Cultural awareness versus cultural intelligence — the chicken and the egg debate

As the extent of mobility increases in the developed world, the need for cultural awareness accelerates. In countries across the Anglosphere in particular, where large-scale immigration has been a central pillar of population growth, the need couldn’t be starker, says Dr Stephane Shepherd.

Dr Shepherd is a research fellow and lecturer in psychology at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science at Swinburne University, Melbourne Australia. Recently he was a visiting scholar at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in the United States.

Dr Shepherd spoke at the launch of Mahana Culture’s Chasing Our Tales forum in April. Chasing Our Tales showcases Mahana Culture’s cultural intelligence programs, led by Culture Connects. Culture Connects is a four-day across three-month incubator course for organisations, government departments, and corporations dealing with and looking to benefit from cross cultural currents within their ranks.

Wrinkles in theory and practice

He believes that when examining the formal learning structures of cultural awareness to date, these societies need to acknowledge the deficiencies in conventional workshops on the subject. They need to iron out some of the wrinkles in both theory and practice which to date have put the cultural awareness cart before the cultural intelligence horse.

He describes those deficiencies as myopic, impractical, and lacking self-criticism, factors that forums like Mahana Culture’s do much to address.

Cultural awareness workshops have various derivatives: cultural competence, cultural safety, cultural humility, and some overlapping sub-derivatives such as anti-prejudice training, diversity training and micro-aggression training. The overarching aim of most is to enhance effective cross-cultural training, initiatives he paints as laudable objectives.

They’re commonplace in Australia at the moment, with their philosophies embedded in many government departments’ and industry sectors’ strategic plans. The reasoning is mostly good, although it can sometimes be driven by ulterior motives — such as human relations departments ticking the avoid-litigation-at-all-costs box.

Institutional racism

Dr Shepherd says much of the foundation work for current cultural awareness workshops was spawned by the health disparities literature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reviews at that time attempted to address cross-cultural healthcare discrepancies across a range of indicators, beginning with institutional racism. This, he says, is where a lot of cross cultural awareness training originated.

The literature on cultural awareness training is extensive, with more than 100 academic and research studies. He draws four take-home messages from the meta-analyses and systematic reviews:

  1. A slight improvement in clinical knowledge is detectable after participation in cultural awareness workshops (while acknowledging this is focused on health care settings where the bulk of the training is targeted). Follow up analysis shows awareness tends to tail off over time.
  2. Patient satisfaction shows a minor improvement but with mixed findings
  3. In health care settings, the analyses provided no evidence for improved healthcare outcomes in terms of efficacy. Can patients navigate their way around healthcare settings after a clinician has undergone some cultural awareness training? Do they adhere to treatment and medication protocols, and is there any improvement in their health goals? At this point, there hasn’t been any evidence of improved patient outcomes from conventional cultural awareness workshops.
  4. Many of these studies have poor methodological rigour, making the outcomes of cultural awareness workshops look dismal.

Dr Shepherd referred to the most comprehensive research study on cultural awareness initiatives in business settings. Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, it analysed three decades of data on cultural awareness training from more than 800 US forums, essentially covering the entire Fortune 500 group of companies.

Shaming, blaming, and finger pointing

The study found that three quarters of the workshops used negative messaging, which he describes as shaming, blaming, and finger pointing. This had adverse effects on staff, producing a backlash and subsequently activating bias rather than reducing it.

By contrast, the study found the two most effective solutions were broader mentoring and increasing communication between diverse staff through positive initiatives. While bringing different people together for a shared, overarching appreciation of diversity wasn’t necessarily the ultimate goal, the study found that communication between diverse people within an organisation actually increased cultural awareness, and how it was measured.

Dr Shepherd says most of the traditional cultural awareness workshops in which he’s been involved don’t work because they embrace the superficial. They address what he terms a ‘catalogue of stereotypes’ in an hour-long masquerade of cultural learning.

Museum approach

He dubs it the ‘museum approach’ — you go into a museum, you’re exposed to a display of cultural artefacts, and you leave. The brief contact makes no lasting impact on behaviour.

