Heather Skousgaard

CQ and PME – what’s the story here?


Hello, and welcome to the ‘culture corner’ of The Forge!


Those of you with sharp eyes will have noticed that ‘cross-cultural intelligence’ features as one of the components of the new Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) continuum under the Command, Leadership and Ethics core study area. But some of you may be wondering why something like this has been included in a military education context. After all, we all know that ‘culture’ is important, but isn’t it all ultimately about just ‘being a good bloke’ and ‘treating them with respect’?


After six years as the Senior Anthropologist of the Australian Department of Defence, I’m going to do what academics are known for and say, ‘yes… well, sort of… it’s not that simple’.


Over the coming weeks, I’d like to share with you a few thoughts explaining the background for why cultural intelligence, or ‘CQ’, is now featuring in our new JPME continuum. But for now I’ll pose some questions instead.


When you think about colleagues who have been successful in engaging with military personnel and local populations on international deployments, what characteristics come to mind? Most of us have listened to pre-deployment briefings that run through a list of “do’s and don’ts” to remember when hitting the ground in a new AO, but how much of this comes to mind when you’re grappling with the messy realities of contemporary warfare? And of that, how much helps you navigate your way to a successful outcome while retaining your motivation to pick everything up and try again tomorrow?


The research on CQ tells us that knowing all the nitty gritty of cultural norms in a foreign context isn’t actually all that important to achieving cross-cultural success. In fact, focussing on cultural differences can even be counterproductive. As the Michigan-based Cultural Intelligence Centre argues, if this is all you’re offering your people, you might be better off scrapping the cultural briefings all together[1].


Before we get ahead of ourselves though, let's review some of the ways we are currently approaching the cross-cultural dimension of our work. As this excellent Harvard Business Review article suggests, some of us approach other cultures with an analytical approach, some rely on their intuition or self-confidence, while others mimic the behaviour of other cultures without really understanding what is driving it. All these approaches have their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. 


Only a few of us are cross-cultural ‘naturals’, able to adjust our behaviour based on a nuanced understanding of the local cultural norms whilst maintaining the drive to persevere when things aren’t going our way. Happily, several decades of cross-cultural research has helped us understand this unique skill set. This research has shown that leaders who are successful in a cross-cultural context are able to harness both their head, body and heart when approaching a cross-cultural encounter. 


Here’s what we’ve learned so far, in a nutshell: 


  • Head: Rote learning of cultural ‘facts’ is never enough. Cross-cultural success depends not on the volume of data you’ve memorised, but on the learning strategies you’ve developed, so that you can build on and adapt your existing cultural knowledge and expectations to prepare for the next cross-cultural encounter.


  • Body: Understanding the meanings behind cultural differences is not enough – you need to be able to put this knowledge into action. And ‘whether it's the way you shake hands or order a coffee, evidence of an ability to mirror the customs and gestures of the people around you will prove that you esteem them well enough to want to be like them’. This takes practice, and an ability to reflexively step back and assess your behaviour ‘on the fly’.


  • Heart: Successfully adapting your behaviour to a foreign culture takes energy – and sometimes a lot of it! Which is why CQ research has shown that motivation and a sense of cross-cultural efficacy are key to success in a cross-cultural context. In fact, if you’re wanting to improve your cultural intelligence ‘in one easy step’, there’s no such thing as a simple solution but sparking your curiosity about other cultures is a good place to start!


Take a look at the HBR article for a tool that can offer a quick snapshot of some of your existing CQ strengths, as well as some areas for development. The good news is, no matter what baseline you’re coming from, CQ can be enhanced through targeted PME and personal reflection. Our hope is that the resources you’ll find on this portal over the coming months will help you in this journey of development. And if you’ve got any resources you’d like to share with us, please drop us a line – we’d love to hear from you!