Solving the People Puzzle: The Importance of Cultural Intelligence

Posted By March 13, 2014 No Comments

The carnage that often goes hand-in-hand with war can perhaps be most simply described as inhumane. Few would argue that the death and destruction caused by the two world wars of the twentieth century were exemplary demonstrations of human enterprise.

Nor would anyone debate that the wars of independence that erupted throughout Africa and Asia in the post-World War II era, many of which evolved into large-scale massacres in some areas of Africa and the Middle East by the mid-1990s, were in any sense demonstrations of great humanity. In fact, one American veteran of the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was both succinct and clear with regard to his views on war when he stated, “I wouldn’t wish war on my worst enemy.” [1]

While the voices of veterans throughout the ages are often replete with sorrow over the lack of humanity shown on the battlefields, the most common element to all wars is its human nature. Whether fought on land, on sea or in the air, with swords, machine-guns or drones, it is people who are responsible for starting wars, fighting them and ending them. After all, war is, by its very nature, a human endeavour.

While tactics, techniques, and procedures may have changed throughout the ages, the fundamentals of war have remained the same. Borrowing heavily on Clausewitzian theory, the US Army Counterinsurgency Handbook defines war as “a violent clash of interests between organized groups characterized by the use of force,” [2] with the purpose, one might add, to obtain a desired peace. [3] War is clearly a process that is created, sustained, and endured by people.

Since war so clearly exists within the purview of humanity, then an understanding of human behavior, arguably at a group level, will undoubtedly provide insight into the nature of war and would be a useful tool in obtaining desired results. As such, cultural intelligence, or the ability to understand the beliefs, values and attitudes of a group of people and, most important, apply them towards a specific goal should be considered an essential tool in the twenty-first century arsenal of modern governments and their militaries. Understanding why people behave the way they do, combined with an ability to influence them toward your way of thinking are obviously a sound strategy to minimize conflict and war and, if engaged in war, to assure that you achieve your desired peace. Consequently, the issue is not so much whether cultural intelligence can be an effective tool but, rather, how the ability to understand and influence others can be harnessed, particularly in a belligerent context. As such, this paper explores not only why cultural intelligence is such an important tool but also how people can become better at demonstrating high levels of cultural intelligence.

Cultural Intelligence Defined

“It’s all cultural in the end.” Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope, Commanding Officer Canadian Battle Group Task Force Orion [4]

Meaning is usually culturally derived. Culture provides the meaning to how we see the world and our place in it, what we see as important, and how we think and act. In this way, it is about sense making. It is about creating understandings and connections, and interpreting the world around us. As Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope so aptly noted, culture is – or, more precisely, cultures are – omnipresent. [5]

Nonetheless, there is still a lack of consensus as to the exact definition of culture. In basic terms, culture can be defined as a common set of beliefs and values

within a group of people that combined, transform into attitudes and get expressed as behaviours. [6] Clearly, culture helps create both individual and group identity. Individual and a group identity also help define culture.

While culture to a degree is derived by geographic and geopolitical realities, (e.g. it is a response to the physical world in which we live), it is important to recognize that cultures are social constructs and therefore subject to change. Interestingly, culture is often seen as being so imbedded within a group of people that it is immutable. Conversely, the opposite is true. Culture is in a constant state of flux and change, and negotiation and renegotiation. Notably, the beliefs, values, and attitudes associated with a specific culture are often passed down through generations and are generally subconscious in nature.