He also feels much cultural awareness training reduces our inter-cultural understanding to the barest essentials when attachment to culture is multi-faceted. Worse, well-meaning workshops can either exoticise or homogenise belief systems and ignore the diversity of character and nuance within particular cultural groups.

Personal ethnicity and culture doesn’t always monopolise our individual outlook. Interactions readily take place between what Dr Shepherd terms our ethno-cultures: professional, religious, racial, or belief-based behavioural norms that characterise who we are and what we stand for.

Divisive and vindictive

He points out that cultural awareness sessions have often attracted criticism as being both divisive and vindictive. Returning to the healthcare sector, he gives the example of cultural awareness workshops delivering crushing statements such as: ‘The hospital you work at is an extension of colonisation, and all of you are symbols of privilege and oppression.’

Whether we agree or not, he believes that cultural awareness training without the initial and underlying investment in cultural intelligence alienates half the people it’s designed to benefit. Participants are made to feel they can’t ask certain questions, leading to an unsurprisingly negative reaction from those who should be most engaged with the training. Far from positive reinforcement, they perceive the central message as accusatory. They sense a condemnation for their lack of a cultural awareness, rather than recognition of their willingness to learn.


Cultural awareness training workshops also stand accused of impracticality. Dr Shepherd asks how a history lesson, often delivered as an injection of cultural stereotypes, can transform attendees’ work practices. He also questions how participants should be expected to apply these difficult lessons in organisations that rarely facilitate this new knowledge?

He paints a portrait of cultural awareness as aspirational and well meaning but in need of substantial work, refinement, and even reconfiguration. For cultural awareness to work not simply sound good, it first needs a solid foundation of cultural intelligence.

Winding up at the Chasing Our Tales launch, he said: ‘From what I’ve seen so far with Mahana Culture, we’ve got a much more sophisticated approach. Mahana Culture and cultural intelligence are well placed to take us forward in this space.’

By Roger McDonald, Mahana Culture’s roving blogger

To advance the debate between cultural awareness and cultural intelligence, call Tavale Ilalio on 0428 504 240 or visit

Cultural intelligence. What is it?

Picture a party with an inter-generational bunch of Australians gathering for a Christmas Eve celebration. Among the guests was a Muslim couple and their two young children. The husband – let’s call him Mohammed — was a highly educated political refugee from the Middle East. Despite his impressive foreign qualifications, he could only find work in Australia as a labourer.

His wife — we’ll call her Fatima — was also well educated, but had chosen to stay at home to look after their pre-school children. She wore the hijab, the demure veil of her Islamic faith, though not the burqa which conceals face and body.

It was a sweet, inter-community Aussie-style experience with a barbecue, small gifts for all, and games for the children. The conversations span freely between all the topics you’d expect of a festive gathering. Come the farewells, everyone exchanged warm embraces. One of the men, — we’ll name him Bruce — a fifth generation Australian and a father of adult daughters approached Fatimah as he had all the other women.

A sweet, Aussie-style experience turns sour

Eyes flashing, Fatima backed away, warning him: ‘In my country, strange men do not touch women.’ A joyous occasion suddenly turned sour.

Bruce was initially shocked. He said: ‘I wanted to tell her: “Actually, we’re not in your country, we’re in mine. And in Australia, we have a habit of giving people, especially underdogs, a fair go”’.

He felt impugned and judged for attempting a gesture, which in his eyes was a gift of friendship. Fatima felt invaded. He admitted that, on further thought, he could have handled the situation differently.

He acknowledged that where Fatimah, not a native English speaker, had used the word ‘country’, she really meant ‘culture’. And that, with a little sensitivity, he could have easily prevented the hiccup by asking her how people exchanged greetings and farewells in her civilisation.

Mahana’s definition of cultural intelligence

Christianity and Islam haven’t exactly enjoyed the cosiest of relationships down the centuries. Bruce’s story, and the circumstances in which it occurred, perfectly illustrate what was missing in this cultural exchange. It also underpins Mahana’s definition of cultural intelligence: engaging safely with people of different beliefs.

