Sperm Whales and Cultural Diversity

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Image from “The Lost Culture of Whales,” by Shane Gero in The New York Times

Our annual year-end gift to each other in our family is a boat trip to visit the humpback whales in our bay in Mazatlán. They are gorgeous, and during the trip we often swim with dolphins, delight in jumping mantas, and greet sea turtles.

I just read an article about sperm whales on the other side of Mexico, in the Eastern Caribbean (The Lost Culture of Whales, in The New York Times); their populations are declining by 4% annually. Horrible, for sure, but why write about that on the Cultural Detective blog? Granted, we here at Cultural Detective very much support sustainability, a reduced footprint, and respect for our planet and its ecology. But what do declining sperm whale populations have to do with culture?

According to Shane Gero, behavioral ecologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project: “Behavior is what you do; culture is how you do it. All sperm whales do the same things — feed, swim, defend, socialize — but how they do them is different around the world. Just as humans use forks or chopsticks, they, too, differ in how they eat, what species of squid they eat, how fast they travel and where they roam, their social behavior, and probably many other ways we still do not understand.” Sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean have at least 22 different dialects, and can identify one another. Interestingly, those from a similar culture are more likely to cooperate.

It seems that the lives of sperm whales are remarkably similar to those of humans: extended family members — usually female — babysit calves. Family is critical to survival, and the whales live in communities of neighboring families in a multicultural oceanic society, according to Gero. “We are not just losing specific whales that we have come to know as individuals; we are losing a way of life, a culture — the accumulated wisdom of generations on how to survive in the deep waters of the Caribbean Sea.”

I found all this fascinating, but I especially enjoyed reading Gero’s conclusions, which I post below.

“The definition of biodiversity needs to include cultural diversity. All sperm whales around the world are similar genetically… But genetics may not be particularly helpful when conserving populations of cultural whales. ‘Genetic stocks,’ which we have traditionally used to manage and protect much of the world’s wildlife, simply cannot preserve the diversity of life. Diverse systems are more resilient, and the most important diversity in sperm whales, as in humans, is in their cultural traditions.

I could point to many reasons to protect whales, like the way they mitigate the effects of climate change by cycling nutrients that enable the ocean to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, or how top predators regulate marine food chains. But if we are to preserve life, ours and theirs, we must find ways to succeed together, and value diversity in our societies and in our ecosystems.

—Shane Gero, behavioral ecologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project

Life is indeed wholistic, all beings are interconnected, and preserving the diversity amongst ourselves and our animal and plant life may be key to our survival. I have no doubt it’s key to our well being.

The best part of working with Cultural Detective has always been the community — you — like-minded people striving to build intercultural competence. Gero’s opinions and experience would seem to make the case that our community is broader than I thought, including, at a minimum, biologists and ecologists, as well.

Study Supports Ecotonos’ Effectiveness

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“This study shows that the use of the Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ) and an increase in the development of confidence in cross-cultural encounters.

This legitimates the use of Ecotonos in international business education.

Ecotonos may also be effective in preparing students for overseas internships or study abroad programs… and in multinational corporations and universities as a means to improve the CQ of their management and students.”
—Bücker and Korzilius

Since its publication in 1995, Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures has become a classic in the field of intercultural communication competence; it is a go-to resource for corporations, universities and NGOs that require the ability to effectively team across cultures. Two decades of anecdotal evidence strongly support Ecotonos’ usefulness, but it is only recently that management researchers in The Netherlands provided empirical evidence on the simulation’s effectiveness.

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Three of the five generations of Ecotonos; compact Fifth Edition on the right.

Developing cultural intelligence: assessing the effect of the Ecotonos cultural simulation game for international business students,” a study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management (Vol. 26, No. 15, 1995-2014) by Joost JLE Bücker and Hubert Korzilius, found that Ecotonos supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ), specifically metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral CQ.