It is important to remember that while there are a myriad of outside factors that may influence behaviour, it is the cultural meaning associated with these factors that really influences the behaviour. For example, an American business owner on Saipan, a US Protectorate in the Northern Marianna Islands, once complained that every time she gave the locals who worked at her shop a raise to reward their good service, they would cut back their work hours. From their perspective, they could now earn a living working fewer hours a week. The US woman could not understand their lack of motivation to earn more money than simply that required to survive. However, for the Chamorro people native to the Marianna Islands, leisure was valued over money. They believed free time was more valuable than accumulating financial wealth. As a result, the American was hard pressed to find an effective means of rewarding her employees and still have people to work at her store. She first needed to understand their cultural perspective in order to be able to influence them. [7]

Within a defence paradigm, failing to recognize the beliefs, values, and attitudes that drive behaviours can have far more serious consequences. For instance, when training foreign militaries, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members are often ambitious about the training schedule and what they will accomplish on the training mission. As such, CAF members can become impatient and reluctant to adapt their behaviours and adjust their expectations even when activities are not transpiring according to the schedule. This discrepancy often causes tension between the CAF instructors and their training audience. Once the CAF trainers stop judging the behaviour of the host nation military through their own cultural lens, which is shaped by their beliefs, values and attitudes, and instead adjust their focus based on the unique operating circumstances, cultural dynamics, and traditions, habits and attitudes of the training audience, then the working relationships tend to improve greatly. The key is not to focus on the behaviour of the host nation members but rather understand what is driving their behaviours. [8]

In essence, it is essential to understand the currency that motivates the group of people with whom you are working. In order to do so, you need to appreciate the beliefs, values, and attitudes of the group of people with whom you are dealing. Additionally, it is very helpful if you can appreciate how they perceive you. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes can often be a difficult task in self-reflection but it can also help to ensure that messages are not lost in translation.

Not surprisingly, these issues, and their importance, are underscored in a conflict zone. For example, one CAF member recalled training a group of Afghans and stressing the importance of having vehicle checkpoints. In fact, the Afghans saw how often the Canadians and Americans performed these checks so it was not difficult to gain their buy-in. The Afghans subsequently stopped cars repeatedly but they never actually searched any of them. While they understood the action, they had no idea why it was being done so they simply mimicked the superficial behaviours that they had witnessed. It was not until the rationale for road-checks was explained and their importance was underscored that the Afghans began to behave effectively. [9]

To summarize, culture represents meaning; meaning comes from perspective; and there are always multiple perspectives to any given situation. It is important to recognize this fact and see the world through the eyes of others because the impact that you have is about the message that is received, which is not necessarily always the message that you think you have sent.

A delta between the intended message and that, which is received, can create a multitude of problems. For instance, during the recent war in Afghanistan (c. 2001-2013) a CAF member mentioned that Afghans were getting very frustrated when their dogs were shot on night raids. The dogs were killed because they would bark and thereby potentially alert the Taliban to the location of the coalition forces. Having their dogs shot was clearly aggravating the locals. An elderly Afghan man approached the CAF member after a night raid and said he would rather they shot one of his children instead of his dog. The CAF member was stunned. In his perception, if this was how the Afghans felt about their families, particularly their children, then he questioned the rationale for a Canadian presence in the country.

Certainly, taking what the Afghan said at face value contradicted everything the CAF member thought he knew about the local population. The mere idea that the Afghan preferred his dog to his children is shocking considering how Afghans treated their dogs. In Afghanistan, for the most part, dogs are working animals, not pets. Not only are they working animals, but also a well-trained dog is hard to come by and often vital for safety and survival. Additionally, during this encounter, the Afghan failed to demonstrate any real emotion with regard to his family, which seemed surprising given family, clan and tribe are by all accounts important to their culture, from a Western perspective. Indeed, from everything Westerners think they know about Afghans, family is important to them.

By considering this knowledge, a different interpretation of the Afghan’s comments presents itself. “Kill one of my children rather than my dog” might mean just that or – much more likely – it means, if you kill my dog, you are severely limiting my ability to take care of my whole family and as such, it is preferable to kill one of my children rather than my whole family. The Afghan was probably not talking about the value of his dog’s life over that of his child’s as it first appeared. Rather, he was likely thinking about how best he could take care of his whole family and trying to express the gravity of the situation to the Westerners – perhaps in language that he thought they would understand.

