studies identify very succinctly how the different aspects can interact

The authors use a model of Head, Body and Heart to describe the dimensions of cultural intelligence.

In Head, we are encouraged to use learning strategies to observe and interpret behaviour we see over time to inform our understanding. Because cultural behaviour will vary from person to person, your first impressions may not represent the whole picture. I encourage my clients to develop an attitude of curiosity and an ability to consciously notice behaviours before rushing to make judgements. This requires the development of some patience to gather evidence before rushing on to analysis and interpretation.

In Body, the authors suggest that when your body language is concurrent with the other culture, it’s easier to generate trust and openness. This will include greetings and the use of personal space. Such issues are often very deeply ingrained in us and perhaps because we are not conscious of them, they are very important to us. In my personal mantra of decide where to fit in and where to stand out, this area is the one where fitting in might be the most crucial way to achieving rapport and success.

In Heart the authors describe the importance of personal confidence and tenacity in overcoming cultural obstacles and setbacks. I subscribe to Dr. Seligman’s belief in rational optimism. As long as we see cultural obstacles as temporary, changeable and not personal, we will be able to accurately assess problems and find good solutions.

The article gives an excellent picture of the skills required to have cultural intelligence in understanding cross-cultural puzzles. But the next challenge is in deciding how to act to maximise your influence. This is where coaching can help you decide what needs to be done to create the success you want. What can you bring to the mix? In deciding where to fit in and where to stand out, you can make conscious choices about how to act – both in congruence with the cultural context and to ensure that you have maximum impact.