Why cultural experience doesn’t equal cultural adaption and intelligence

In previous blogs, I have introduced the TMA Worldprism model of cultural differences which serves as the backbone of the Country Navigator tool.

It provides a consistent vocabulary for identifying, analysing, and comparing cultural differences.  Whilst the Worldprism is useful as a self-standing tool, its practicality is amplified when seen as an integrated part of a cultural adaption process.  Let me introduce the Cultural ADAPT Cycle.

Applying cultural intelligence is not a static event, but a process which requires a specific skill set.

The main phases in the process are:

5 phases of cultural adaptation cycle


The aim of working through this process is to select and fine-tune adaptations (i.e. behavior modifications) that are most likely to be effective when interacting with cultural differences.  Being adaptive doesn’t mean changing your personality or your cultural identity; it means making small changes in behaviour, e.g. communicating more directly or indirectly.  Here are short descriptions of each phase:

Analyse: Reach an initial understanding of differences by using the Worldprism.
Decide: etermine what adaptation(s) are most likely get results.
Apply: Make adaptation(s).
Process: Assess the effectiveness of adaptations made.
Tune: Make further adaptations depending on outcomes.

Below are two skills for each phase of the cycle along with personal indicators that suggest an individual has the potential for developing cultural adaption and intelligence:

Analyse Skills & Indicators

Curiosity: Ability to pursue learning about others and the world.  Without curiosity your reactions to others are likely to be stereotypical or perceived as dismissive.

  • Wide range of interests
  • A questioning mind
  • Desire to look beyond the ‘obvious’
  • Enthusiasm for exploring and trying new things
  • High level of satisfaction when learning something new

Perceptiveness: Ability to recognise differences and their potential implications for working together.  Without perceptiveness your ‘reading’ of others will be distorted, misleading.

  • An open mind
  • Ability to observe, listen, and make accurate interpretations
  • Sensitivity to different contexts
  • Ability to differentiate between similar ‘things’
  • Ability to identify underlying causes

Decide Skills & Indicators

Self-Awareness: Ability to understand one’s own perceptual filters and mental models.  Without self-awareness you will always be projecting your unconscious biases onto others.

  • Objective view of your strengths and limitations
  • Recognizing your own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors
  • A capacity for self-questioning
  • Openness to feedback and continuous learning
  • Recognising how your cultural filters influence outcomes

Tolerance of Ambiguity: Ability to make a decision with only limited or unclear information.  Without a tolerance for ambiguity you will reach hasty conclusions.  You need to allow time to get an accurate interpretation.

  • Perceiving ambiguity in information and behavior in a neutral way
  • Seeing uncertainty as an opportunity rather than a threat
  • Asking tough questions that may not have a clear answer
  • Resisting either/or thinking
  • Improvising when solutions are unknown

Apply Skills & Indicators

Confidence: A belief that you can make things work out. Without confidence the ‘culture shock’ you might experience can cause inflexibility and defensiveness.

  • An inner sense of security
  • Trust in your abilities to deal with the unknown and unfamiliar
  • Willingness to put yourself in challenging situations
  • Willingness to admit mistakes, apologise, and move on
  • Being comfortable sharing successes

Risk-Taking: Ability to act when feeling anxious.  Without risk-taking you are unlikely to attempt any cultural adaptations that might be out of your ‘normal zone’, e.g. not challenging those in authority.

  • Accepting that mistakes will happen
  • Excitement about stepping into the unknown
  • Readiness to take the initiative, experiment, and test assumptions
  • Reframing potential challenges as opportunities
  • Managing fear and anxiety

Process Skills & Indicators

Mindfulness: Ability to focus attention on what is happening in real time.  Without mindfulness you can easily miss signals that others are giving you about their feelings and thoughts.  Missing these signals can cause you to misunderstand others, usually leading to mistrust – which you can’t afford.

  • Avoiding distractions
  • Sensitivity to verbal and non-verbal signals
  • Sensing subtle changes in self and others
  • Not forcing new information into old mental models
  • A capacity to empathise

Restraint: Ability to slow down negative reactions.  In cross-cultural interactions it is easy to feel disoriented and frustrated when things don’t happen the way you expect them to.  If you don’t control your ‘gut’ responses, you are likely to damage the relationships you need to build to get results.

  • Ability to think before acting
  • Respecting the feelings of others
  • Ability to foresee the potential damage of strong negative emotions
  • Having patience
  • Ability to suspend judgments

Tune Skills & Indicators

Flexibility: Ability to be responsive in changing circumstances.  Working with cultural differences can require making quick adjustments.  Cultures and people are complex; you always need to expect the unexpected and continuously adapt.

  • Alertness to changed circumstances
  • Positive attitude toward change
  • Ability to be creative and improvise
  • Pragmatic desire for getting results rather than being right
  • Willingness to treat others as they like to be treated, not how you like to be treated

Resilience: Ability to recover from setbacks and keep going.  Developing productive cross-cultural relationships can be hard work.  Being misunderstood, experiencing confusion, and feeling embarrassment can take a toll.  With a growth – rather than a fixed – mindset, you will see these challenges as opportunities for learning rather than obstacles.

  • Optimistic view of the future
  • Focus on continuous learning
  • Ability to cope with stress
  • Ability to manage self-defeating thoughts and feelings, e.g. “I can’t do this.”
  • Resourcefulness

Needing to tune your adaptations takes you back to the Analyse phase of the Cycle.
The ADAPT Cycle unbundles what a culturally intelligent person might do in a matter of seconds.  Experience across cultures doesn’t mean you are automatically culturally intelligent.  After each cultural interaction, stop and reflect:

  • Did I Analyse the cultural differences accurately?
  • Did I Decide on the most appropriate adaptations?
  • Did I Apply those adaptations effectively?
  • Did I Process the responses of others accurately and manage my own?
  • Did I Tune my adaptations to be even more appropriate to the situations?


About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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