When interpreted in this manner, the reaction to the statement is completely different. Instead of disgust, the gravity of the situation is underscored and the motivation to find an alternate solution to killing dogs that bark on night raids is increased.

Again, it is important to try to understand the intent of the message and not merely what you think the words mean. By understanding what the issue is really about – by getting to the core of the problem – one is more likely to be able to come up with alternate solutions.

Additionally, understanding the intent of the message rather than just the superficial meaning of the words can help you discern what information you should pay attention to in particular. For example, throughout the counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan, Americans were detaining certain individuals and questioning them. In the case of Afghan teenage boys, which represented a high target group since many of the insurgents in Afghanistan are young males, an Afghan elder warned coalition members that these boys needed to be home by a certain time. The Americans thought they understood what home by a certain time meant, specifically before dark, but they did not pay much attention to the comment. While questioning could last for hours, and often only ended in the middle of the night, the Afghans were always offered a ride home – which apparently few, if any, ever took – so the Americans thought they had done their due diligence. What the Americans did not understand, however, was that in Afghanistan, while the rape of young boys is not uncommon, if a boy is suspected of having been molested, he could lose all the social status that he had accumulated and often be disowned by his family. Returning home after dark, with no one to account for their whereabouts during their absence, many of the young men who had been detained could end up shunned by their families. With few places to turn, joining the insurgency could seem like a good, if not the only, option.

Notably, it took a decade before the significance of their actions was fully understood. The Americans had made a conscious effort to minimize the number of insurgents in Afghanistan but, in this case, they lacked the knowledge, or possibly motivation, to apply cultural intelligence to the problem. They lacked the skill and / or the empathy to recognize that what the Afghan elder was telling them was important. [10]

The question that naturally arises then is how do you mitigate these cultural barriers in order to have an influence and further your objectives? Cultural intelligence – or cross-cultural competence or cultural savvy as some have referred to it – provides a solution. [11] Cultural intelligence is understanding the beliefs, values, and attitudes that drive behaviours and acting in a way to further your interests.

It is about understanding the message that is being sent, making sure that the intent of your message is being properly understood, and ultimately, influencing a target group of people to achieve your goal. [12]

However, cultural intelligence is more than just culture awareness. You can think of these relationships in terms of building a puzzle. Cultural awareness represents the pieces of the puzzle – the information about people and places, the “dos” and “don’ts” if you will. Cultural Intelligence in this case acts as that big picture that allows you to put these pieces together in order to build your plan and achieve your goal. Putting together a thousand-piece puzzle without any concept of what it is supposed to look like would be a real challenge; equally as challenging is putting together a puzzle without having all the pieces. Clearly cultural intelligence and cultural awareness go hand-in-hand. You need that fine detail, as well as that big picture to be able to put everything together.

Additionally, whether you are talking about governments, militaries, or businesses it is important to note that cultural intelligence should not simply be applied when dealing with a culture that is considered foreign or antagonistic. Cultural intelligence helps you work more effectively with people from your own culture, including different subcultures, people with whom you interact in a friendly manner, people you may interact with for strictly business purposes and as well, the group that is actively working against what you want to achieve. Ultimately, cultural intelligence can be beneficial when dealing with human interaction at any group level.

Within the context of defence, cultural intelligence needs to be applied to the national, international, host nation, and enemy domains in order to be most effectively utilized. Western militaries need to understand and work effectively within the contexts of their own national cultures (home domain). They also need to work well within coalitions (international domain). Moreover, when deployed, it is essential to function effectively with local populations as well (host nation domain). Finally, cultural intelligence can help with the ability to identify, target and influence members within the enemy domain.

Specifically, within all four domains, cultural intelligence helps you understand the groups you are working with and amongst. This information is important because it provides insight into what beliefs, values and attitudes are driving behaviours which can help you: identify which people belong to which groups; be able to assess what information is relevant and accurate and, importantly, what questions still remain; predict behaviour; and, ultimately, influence behaviour to your desired end state. Whether at home, working with allies, working in a foreign country or actively engaged in a conflict, cultural intelligence can help you understand, predict, and influence the behaviours of others in order to achieve your desired results.