Culture often carries with it overtones of the arts. From a micro perspective, it does stand for human achievement beyond the necessities of survival, at both individual and collective level. On the macro level, culture is the summation of customs, habits, and achievements that bind groups of people into identifiably distinct communities.

When in Rome …

Bruce’s reaction to Fatima’s rejection of his innocent farewell hug was of the instinctive ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ variety. But Bruce had the underlying cultural intelligence to realise that traditions and rites run deep in all cultures. Whether they’re religious, social, sexual, or inspired by other human motivations or pressures, they are the outward symbols through which we express our sense of identity and identification.

Cultural intelligence completes the sociological and psychological circle of human development that begins with mental or intellectual intelligence (IQ). IQ is best known as a standardised measure of cognitive ability. It’s also the foundation on which emotional intelligence (EQ), rests, where EQ defines your ability to recognise and manage your emotions, and identify others’, in a social setting.

IQ + EQ = CQ?

IQ and EQ are essential to cultural intelligence. If you possess reasonable levels of both (free tests are available online), you are more likely to have a reasonable CQ level as well.

Cultural intelligence is a relatively new phenomenon. CQ researchers Soon Ang and Lin Van Dyne coined the term in the early 2000s, and David Livermore expanded on it in his book Leading With Cultural Intelligence. Between them, they have identified four capabilities:

CQ drive (or motivation)

CQ drive measures willingness and confidence to operate effectively in culturally diverse environments.

CQ-knowledge (or cognition)

CQ knowledge gauges awareness of cultural similarities and differences across business, interpersonal values, beliefs, and customs, and social, verbal and physical exchanges.

CQ strategy (or meta-cognition)

CQ strategy awareness of cultural diversity, and the skills to plan for and adjust to cultural experiences outside expectations.

CQ action (or behaviour)

CQ action evaluates how well or poorly subjects’ verbal and non-verbal performances impact on each other.

If this sounds a little academic, it’s because researchers have begun to realise the power and depth of cultural intelligence can have establishing and cementing relationships between people and organisations.

For deeper insights into how cultural intelligence boosts personal and organisational performance, call Tavale Ilalio at Mahana Culture on 1800 MAHANA (624 262) or contact us here.

By Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

Courage and cowardice in the culture game

Julius Caesar knew a thing or two about the culture game. He managed the dominant club of his league. He successfully challenged every other team around Europe and the Middle East in his day. And he played some aggressive away fixtures in pre-Christian Britain that the Anglosphere still talks about today.

He impressed one social media commentator enough to tweet: ‘the cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.’ That was Billy Shakespeare, captain and coach of Stratford United and the Southwark All-stars, whom he led to the UEFA culture cup in 1599.

A class of people called The Discouraged

A tall story, of course. But let your historical imagination wander for a moment. In the early to mid 1800s, long before the formalisation of the social sciences, street urchins in particular, but the dispossessed in general, were called The Discouraged. The term described a class of people who lacked the resources, or were denied the energy and resilience to claw their way back from deprivation and denial.

Britain’s first industrial revolution from roughly 1760 to 1840 enshrined poet and visionary William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills.’ This was a despairing, and later inspiring, code describing the mechanisation that displaced traditional manual crafts. In less than a century, water and coal-driven steam power destroyed many of the manual livelihoods that had sustained civilisation for millennia.

Little wonder that an entire spectrum of skilled and semi-skilled artisans and their children became discouraged.

Cultural intelligence and resilience

Encourage is a beautiful word. In its fullest sense it means much more than to give a word of advice or a helping hand in time of need. Literally, encourage means to embolden, or make brave. But rather than emboldening troops in battle, cultural intelligence sees courage in the sense of resilience; of getting back on your feet and starting afresh when life or fate has knocked you down.

Cultural intelligence also sees courage less as defeating someone or something, but more the process of getting through or bouncing back from adversity.