Bücker and Korzilius write, “CQ is defined by Earley and Ang (2003) as a person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts. It refers to individual capacities which enable one to interact effectively with others from different cultural backgrounds and in different cultural contexts (Brislin, Worthley, & MacNab, 2006). It is the ability to adapt and adjust to one’s environment, and the effective functioning in situations characterized by cultural diversity.”

The research was designed to test the benefits of using Ecotonos as a training method to develop CQ among business students that participate in an international study program, while the researchers also saw applications for corporations and universities. Simulations and role plays “should provide the most suitable opportunity to train someone’s CQ… ECOTONOS (Saphiere, 1995) was created as an attempt to add additional learning goals to those of existing games such as BAFA BAFA and ALBATROSS, by creating simulations that had more complex options.”

The study of 66 students in Toulouse and Nijmegen consisted of an experiment group that engaged in one round of playing Ecotonos, a control group that did not participate in Ecotonos, and the completion of four questionnaires 3-5 weeks apart by members of both groups:

  1. CQS (Ang et al, 2007)
  2. Cross-cultural Communication Effectiveness (adapted from Hammer, Gudykunst & Wiseman, 1978)
  3. Social Desirability Scales (Kleumper, 2008)
  4. New Self-Efficacy Scale (Chen, Gulley and Eden, 2001)

Bücker and Korzilius note the importance of their study:

“Although it has been claimed that simulation games may give positive outcomes, such as more familiarity with people different from ourselves in terms of gender or ethnicity, such games may also reinforce prejudices. Burgstahler and Doe (2006) claim that ‘In all types of simulations there is a risk of long-lasting unintended negative results’ (p. 9).

An evaluation of an intercultural communications simulation called BAFA BAFA (Shirts, 1973) found evidence of a positive change in enthusiasm for learning, an intended result, and an increased ethnocentrism, an unintended result (Bruschke, Gartner, & Seiter, 1993). The simulated experience triggered negative and reactionary attitudes toward other cultures, and did not allow for more positive changes that might come from extended interaction across cultures (Bruschke et al., 1993).

The two simulation games of Bafa Bafa and Ecotonos are different. Whereas in the Bafa Bafa game participants are invited to simulate explicit stated cultural behavior, in the Ecotonos game participants have more freedom to create their own culture. This different way of prescribing behavior in the two games may have implications for the degree of prejudice after the simulation.”

The researchers found that “Ecotonos increases the ability to reflect on cross-cultural interactions, and stimulates interest in intercultural behavior and practicing cross-cultural relevant behavior.”

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A concern that came out of the study is that researchers found “there is more understanding and comfort in student interactions, but there is not more progress in the joint project result. For undergraduate business students, feeling comfortable in intercultural situations and becoming interested in other students’ cultural backgrounds is already a great win; it stimulates intercultural learning by opening up students’ mindsets in the international class. For more mature graduate students, extra strategic learning should be expected during the simulation game, in terms of effectiveness of their cross-cultural behavior and effectuating certain predefined targets in their communication. This might be developed by stimulating the competitive side of the role of the participants in the simulation game.”

I would posit that playing Ecotonos multiple times will enable students to practice and improve their collaborative abilities; this is, after all, how the game is designed to be used. A different task or case study can be used each time the game is played, and different rule cards as well, making the play unique each time.

A second way for participants to improve their collaboration skills is for facilitators to urge them to choose one behavior they would like to demonstrate during the simulation. Participants should focus on that. During game play, when collaboration all too frequently breaks down, facilitators can interrupt play to remind players to practice the skill they have previously chosen. Both of these interventions are described in the Ecotonos Manual, 5th Edition, 2016.

I would like to thank both researchers for this work, and express my hope that they will continue with further studies on this topic.

If you haven’t yet conducted Ecotonos with your students, trainees or learners, what are you waiting for? Purchase your copy today. If you have an older copy, you may want to update; the fifth edition has explanations of a whole lot of how-to and underlying theory that you may be missing from earlier versions.

