Canadian team creates new intelligence test

A Simon Fraser University professor says cultural misunderstandings are often at the root of cross-cultural business problems.


You may be brain smart, but how culturally smart are you? A new test hopes to find out.

Developed by a Canadian-led research team, the cultural IQ assessment test evaluates cross-cultural knowledge and skills to predict how effective a person might be on an overseas assignment or how well they might work on a multicultural team. Simon Fraser University business professor David Thomas, who led the three-year effort to develop the assessment, says cultural misunderstandings are often at the root of cross-cultural business problems.

“Often a deal will go bad and people don’t recognize there’s a cultural determinant there. The numbers on joint-venture failures across borders are just huge, and cultural issues are a large part of it,” Thomas said.

Thomas says the idea there are multiple types of intelligence has grown in recent decades among academics and researchers and can help to explain why otherwise smart people screw up when forced to work with people from a different culture.

“There’s been recognition that intelligence can be a multi-faceted thing, and cultural intelligence is the ability of people to interact effectively with people who are culturally different. It helps us explain why people who have strong social skills can still fail when they’re interacting across cultures,” Thomas said.

Being able to act with sensitivity and poise in a multicultural setting is a valuable skill because the face of the workforce is continually changing.

“Population growth in the industrialized countries is coming largely from migration, which results in a very culturally diverse workforce and that level of diversity is unlikely to decline in the future. If you want to move up the career ladder, having high cultural intelligence will help you adapt to succeed in the organization,” Thomas said.

The web-based test, which Thomas says has already attracted interest from the public and private sectors, involves having a candidate sit down at a computer with a headset and keyboard to answer questions that include video and audio presentations. While some questions are straightforward click-and-answer, many require the candidate to react by actually speaking into their headset microphone to explain their response. The results are analyzed by researchers who carefully listen to how the candidate is making decisions to score them on factors such as tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, ability to adapt and relate to others and tendency toward empathy.

“Much of our behaviour is on auto-pilot. People who want to become more culturally intelligent need to … be mindful of (their) words and actions,” Thomas said.

Thinking before you speak

  • Simon Fraser’s David Thomas says many cultural missteps come from people’s tendency to barge forward carelessly in communications instead of first taking a moment to filter what they were planning to do and say.

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