Circle of Courage

Mahana Culture has long used the Circle of Courage model in teaching the value of courage in a cultural context. The model comes from a Native American tradition, and our personal friendship with one of its authors, Martin Brokenleg. An elder of the Lakota culture of North America, Martin is a psychologist and author, and was a professor of Native American Studies in South Dakota for 30 years.

The Circle of Courage describes the four essentials children need to attain to become functional, responsible, and courageous adults:

  1. Belonging — identification with a group or community with shared principles and values based on loving and being loved
  2. Mastery — learned skills and control in mental, physical, social, and spiritual engagement and activities
  3. Generosity — learning and practising the art of sharing and giving joyfully without expectation of reward
  4. Independence — achieving a level of personal goal-setting and personal responsibility where the consequences of both success and failure are understood and willingly accepted.

While the circle focuses on children, and has been highly successful in action in the US and South Africa, it’s as well to remember that it applies equally to adults throughout life. We can all too easily forget these principles, or become distracted by circumstances, even in maturity and parenthood.

In terms of culture, courage is close to the concept of awakening. It takes courage to find out who you are especially if your cultural tale has been attenuated or even crushed. It also takes courage to fill what for many is a cultural deficit in ethnicity, family history, or personal identity, including coming to terms with issues such as mental illness or depression.

In Australia particularly, we can see how important cultural courage is for young indigenous people where ritual and tribal culture has to share, and often compete with, cultures a long way removed from traditional beliefs.

If you could use an injection of courage finding and telling your cultural tale, call Tavale Ilalio at Mahana Culture on 0428 504 240.

Article written by: Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

The great Australian cultural cocktail party

Our vision of culture is heavily shaped by the idea of a world view influenced by place; that culture is a continual flux of beliefs, values, and behaviour shaped not just by who you are, but where you are, and where you came from.

Within those overlapping influences, we also teach the idea that culture is an ABC summation of attitudes, beliefs, and customs that characterise the way groups of people appear, and respond, to others.

Australia has been a multicultural country from the outset. One of our recent Culture Connects workshop participants told us in her graduation cultural tale that the First Fleet was made up of no less than 64 nationalities.

Our record of welcoming the adventurous, the poor, and the dispossessed from all over the globe grew with the gold rushes, and climaxed with massive waves of immigration in the aftermath of the Second World War. Multi-national and refugee immigration continues at a high level by world standards. The great Australian cultural cocktail party has no apparent end.

Two feet on the ground

I’m a Samoan Scottish New Zealander at home in Australia. In Pacific Island and Maori culture, we have a concept called turangawaewae, which basically means ‘your two feet planted on the ground’. Culture for me is where you are physically located, and the influences that are brought to bear on you as illustrated in the Bronfennbrenner model.

Bronfenbremmers model

The Bronfenbrenner diagram shows the four circles of family, school/work, community, and peers overlapping.

At the conjunction where all four have a variable influence is where you find culture.

Unlike ethnicity, culture isn’t transmitted through our DNA.

It’s an acted-out process in which place influences your world view, which shapes your beliefs, which in turn stimulates your behaviour, and ultimately defines your culture.

For example, Pacific Islanders are spread between many locations — Samoa and New Zealand in my case — but also Fiji, Tonga, Cook Islands, Tahiti, and many more. In terms of their ethnicity, or their biological profile, all are Polynesian. But culturally, they are quite different, just as Europeans or Africans or Asians have hugely divergent cultures.

Cultural intelligence

In the context of cultural intelligence, particularly in a workplace or organisation, you can compare individuals and organisations to countries.

Mahana Culture deals in cultural intelligence at both levels. We help individuals reach an understanding of their personal heritage and ethos, and how to express it confidently in varied cultural, work, and social settings. And we help organisations come to grips with their own constituents’ cultural diversity, and how to weave it harmoniously into a common declaration that makes people proud to work together because of their differences, not despite them.

Call Tavale Ilalio of Mahana Culture on 1800 MAHANA (624 262) to learn how to harness cultural intelligence as a unifying theme in your workplace or organisation.

Article written by Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, co-facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

* Urie Bronfenbrenner, US psychologist known for his work in ecological systems theory in child development.