Cross-cultural competency tools

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Written by Jenny Plaister-Ten on 1 February 2014 in Features

Jenny Plaister-Ten outlines three alternative approaches

According to an international study from the British Council, employers now place a high level of importance upon intercultural skills1. Skills such as 'demonstrating respect for others', 'building trust' and 'working effectively in diverse teams' were more important than formal qualifications.

Yet, even though we now live and work in multi-cultural societies and workplaces, there is still seemingly little emphasis placed upon the importance of acquiring these skills.

This article suggests that, to become interculturally adept, training and coaching solutions need to incorporate methods that raise awareness of the fact that culture has an impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour and, therefore, in an organisational context, our leadership style.

It examines three methods for doing so and compares and contrasts them. The first is The International Profiler from WorldWork Ltd. TIP is a personal development tool with an online assessment. It measures how much energy a person puts into each of the dimensions that have been identified through research to be critical to the effective functioning of international assignees or multi-cultural teams.

The second is from the field of cultural intelligence (CQ). Building on the work of Sternberg's multiple loci of intelligences, the CQ profiler measures a person's effectiveness in an intercultural context. It provides a multi-rater element and a four-step model with the following elements: CQ drive, CQ knowledge, CQ strategy and CQ action. It provides for a structured and logical sequence through which to develop an intercultural engagement.

The third is mine and was developed initially as part of a masters degree in coaching and mentoring practice and then subsequently tested in practice. The Cross-Cultural Kaleidoscope is a tool designed to raise culturally-derived awareness and to raise culturally-appropriate responsibility2 and takes a systems perspective upon the need to consider how external factors such as societal or cultural norms, or the economy, may be  affecting our emotions, thoughts, behaviours and decisions and, as a consequence, our leadership styles.

The International Profiler

What makes an individual highly effective in transferring professional skills to an unfamiliar, cross-cultural context? This was the question that WorldWork Ltd sought to answer when developing its TIP tool. More than 5,000 profiles have since been completed by people in more than 100 countries, 52 per cent of whom have lived outside their home country.

TIP is a questionnaire that explores the relative energy, emphasis and attention professionals bring to the competency set when involved in transferring their skills to unfamiliar, cross-cultural contexts. The ten competences and 22 dimensions are divided into 'push' and 'pull' categories. Push competences are those that are 'pushed out' with clarity for other people to understand and accept. Pull competences, on the other hand, are those that begin with the other first; pulling their world into ours by examining their perspective first.

Here is a summary of the competences:

  • openness
    • new thinking - receptive to new ideas
    • welcoming strangers - keen to build relationships with new people with different experiences, perceptions, and values
    • acceptance - positively accepts different behaviour and working practices
  • flexibility
    • behaviour - adapts easily to a range of different social and cultural situations
    • judgments - avoids coming to quick and definitive conclusions about new people and situations
    • learning languages - motivated to learn and use the specific languages of important business contacts
  • personal autonomy
    • inner purpose - strong personal values and beliefs that provide consistency or balance when dealing with unfamiliar circumstances
    • focus on goals - sets specific goals in international projects, combined with persistency in achieving them
  • emotional strength
    • resilience - risks making mistakes as a way of learning. Tends to 'bounce back' when things go wrong
    • coping - able to deal with change and pressure even in unfamiliar situations
    • spirit of adventure - seeks out variety, change and stimulation in life; avoiding safety and predictability
  • perceptiveness
    • attuned - picks up meaning from indirect signals such as intonation, eye contact and body language
    • reflected awareness - very conscious of how they come across to others
  • listening orientation
    • active listening - checks and clarifies rather than assumes understanding
  • transparency
    • clarity of communication - a 'low-risk' style that minimises the potential for misunderstandings
    • exposing intentions - signals positive intentions and puts needs into a clear and explicit context
  • cultural knowledge
    • information gathering - takes time and interest to learn about unfamiliar cultures; deepens their understanding of those they know
    • valuing differences - sensitive to how people see the world differently. Keen to communicate respect for them
  • influencing
    • rapport - exhibits warmth and attentiveness when building relationships
    • range of styles - has a variety of means for influencing people
    • sensitivity to context - understands and leverages political power
  • synergy
    • creating new alternatives - combines different cultural perspectives to create a 'third culture'.

Strengths of the tool

The International Profiler is a development, rather than an assessment, tool. There is nothing good or bad associated with high and low scores; rather, there are good and bad implications of both. For example, too much focus on individual goals can be at the expense of creating rapport or synergies.

It is at its most powerful when it correlates with other dimensions, for example too low an emphasis on reflected awareness can cause barriers to trust, especially when coupled with low rapport.

