Theoretical Reflections on Cultural Intelligence

Human intelligence has been defined as abilities necessary for adaptation to, as well as the selection and shaping of an environmental context (Sternberg 1997). Cultural intelligence, a form of human intelligence, has been described as an individual’s knowledge, skills, abilities, and capability to effectively manage themselves and others in cross-cultural situations and environments (Earley and Ang 2003; Thomas and Inkson 2004). Cultural intelligence is focused on the abilities to grasp, reason, and behave effectively in culturally diverse situations (Ang et al. 2007).

Numerous studies outside of the OSH discipline have shown that cultural intelligence is associated with positive outcomes in cross-cultural occupational contexts (Rockstuhl and Van Dyne 2018), including higher quality and more accurate judgment and decision-making (Ang et al. 2007; Ang et al. 2015); enhanced psychological wellbeing, greater satisfaction and commitment while working in foreign national cultures (Berry et al. 2006; Chen et al. 2011; Wu and Ang 2011; Huff 2013); task and group performance (Kraimer and Wayne 2004; Groves and Feyerherm 2011; Crotty and Brett 2012); and effective leadership (Groves and Feyerherm 2011; Rockstuhl etal. 2011).

Research has demonstrated that cultural intelligence is learnable, which lends itself to professional development initiatives in an organizational setting (Earley and Peterson 2004; Ng et al. 2009; Eisenberg et al. 2013; Mor et al. 2013). For example, research in the healthcare industry has shown that cultural intelligence among healthcare professionals is partly acquired through leadership, indicating that leadership-based initiatives should be considered when trying to improve culturally competent strategies (Dauvrin and Lorant 2015).

Further, psychometric measurement devices have been developed thereby increasing its application in a research setting (Ang et al. 2007; Thomas et al. 2012; Ang and Van Dyne 2015; Thomas et al. 2015).

Drawing on Sternberg and Detterman’s (1986) view of intelligence, cultural intelligence is theorized to be a holistic capability comprised of four unique dimensions: metacognitive, cognitive (knowledge), motivational, and behavioral (Earley and Ang 2003; Ang and Van Dyne 2015; Rockstuhl and Van Dyne 2018). Although competing theories of cultural intelligence limit its dimensions to cognitive/knowledge, skills, and metacognition (e.g., Thomas et al. 2008), for the purpose of an initial application of the concept to OSH, a broad discussion of the four-factor model is presented.

The motivational component has been defined as the capability to direct and sustain energy and focus applied towards learning about different cultures and functioning in cross-cultural situations (Ang et al. 2007; Leung et al. 2014). Given the theorized link between cognition and motivation, Leung et al. (2014) argue that motivation affects whether, and to what extent, an individual directs energy to learn about and understand culturally different others accurately. A lack of individual motivation to intelligently and positively interact with people from different cultures is, therefore, a barrier in the mastery of the remaining forms of the concept. Thus, individuals that are not interested in, or unwilling to learn and sustain culturally intelligent social interactions, will likely not be good candidates to lead cross-cultural organizational initiatives.

The knowledge and behavioral dimensions of cultural intelligence deal with what an individual knows about another culture and what they can do with that knowledge in order to produce a desired result in cross-cultural contexts (Thomas et al. 2008). Cultural knowledge consists of both declarative, content specific knowledge (i.e., recognizing the existence of other cultures and defining the nature of those differences) as well as tacit or process specific knowledge (i.e., intelligence originating from social experience with culturally different others) (Thomas et al. 2015). It consists of an individual’s actual knowledge of the specific norms, practices, values, and customs in different cultures and how it likely influences behavior and interactions (Ang et al. 2007; Thomas et al. 2008). This type of knowledge, which includes an understanding of the economic, legal, and social systems as well as the values and norms emphasized within different cultures (Ang et al. 2007), is critical as it provides the basis for intelligent decision-making in cross-cultural situations (Van Dyne et al. 2009). Thomas et al. (2008) described cultural knowledge as the foundation of cultural intelligence because it is the source for comprehending and decoding the behavior of ourselves as well as others. Knowledge of cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, and norms allows for a more accurate prediction and attribution of others’ behavior, both of which lead to more effective cross-cultural interactions. In terms of cultural knowledge, Thomas et al. (2015) elaborated that “recognizing the existence of other cultures and defining the nature of difference between them are indicative of the mental processes that are at the core of a systems definition of intelligence” (ibid., 1101).

The behavioral form of cultural intelligence refers to the outward manifestations and overt actions of individuals - it refers to what people do and say rather than what they think (Ang et al. 2007) and results in effective cross-cultural interactions when supported by adequate knowledge and metacognition (Thomas et al. 2008). It encompasses an individual’s ability to be behaviorally flexible in cross-cultural situations (Leung et al. 2014; Ang and Van Dyne 2015; Rockstuhl and Van Dyne 2018).

Examples of specific types of behavior that can be adapted include how communication is carried out, the tone used during the course of verbal and written interactions, and the proper display of emotions (Emmerling and Boyatzis 2012; Eisenberg et al. 2013). Cross-cultural behavior also accounts for non-verbal gestures such as recognition of physical space, dress codes, and the recognition of norms related to time management (Hall 1959; Eisenberg et al. 2013). As implied, this aspect of cultural intelligence requires that an individual feels comfortable exhibiting flexibility and adaptability in order to properly execute a wide portfolio of behaviors (Ang et al. 2007).

The ability to turn knowledge into effective cross-cultural interactions is strongly dependent upon the metacognitive component of cultural intelligence. Metacognition has been defined as knowledge and control over one’s thinking and learning activities (Thomas et al. 2008) and it “involves the ability to consciously and deliberately monitor one’s knowledge processes and cognitive and affective states, and also to regulate these states in relation to some goal or objective” (Thomas et al. 2015,1102). Van Dyne and colleagues (2009) argue that these higher order cognitive processes allow individuals to evaluate and revise their thinking, indicating that an increased sense of awareness, accuracy, and response to such situations can improve over time. Thomas et al. (2015) argue that key features of cultural metacognition include awareness of the cultural context, conscious analysis of the influence of the cultural context, and planning courses of action in different cultural contexts.

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