Action in any one of these domains can – and probably will – affect the others and each domain is dynamic in its own right. [13] There is no simple solution but, within a military context, what it boils down to is that you need to know yourself; you need to know your enemy and you need to know the terrain in which you are operating and this includes the human geography – both at home and abroad. [14]

Further complicating this issue is the pervasiveness of the media and social media. Something that may be seen as acceptable within the context in which it is being acted-out has a high probability of being circulated much more widely than anticipated and/or desired and not being acceptable in other circles. For people in the public domain or people who serve in a public role such as military members, behaviours need to be above reproach when viewed in any cultural context at any time. While this fact might be easy to state and acknowledge, as life has demonstrated, it is not necessarily easy to do. One need only think back to the 2011 video of US marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban for just one vivid portrayal of the consequences of military members not applying cultural intelligence when deployed. [15]

Certainly, always demonstrating high levels of cultural intelligence is not an easy task. Showing high levels of cultural intelligence can be a challenge because you lack the proper information, you do not have the skill set or ability to apply the information, you do not have the will to behave appropriately, or any combination of these items. Additionally, you need a goal in order to focus your efforts appropriately.

Thus, in order to apply cultural intelligence effectively, you need these four components and you need to apply them to all four domains simultaneously. When it comes to Solving the People Puzzle – from a military perspective – whether at home, working with the other services, internationally with allies, winning hearts and minds within local populations or in an attempt to defeat the enemy – cultural intelligence helps you take all your education, training, ability and effort, and direct it towards achieving your goal. You do need to have all of the ingredients to be effective.

The Importance of Cultural Intelligence to the Contemporary and Future Operating Environments

“I was looking at the wrong map – I needed to look at the tribal map not the geographic map. The tribal map is over 2,000 years old. Wherever we go in the world, we must take in to account culture. Culture will affect what we do. … not all enemy reported was actually Taliban – identification of enemy forces was often culturally driven.” Brigadier-General David Fraser, Former Commander ISAF Multi-National Brigade Sector South [16]

Certainly, with respect to the contemporary operating environment, the importance of showing high levels of cultural intelligence is now, in most circumstances, intuitive. Indeed, the non-linear and asymmetric approach of the contemporary operating environment, particularly with respect to insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, demands that soldiers act as warriors and technicians, as well as scholars and diplomats. Individuals need to see through the eyes of another culture, specifically the one with which they are interacting, to adapt their attitudes and behaviours in order to better influence the target audience to achieve specific aims.

Failure to demonstrate high levels of cultural intelligence in this type of environment can be disastrous. As military experts Jacob Kipp, Lester Grau, Karl Prinslow and Don Smith surmise, “Conducting military operations in a low-intensity conflict without ethnographic and cultural intelligence is like building a house without using your thumbs: it is a wasteful, clumsy, and unnecessarily slow process at best, with a high probability for frustration and failure… while waste on the building site means merely loss of time and materials, waste on the battlefield means loss of life, both civilian and military, with high potential for failure having grave geopolitical consequences to the loser.” [17] Additionally, the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual warned, “Psychological errors may be committed which antagonize the population of a country occupied and all the foreign sympathizers; [These] mistakes may have the most far-reaching effect and it may require a long period to re-establish confidence, respect, and order.”  [18]

The recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have served as a wake-up call to Western militaries signaling that culture matters. A returning US commander from Iraq remarked, “I had perfect situational awareness. What I lacked was cultural awareness. I knew where every enemy tank was dug in on the outskirts of Tallil. Only problem was, my soldiers had to fight fanatics charging on foot or in pickups and firing AK-47s and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] … Great technical intelligence. Wrong enemy.” [19] This comment caused cultural anthropologist Montgomery McFate to assert, “Understanding one’s enemy requires more than a satellite photo of an arms dump. Rather, it requires an understanding of their interests, habits, intentions, beliefs, social organizations, and political symbols – in other words, their culture.” [20] McFate continued to argue that “culture matters operationally and strategically … misunderstanding culture at a strategic level can produce policies that exacerbate an insurgency; a lack of cultural knowledge at an operational level can lead to negative public opinion; and ignorance of the culture at a tactical level endangers both civilians and troops.” [21] Conversely, she also observed, “Understanding adversary culture can make a positive difference strategically, operationally and tactically.” [22] McFate concluded, “The more unconventional the adversary, and the further from Western cultural norms, the more we need to understand the society and underlying cultural dynamics. To defeat non-Western opponents who are transnational in scope, non-hierarchical in structure, clandestine in approach, and who operate outside the context of nation-states, we need to improve our capacity to understand foreign cultures.” [23]

Arguably, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree with the importance of cultural intelligence in the contemporary and projected future operating environments. Nonetheless, there lacks quantifiable evidence of the value of cultural intelligence to these environments, as well as any consensus on how to measure an individual’s predisposition to being able to demonstrate high levels of cultural intelligence. [24]

Simply because there is no dip-stick for measuring cultural intelligence within individuals or as a force multiplier within an operating environment, does not mean that one should neglect its obvious utility. The qualitative evidence unquestionably supports the premise that culture matters and intuitively it just makes good sense. As such, one should not be immobilized by a lack a measurement. There are a number of supposed cultural assessment tools on the market today. They tend to be specific to certain professions, however, and there is no standardized measurement within or across fields of study. This absence does not mean that there will never be an accepted measurement for cultural competence. It simply means that there is no accurate, reliable, consistent tool now. Yet, had apples not fallen to earth before Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity? It is thus time to focus on improving levels of cultural intelligence even if the effects remain qualitative in nature.

How to Improve Levels of Cultural Intelligence

To demonstrate high levels of cultural intelligence, you need to have a goal, and the knowledge, motivation and skill-set(s) in order to behave appropriately and influence your target audience. Put in this manner, demonstrating high levels of cultural intelligence appears to be an easy task. As countless examples demonstrate, however, this is rarely the case. While the benefits of showing high levels of cultural intelligence may be intuitive, the application of doing so is often fraught with challenges.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for solving the people puzzle. Human behaviour is far too complex to follow any simple prescription. Consequently, even thinking you understand the human dynamics within the area in which you are operating and how you should behave in order to maximize your influence, rarely assures that you will achieve your aim and this reality is underscored in a conflict zone. For the most part, our understandings of cultures are incomplete and too many variables exist to guarantee that a set of actions will incur the same results in different situations. When dealing with people and trying to influence them to accept and act on your intent, one should not expect instantaneous results. Subtle changes may be occurring without you realizing it. Westerners generally want instant results and militaries tend to reinforce this need. Influencing a group of people to change their perspective of reality, however, is certainly not going to be a rapid process. There is no easy or quick fix to solving the people puzzle. These factors, however, do not mean that you cannot work toward a solution.

Even though it is unlikely that anyone would ever achieve perfect proficiency in applying cultural intelligence to be able to achieve his / her goals in all situations, it is possible to improve continuously your ability to demonstrate a high level of cultural intelligence. The following is a list of ten principles that will increase your cultural intelligence.

10 Principles to Enhance Levels of Cultural Intelligence

1. Recognize that there is no such thing as an impartial view.

There is no view that is bereft of a specific perspective. Everyone brings some sort of bias into a situation and this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, biases can be very helpful in allowing you to make quick, often accurate, decisions. However, they can also cause you to make poor decisions. It is important to recognize what biases you bring to the table, as well as the preconceptions and biases of the people with whom you are dealing. This information will help you understand what the issues are really about and assist you to be better able to predict and / or influence behaviour.

