Autopilot Mode vs Cultural Intelligence

ieseHave you ever experienced driving to your workplace and actually not remembering how you got there? I guess that might be a pretty common phenomenon, given that most of the time (experienced) drivers are planning for their day, having a conversation with someone, or engage in problem-solving while being on the road. Even without an automatic transmission we are used to drive on ‘automatic pilot’, and mostly we succeed in it. The autopilot mode saves us energy and time resources, doesn’t it? That is probably why it has been built not only into our execution of motor skills, but also into our cognitive functioning in general.

As it is time and energy efficient, our thinking involves information simplification, or so called mental shortcuts, which work almost automatically. For example, let me ask you if you expect your country to win any gold medals in the Rio Summer Olympics? Be your answer positive or negative, I bet you arrived at some judgment quite quickly. I also assume you didn’t look up historical win/loose records, lists of participating athletes and competitors, records of injuries etc. before answering. I bet you just judged by your intuition, or more specifically, you automatically used one of the mental shortcuts. Instead of time-consuming analysis, what we automatically do is to assess the probability of an event based on its availability in our memory. If your country was successful in the last summer Olympics, you probably answered positively to the question, and it is quite likely that your shortcut worked and your judgment will appear to be correct. Mental shortcuts are cognitive strategies that are indeed helpful. The only problem with them is that from time to time they can also be biased.

Given that the same cognitive processes and automatic mental shortcuts take place when people make sense of other people, there seem to be several implications for the world of global mobility and multiculturalism. Indeed, David Livermore, a prominent author and speaker on the topic of cultural intelligence, highlights the risks of being on autopilot and the importance of directed attention. In his new book on culturally intelligent innovation David argues that in unfamiliar situation, such as possibly any cross-cultural context, our gut feeling and autopilot might do more damage than good. Just think about our evolutionary predispositions… Aren’t we predisposed to automatically fear and avoid everything unfamiliar? Keep to our comfort zone and quickly notice any risk or deviation from the ‘norm’? Avoid uncertainty by synthesizing our experiences into categories and prototypes that we associate with certain characteristics (e.g. big brown furry animals are bears and bears are dangerous)?

Stemming from such evolutionary perspective, it comes as no surprise that when on autopilot we are very quick to judge behaviors that are different from ours as negative, make preferences for people, who are alike, and perceive culturally different others through the lens of stereotypes. Only when paying attention, can we control for such automatic bias.

In his interview about the book, David notes an alarming research finding that homogenous teams often perform better than diverse teams do. How could that be, when we consistently hear of diversity as a resource for teams and companies? The answer may be quite simple: diversity is indeed a resource, when utilized correctly; yet, diversity does not work automatically!  As David emphasizes, under stress, which is when we are more likely to be on autopilot, differences are the source of annoyance and conflict. Directed attention to diversity and strategic utilization of this potentially valuable resource make the difference. Homogenous teams outperform diverse teams only in case of low cultural intelligence, whereas with moderate and high cultural intelligence diverse teams are significantly better than homogenous teams.

In his blog post, David Livermore suggests several practical steps on paying attention to and utilizing diversity. Yet, the bottom line is to get beyond your autopilot mode and tune into the conscious mode of utilizing diversity.

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