Resource Review: GDI Benchmarks

We tend to get a lot of phone calls asking us to recommend a cross-cultural assessment instrument. Usually I ask what  seems to me a very logical question: “What is it you are trying to assess?” I am then often shocked to hear that the caller is not able to answer my question!

As an organizational effectiveness practitioner I am concerned with individual and interpersonal effectiveness as well as that of the overall organization. We all live and work within systems, and if that system rewards and encourages us NOT to be cross-culturally competent, we are going to nurse burnout if we try to demonstrate and develop that skill. Organizational systems and structures need to support and reinforce individual and interpersonal competence. That is why “Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World” is one of my favorite assessment tools.

Written by Cultural Detective Global Diversity and Inclusion co-author Alan Richter, along with the very talented Julie O’Mara, the tool is available for use free of charge, though the authors ask that you submit a written request for permission (julie@omaraassoc.com or alanrichter@qedconsulting.com).

Newly updated in 2011, the 32-page booklet is based on a core model of 13 categories arranged into four key areas: Foundational Factors, Internal Abilities, External Benchmarks, and Bridging Competencies (you can already imagine how well this blends with a Cultural Detective approach!). The assessment instrument involves rating the organization at one of five levels for each of the 13 categories. Thus, it is very easy to use and educates as it assesses.

The GDI Benchmarks are based on extensive contributions from 79 experts around the world, and were developed from groundbreaking research in the early 1990s. Please contact Julie or Alan to learn more. And please share with us your organization’s progress with these benchmarks as you use Cultural Detective!

Latino Growth in USA Signals Need for Change

Andrés Tapia has written an article for Diversity Executive, in which he outlines the need to adapt US business practices in order to attract, retain and make the most of Latino talent. In the article, he references (and gives you a sneak peak of) our upcoming Cultural Detective Latino/Hispanic.

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This article by Vijay Nagaswami, “Culture vs. culture,” was sent to us via the marvelous Cultural Detective certified facilitator and current SIETAR India President, Sunita Nichani. She says, “Here is an interesting article published this Sunday in one of India’s leading newspapers, The Hindu. With the slow erosion of the custom of marrying within similar communities in India, intercultural competence will be vital for making marriages work.”

Lots of work to do in this world, in so many ways and places. Let’s get started, everyone!

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Interesting article in Diversity Executive magazine about product naming problems in the global market, some good examples, and a link to an article on the value of intercultural competence.

Kudos to all our interpretation and translation colleagues!

What are you favorite “Cultural DeFective” examples? And your strategies for preventing them?

People To People International Working with Cultural Detective to Diversify Chapter Recruitment

Over the past several years I have enjoyed developing a professional and personally meaningful relationship with the People to People International organization (PTPI). For those of you who are not familiar with PTPI, the organization was founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and is now run by his granddaughter, Mary Jean Eisenhower. Their mission is “to enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural and humanitarian activities involving the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures.” They are a dynamic group of dedicated staff and thousands of volunteers in over 135 countries truly working to promote the benefit of people working and living cooperatively together throughout our world. They are known by their tagline, “Peace Through Understanding.

Last year in November Cultural Detective had the privilege of sponsoring and designing the student curriculum for the PTPI Global Youth Forum 2011 (GYF). We focused on designing curriculum that would readily engage about 130 students and GYF leaders and most importantly inspire them to explore building relationships outside of their perhaps “look and act like me” group of students and friends in their local communities. Based on the testimonials of both students and teachers, we feel we did a pretty good job!

This spring I’ve been asked to present the Cultural Detective Method to PTPI Board Members and the PTPI Community at Large so they can focus their attention on recruitment of diverse leaders and members. In the upcoming session I hope to show how generational differences as well as national cultural differences impact with whom we as individuals may naturally gravitate to, which can limit the growth opportunities possible by confidently reaching out to people of multiple cultures. Stay tuned for more about the event in a future post!