2. Focus on the intent of the message rather than just on what you think you have heard.

Most of our language is subjective – for example, words like big, small, good, and evil have no real meaning outside of their shared context. In fact, they can mean quite different things to different people. It is important to focus on what is being said rather than what you think you have heard. In the case of the barking dogs in Afghanistan and the home by a certain time examples, a great deal of wasted time and effort could have been prevented by listening to what was really being conveyed.

3. Understand what your audience takes away rather than focusing on what you think you have said.

This principle is essentially the mirror image of the previous one. What you say is not nearly as important as what people hear because, at the end of the day, people react to what they have heard/understood, which may not be the message you think you passed on. Language needs to be clear, precise, and exact to minimize discrepancies. More importantly, you should put the effort into explaining your point of view/position. As was demonstrated in the example of Afghans performing checkpoints, an explanation can be the difference between mission success and failure. You should also put effort into trying to determine what your audience actually understood and how they interpreted your message.

4. Always seek knowledge, but do not be limited by the unknown.

Often those who know the least tend to have the most confidence because they have no idea how much they do not know, whereas those who know a lot are generally humbled by the breadth and depth of what is still to be learned. While people should continuously seek to develop themselves, decisions need to be made in real time and you have to be confident to be able to make the best of a situation with whatever information you currently have. You need to be able to shape this information – even if it is limited – in such a way as to maximize your desired effect.

5. Be adaptive / flexible.

People have a natural tendency to want to stick to their routine, carry out a plan to fruition even if it is not going well, or simply stick to a pattern with which they are familiar and comfortable. Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to being adaptive. What we tend to forget is that these benefits are there on a day-to-day basis as well. Being adaptive to the ground truths might mean the difference between success and failure.

6. Look at the world through the eyes of others.

This is a vitally important point in helping you be more culturally intelligent. If you can see a situation through the eyes of those with whom you are dealing, namely, understand their perspective, you will be much more able to predict and shape behaviour. In addition, you will be much more likely to understand how they see you and how they might be trying to predict and influence your behavior, a point that many people often forget to reflect upon.

7. Apply critical thinking to problems to identify root causes.

It is important to not just deal with the superficial issues that present themselves, but instead to figure out what is causing the problem(s). Too often, we focus on symptoms of problems rather than their root causes. We concentrate on the insurgency for example – the violence, the growth of the movement, the demands, etc. – instead of investigating the cause of the insurgency. While someone’s freedom fighter is someone else’s terrorist – rather than just looking at the different perspectives, it is equally important to see why and how the movement started in the first place.

8. Apply creative thinking to problems to find innovative solutions.

While it is easy to say be creative and find a novel solution, for many reasons the older people get and the more comfortable they are within their own organizations, the less creative they become. In addition, the bureaucracy that is essential to many functioning governments actually stifles creative thought, and the same could be said of many – although certainly not all – organizations. You cannot just tell people to be critical and creative thinkers, you have to give them the skill-sets and the environment to be able to develop, nurture and exhibit these skills. People should feel comfortable within their work environment to have the confidence to discuss unique, creative thoughts without fearing criticism or judgment.

9. Recognize that for every action, there is a reaction.

No one exists within a bubble and when you are examining conflict and war – and any type of human endeavour – it is important to remember that for everything you do, there is a reaction by friends, allies, partners, and the group that you are opposing. Moreover, the same goes for each one of those groups. In essence, the enemy has a vote. Too often, people tend to plan a course of action without factoring in the reaction and consequences, and then fail to be adaptable enough to adjust to the new dynamics. Having a plan is often essential but it is important to recognize that it is only a starting point. You will never be the only one who has a plan. The enemy always has a vote.

10. Have a goal.

If you do not know what direction you are going, and what you ultimately desire, then how are you supposed to get there and, even more challenging, how are you supposed influence others to support your desired end state? Showing high levels of cultural intelligence requires having a goal. After all, the goal focuses your actions and frames your intent as well.


While cultural intelligence may not be a panacea to conflict and war, and while it may remain difficult to ascertain an ind