Weaknesses of the tool

There are many competences and it is a lot to assimilate during the feedback session. Sometimes the competences can seem like common sense and/or personality traits rather than intercultural competences, for example openness or flexibility.

How to use it

A certified consultant will administer the link to an online questionnaire where 80 questions take about 40 minutes to complete. It is available in English, French, Italian and German.

It may be used as a platform for coaching global leaders or international assignees, face to face or at a distance, through the identification of three or four areas for development. It can be used during training sessions to illuminate the competences required for effective intercultural working.

The Cultural Intelligence Profiler

What's the difference between individuals and organisations that are effective in today's globalised, multicultural world and those that fail? This question led to Ang, Van Dyne and Koh's definition of cultural intelligence (CQ) as "a person's capability to function effectively in situations characterised by cultural diversity"3.

The Cultural Intelligence Scale (CQS) has been validated and peer-reviewed and published in more than 70 academic journals. It measures various forms of non-academic intelligence and has been found to be a reliable measure of a person's ability to function effectively in culturally diverse situations. CQ also predicts ability to adjust in situations characterised by cultural diversity.

A self-assessment is available online along with a multi-rater (360°) version. The views of five to seven other people are compared with the self-perception and gaps may be identified.

The CQS scale measures four factors of CQ

CQ-Drive is motivation. Not everyone is interested in experiencing other cultures and engaging with people from them. Motivational CQ is about how much energy a person applies toward learning about, and placing themselves in, cross-cultural situations. It therefore considers the value or importance that people place on culturally diverse interactions as well as their self-confidence that they can function effectively.

CQ-Knowledge is much more than reading a guide book or doing a Google search about a country. It reflects a person's understanding of how cultures are similar and different, and their knowledge of how the external environment operates, such as legal systems, cultural norms, religious beliefs, values and language.

CQ-Strategy is how a person makes sense of inter-cultural experiences and operates at a meta-cognition level. So, someone with strong CQ strategy would make plans before an inter-cultural encounter, check assumptions and adjust their thinking when the reality is different from expectations. This can be used to circumvent judgmental thinking about another (which it is human nature to do). And it measures whether the individual can go beyond cultural awareness to effectively develop strategies in the light of cultural differences.

CQ-Action is a person's ability to adapt his behaviour so it is appropriate for different cultures. It includes having a flexible repertoire of behavioural responses and the ability to modify verbal and non-verbal behaviour for the context.

Strengths of the tool

One of the big strengths of the CQ profile is the multi-rater capability. A person may compare his own self-perception with the opinions of selected others and identify gaps that provide a flag for further development. The CQ model is easy to understand and strategies to enhance CQ are easily identifiable. The four factors of CQ use language that is accepted in organisations, and therefore is not seen as too 'soft', and the academic reliability is extensive. Its predictive capabilities should prevent organisations from making costly mistakes when selecting people for international assignments.

Weaknesses of the tool

Again, despite the rigour of the research behind CQ, it can seem like common sense.

How to use it

A certified consultant will administer the link to an online questionnaire and will feed back the participant's results. Used as a development tool, the four categories provide a structured approach to identifying areas on which to work. It can be used at team and organisational levels as a leadership tool.

The Cross-Cultural Kaleidoscope

How important is it for the coach to have an understanding of a coachee from a different worldview? This question continues to have significance in training and coaching that takes place in and among multi-cultural societies, workplaces and teams, and informed the Cross-Cultural Kaleidoscope model.

The imagery of a kaleidoscope places the global leader, and consequently his coach, in an environment that is dynamic, with multiple influences interweaving and interchanging from the external environment. The external environment provides the context and the internal self provides the meaning of all of these influences. Yet, our cultural values and beliefs are often held subconsciously and it can therefore be incumbent on the cross-cultural trainer or coach to bring them to the surface and to awareness. From awareness, cultural meanings may be explored.

The internal lens The 'cultural self' is distinct from personality in the model and represents the thoughts, feelings and emotions held by an individual about his own cultural identity.