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.

Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast!

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” — a quote that grabbed me during a recent keynote address by BNI (Business Network International) founder and Chairman Dr. Ivan Misner. He was introducing his new book, Business Networking and Sex (Not What YouThink!).

Those (in the audience of more than 1000 Kansas Citians) with more exposure to culture-related topics probably guessed that the book focuses on networking techniques of the different genders and how to be successful networking with the opposite sex. But to hear so boldly from this networking icon how powerful culture truly is in relationship building and the networking process resonated strongly with this Cultural Detective!

When I heard this statement from Dr. Misner, I wished I could have jumped up on stage and displayed the Cultural Detective Women and Men Values Lenses. It would add to the value of his research by providing clear underpinnings as to what motivates the networking behaviors of men and women, and it would help explain the “whys” behind the stories illustrating their differences which seem to be highlighted throughout the book.

Dr. Misner’s book takes a three-pronged look at business networking across the sexes by offering a surveyed objective look at how men and women think about, approach, and in what ways they are successful at business networking. He then counters that with a “he said” (Frank) and “she said” (Hazel) analysis and interpretation of the survey results.

Over a four-year period they surveyed more than 12,000 businesspeople globally (covering every continent) on 25 questions about business networking. The results and interpreted analysis could bring about some interesting and revolutionary changes to the way in which each sex approaches networking with the other. Communication gaps could be narrowed and connections broadened through Hazel and Frank’s guidance and revealing a bit of the opposite sexes “Lens.”

My only wish was that Dr. Misner would have take the results of the survey to a deeper level by breaking it down to country-specific data. But then again, that’s where Cultural Detective national Values Lenses could shed some light!

NOTE: While the book reviewed in this post references two genders, and we offer an excellent package with this same approach, Cultural Detective Women and Men, there are other ways to look at gender than just a polar division of male/female. Cultural Detective LGBT examines some of these complexities of gender and sexual orientation.

Talent Development Huge Topic For Keeping Employees

It’s commonly known (but not necessarily budgeted for during economic downturns) that talent development serves many purposes. Successful organizations use talent development for employee attraction and retention as well as superior employee performances. Recently, in discussing how best one of our site license clients could leverage Cultural Detective in one of their employee networks, the client mentioned there is a big push for employee development again, now that the economy is coming back. Their focus is on keeping people by teaching the skills that support inclusive and collaborative teams.

Cultural Detective is a phenomenal tool for teaching both of these skills and applying them on a global, as well as domestic level. As Janet Bennett points out in her article, “Culture General or Cultural Specific? That is the Question!“, “Rare is the professional arena where we face colleagues from only one or two cultures. Instead, each of us operates with a wealth of cultural diversity that is rich, complex, and challenging. This reality suggests that learning a single specific culture serves us well, and learning about cultural difference in general serves us even better.”

So developing employees to operate effectively in an inclusive and collaborative environment can be accomplished by learning the core Cultural Detective Method which builds the skills of knowing oneself, understanding others and building cultural bridges. As Janet goes on to say, “Cultural Detective® provides both the necessary culture-general breadth of application across many cultures while developing the culture-specific depth. The Worksheet provides a unifying and consistent process for examining yourself and others, and for bridging differences as assets. CD develops intercultural competence by simultaneously improving culture-general and culture-specific expertise in a variety of realistic contexts. By examining key cultural similarities and differences in a culture-general way, we come to know ourselves, and are able to compare and contrast our own perspective with that of others. By focusing the Values Lens on a specific culture, we enhance our capacity to untangle problems, negotiate differences, and look below the surface within and across cultures.” And through this process we can understand how to be inclusive in our multicultural environments and collaborate with those we don’t necessarily share common experiences and work styles.

With feedback like I heard from our client it seems talent development is perhaps again ready to be supported both financially and in practice — let Cultural Detective be your tool-set for achieving an inclusive and collaborative workforce!