The Connection between Creativity and Intercultural Competence

If I were to ask you what it takes to be effective across cultures, what comes to mind? If you are anything like me, then you have probably started to rattle off some of the classics: self-awareness, open-mindedness, curiosity, flexibility—maybe communication skills. All important.

But where is creativity in this picture? And why isn’t it closer to the top of the list when it comes to what it takes to be effective when working across cultures?

You could argue that creativity is an output of some of the above: if you are open-minded, curious, and flexible, you are likely to be able to be more creative, which will help you to be more effective. But I think it’s worth highlighting the importance of creativity as a stand-alone competency for working across cultures—especially when it comes not just to being aware of cultural differences, but being able to develop effective bridging solutions to differences you may experience.

Take Morfie, our newly named CD animal mascot, as an example. Sure, he may be curious as he scuttles across the ocean floor, but what makes him effective is his creative problem-solving in the face of challenging situations: his ability to morph himself into another sea-creature to ward off danger.

The importance of creativity is something I learned the hard way. When I first moved to Japan, I moved into an apartment subsidized by the company I was working for. There were all kinds of problems with the apartment when I arrived (for example, the heating was broken and it was the middle of winter in Sapporo—yes, the same location as the Winter Olympics in 1972). What would you do in this situation?

My initial instinct was to take a more ‘American’ approach—to take my contract in to my employer, highlight the conditions outlined in the contract that had not been met, and ask for these to be amended. But I wasn’t in the US. I was in Japan, a more relationship-focused and indirect culture. Surely going in and making these kinds of demands and pointing to a contract would not exactly start me off on the right foot with my employer, I thought.

So instead, I tried a more indirect approach. When they asked me how things were in the apartment, I remember trying to be subtle about naming some of the problems. I think at one juncture I might have even said something like, “This is the first time I’ve lived in an apartment where frost and ice forms on the insides of windows.” I kid you not. This raises a whole other topic of the ineffectiveness that can often happen when more direct speakers try to be more indirect.

The point of that story, beyond revealing how much I had to learn about Japanese culture when I arrived, was that I was far from creative in my solving of that situation. In my mind, I had two options: take the American approach, or take the Japanese approach (at least my limited understanding of it at that juncture). Be direct or indirect. It was bifurcated, dichotomized, overly simplified, and therefore ineffective.
  • What if I had invited some of my colleagues over to my apartment for a meal, during which they could have experienced the issues first-hand?
  • What if I had asked a colleague for a recommendation for a repair service? Or even asked them to call a repair company for me, since I had yet to learn the Japanese word for moldy?
  • What if I had written to the American colleague whose role I was taking over and asked him what he would do in this situation?

The point being, I could have and should have considered a lot more creative solutions here, but simply didn’t. And that’s really the point. Often when we are working across cultures, we stop at the first, most obvious answer, and that’s a limitation.

The good news is that my little housing adventure in Japan likely has helped me to become more creative—and it certainly proved the need for me to do so. Interestingly, recent research at Northwestern University in the US and INSEAD in France has highlighted that individuals who have lived abroad often demonstrate higher levels of creativity on classic ‘creative problem solving’ tasks.

That said, waiting until you are stuck in challenging intercultural dilemmas to flex your creativity muscles—or relying solely on living abroad to develop the muscle, doesn’t seem the right answer. It’s the kind of thing that you want to have so ingrained in you, that when you are faced with a tough situation, you naturally think through a number of different possibilities. In essence, it’s about learning to be Morfie-like, to be able to quickly run through a rolodex of possible options as to how to transform yourself effectively in those situations—and to continually be expanding your repertoire of possible options.

Developing your creative problem-solving skills is one of four main competencies we focus on in the newly released Cultural Detective Bridging Cultures for that reason. In the package, we go through a series of exercises that help people to expand their solution space—to really get beyond solutions of the generic, ‘he should get cross-cultural training, she should take the other person out to dinner’ nature. In an earlier post I shared with you an exercise to get started.

One really useful technique that we practice in the package comes from the work of Michael Michalko, a pioneer in creativity. It’s called challenging assumptions. The process is simple. When you are faced with a challenging situation, you name all the assumptions you are making about those situations and challenge those assumptions. The premise is that often the way we frame a problem limits the potential solutions to it.

If we go back to my Japan example, I made a lot of assumptions:
  • that I couldn’t take a typically American approach (yet my colleagues were very accustomed to working with US Americans)
  • that my colleagues were typically Japanese (they may have been attracted to the company I was working with very specifically because it wasn’t typically Japanese)
  • that the solution lied in me adjusting the way I communicated, from a more direct to indirect style (versus, for example, emphasizing another shared value we had), etc.

Challenging even just one of the assumptions would have opened up a lot of other options for me to effectively address this situation.

The experience I had in Japan was ten years ago now, but the lesson it taught me about the importance of creativity is invaluable. I now adopt a number of different creativity techniques regularly in my work. Beyond challenging assumptions, I also regularly change my physical location to prompt me to think about things differently, and I use techniques like thinking through analogies and wearing the hat of the other individual to help me identify more creative and effective solutions.

I would love to hear your experiences with creativity as they relate to intercultural problem solving: whether you’ve experienced situations similar to mine in Japan where it would have served you to be more creative; whether you’ve found other techniques that have helped you to continue to develop truly innovative intercultural solutions; even whether I should challenge the assumption I now have that creativity is a powerful, often overlooked skill in intercultural problem solving.

4 thoughts on “The Connection between Creativity and Intercultural Competence

  1. Kate,

    You have made some really important points in this article! It is true that creativity is often ignored or is emphasized less when we talk about intercultural skills but creativity is very important when interacting across cultures. We can also gain creativity from working in a diverse environment. I think the key here is to question your assumptions. This is an important lesson especially for people who consider themselves “culturally aware” because, as you said above, knowing something about Japanese culture, it might be easy to assume that we must follow a certain kind of indirect communication style in Japan when there are a number of other factors that could be important to consider. Great article, thanks a lot!


  2. Reblogged this on DiversiPro Inc. and commented:
    The challenging and often jolting journey towards creative and innovative solutions to complex problems should be accompanied with greater intercultural competence — greater self-awareness, reflection and the ability to bridge across differences. Two people staring at an abstract painting may see different things, have different emotions; but rather than diminishing the work, enhances it. National Geographic photographer John Dewitt says creativity occurs when we move, to look at the world (and other people) from a different perspective; placing ourselves in the place of maximum potential.


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