The external lenses These represent a lens through which an issue may be examined and which, in turn, have a bearing on the thoughts, feelings and decisions that drive behaviour. Here is a brief snapshot of the lenses, with some examples:

  • the legal/political/education lens In those countries where there are very strict rules and harsh punishments, and/or rote methods of education, compliance can follow. This can have an impact on a person's attitude to authority, creativity and risk
  • the religious/spiritual lens This can illuminate the religious mandates that guide beliefs and behaviours and, on occasions, may drive, or get in the way of, action
  • the community lens Examining factors such as family communities, for example, can provide some clues about the levels of social responsibility a person might exhibit, along with his levels of allegiance to a particular group
  • the cultural norms lens Taking a societal-level of enquiry and its impact on the individual can, for example, help to identify constructs such as guilt and shame. For example, imagine the potential to feel shame by those people who live with the cultural norm of respect for elders if they witness an elderly person being shouted at
  • the diversity lens A diversity lens accommodates ethnicity, age and gender differences
  • the historic lens History brings with it many opportunities to examine the psyche of the person and the impact his country's history may have made upon his leadership style or ability to be led. Imagine the effects of slavery, for example, if you come from the South of America
  • the economic lens Examining the economic structure or structures that a leader has been influenced by over his lifespan can bring some insights into how they lead. During economically challenging conditions, for example, leadership qualities such as decision-making and planning may not be manifest
  • the geography/climate lens Proxemics4, or the impact of climate, noise level and light, can all have a bearing upon how people interact. Thus, in densely populated areas such as Hong Kong, there is less respect for personal space as compared with, say, the United States.

Strengths of the tool

This model is primarily an awareness-building tool and that is its key strength where there is generally a lack of awareness about the impact of culture. It takes a systems view, incorporating the external factors that can have a bearing on thoughts, emotions and behaviours, and therefore can be adapted to the context. There is no prescriptive way to use it. An online visual image helps to embed the concepts.

Weaknesses of the tool

It may at first appear complex. It may be perceived to be 'contaminating' the training or coaching engagement with the suggestion that there are cultural issues where there may be none.

How to use it

  • To raise the awareness of the trainer/coach of the impact of culture on his values and beliefs and to the risk of projection in the relationship
  • To identify which of the lenses holds the most resonance as a starting point for conversation
  • To identify the 'cultural self/selves' - working at the level of cultural identity
  • To identify the impact of external influences upon leadership styles
  • To identify cultural imperatives and conflicting internal values
  • To create culturally-appropriate choice and behavioural change
  • To 'unlearn' those cultural values that no longer work given a change of context.

There are enormous risks and huge costs associated with putting the wrong person in an international post. Furthermore, a multi-cultural team may be derailed or fail to reach its full potential. Increased awareness of the need for cross-cultural competences can surely help. All of the above tools are based upon research. Each addresses the hidden complexities of culture. According to Hall, "culture hides more than it reveals and what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants"5.

This means that the coach must be aware of the risk of making assumptions that are made from his own cultural lens. It can mean that the impact of culture is not typically felt until you are outside of your own. Hofstede explains that identifying culture-related behaviour is difficult: "It takes a prolonged stay abroad and mixing with other nationals there for us to recognise the numerous and often subtle differences in the ways they and we behave, because that is how our society has programmed us." 6

A survey conducted in 2006 suggests that interculturalists who practice outside of their home country emphasise the need for what WorldWork refers to as the 'pull' competences: the softer skillsets associated with adaptability to the other7.  Those who have not lived overseas tend to emphasise the 'push' competences associated with driving their own or their organisation' s outcomes through, which, if not handled with cultural sensitivity, could be perceived to be oppressive at worst and disrespectful at best. Imagine the cost to organisations of not realising this.

The issue remains that responding to the impact of culture appears to many people to be either common sense or becomes confused with personality traits. Openness, for example, is indeed a personality trait that to some people is innate. The CQ approach claims to have taken this into account while the Cross-Cultural Kaleidoscope does not incorporate competences but provides a working model designed to raise awareness to the cultural context.

Whichever tool is selected, they do not stand alone. It is critical that training and/or coaching programmes are designed around them to develop the effective functioning of global leaders, international assignees, multi-cultural and remote teams or during international mergers and acquisitions. Significantly, all three tools provide a starting point for an intercultural programme that can support group training as well as ongoing team or personal development. This may be facilitated by a coach who is specialised in the intercultural arena and can therefore help to make the training 'stick'.


1 British Council Culture At Work, The value of intercultural skills in the workplace (2013)

2 Plaister-Ten J The International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring Practice (2013)

3 Ang S, Van Dyne L, Koh C S K “Personality correlates of the four factor model of cultural intelligence” Group and Organization Management 31 (2005)

4 Hall T E The Hidden Dimension Anchor Books (1966)

5 Hall T E The Silent Language Anchor Books (1959)

6 Hofstede G Culture’s Consequences, Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across Nations Sage Publications (2001)


About the author

Jenny Plaister-Ten is a cross-cultural, coach, consultant and trainer who uses all three of the tools mentioned in this article in her practice. She can be contacted via


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