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5.2 The Role of Self-Efficacy in Cultural Intelligence

As a leader working with different and unfamiliar cultures, your self-efficacy determines how you think, feel, and behave in cultural situations. It is your beliefs about what you can and cannot do. It is your confidence level in intercultural situations and the results that it has on your ability to adapt to another culture. It is your belief that you have the ability to work through cultural issues that can contribute to your perseverance in daunting, challenging situations.

If you have a high level of self-efficacy, you are not afraid to take on cultural challenges. Instead, you perceive the tasks involved as if they are something to be mastered. Your belief stirs up an internal motivation for you to be successful and to fully engage in the problem. You are more likely to set challenging goals and diligently work through activities. You are also more apt to maintain a commitment to the process and the goals. When the going gets tough, you keep on going because of your perseverance and resiliency. Take, for example, the case of Jerry and Mingxia:

Jerry works in a large university and has managed the day-to-day operations of the study abroad center for three years. Because of the focus on studying abroad, many of the students who work in the center are from outside the United States. Most recently, Jerry hired a student from China for a work study position coordinating front desk activities. Jerry has enjoyed working with Mingxia thus far, but he has noticed that when he needs tasks to be accomplished, she doesn’t give him a definite “yes” or “no” and sometimes provides an ambiguous response to his questions. He’s quickly realizing that when she says “yes,” it means she understood him but it doesn’t mean she agrees. At first he is frustrated, but that frustration gives way to interest and fascination about cultural differences. He’s had to sit down with her several times to discuss the tasks, but he approaches the conversation as a learning opportunity for him and her. He realizes that managing this cultural interaction is necessary for the work of the department. He has found that even though it takes more effort to build cultural understanding, he has seen it pay off. The other day, Mingxia brought in her friends who were interested in working with the center because they heard it was a great working environment and that he was a great boss.

Jerry’s perception of cultural challenges was to change them into opportunities; he adapted to the situation at hand. This is a vastly different response than what would be observed in a person with a lower self-efficacy. These individuals tend to doubt their abilities in unfamiliar cultural settings. They tend to avoid challenging situations and often visualize potential failures and setbacks. Individuals with low self-efficacy attribute their failures to not having the right competencies or information for the situation, whereas those who have high self-efficacy attribute failures to not putting in the right amount of efforts required.

Using the CI model in Figure 3.1 "Cultural Intelligence Model", Jerry can think about this situation in this way:

Acquire: Jerry needs to acquire cultural knowledge to help him understand the situation better. He already knows from his interactions with Mingxia that language, particularly responding with “yes” and “no,” may not be productive in this case. He also knows that Mingxia is from China and has connected his department with future employees. Jerry also could learn more about students from China and in particular, how they like to work with someone who is older than them.

Build: In this situation, Jerry can use what he knows and what he would like know to create new ways to interact with Mingxia. He may have to try the strategies and test them out. A culturally intelligent leader would think about how he could plan, monitor, and evaluate his strategies. During the process, he learns what works for Mingxia and what does not. For example, Jerry may want to try asking Mingxia questions that are not closed ended or require “yes/no” responses.

Contemplate: Along with his strategies, he may remind himself to pay attention to Mingxia’s verbal and non-verbal cues. He could try either or both of these strategies, paying attention to his surroundings–both the visible and invisible pieces of culture; as he receives a response, he will adapt as needed. During the contemplation stage, Jerry can choose to suspend his judgments. When he notices he has judgments or a negative emotion is present, he can take a step back to listen and recognize what cultural scripts are occurring.

Do: As he interacts with Mingxia on a daily basis, he can learn to apply the fourth principle of CI. He can do this by asking himself how he might appear to Mingxia. Is he too authoritative? Too accommodating? Did he use words that were unclear? Was he too direct? These questions can help Jerry to use CI principles on a daily basis, and as a result, he learns more about himself and builds his self-efficacy.

Jerry’s self-efficacy helps him to be a better culturally intelligent leader. When doubt is present in individuals it detracts from one’s efforts. People with lower self-efficacy give up more easily and lower their expectations and goals. They see situations as not only uncomfortable but also, in some cases, threatening. Avoiding uncomfortable and threatening situations is a top priority for these individuals because it produces more anxiety, stress, disorientation, and frustration. Unfamiliar cultural situations become stressful and can be depressing. The following is an example of an American educator assigned to work with an Iraqi family:

Melissa is meeting Ashraf’s parents to discuss his progress in class. This is the first time she is meeting his parents who have emigrated from the Middle East recently. When they arrive late to the meeting, she greets the father by offering to shake his hand, as common in American society. He looks puzzled and shakes her hand. Then, Melissa turns to the mother and proceeds to shake her hand. Ashraf’s mother looks at Melissa, very confused, and then looks at her husband. A few seconds pass, but eventually she reaches out to shake Melissa’s hand.

During the conversation with Ashraf’s parents, Melissa asks both parents questions about Ashraf’s home life. She wants to get a sense of how Ashraf is using the information he has learned in class in his home environment. Throughout the meeting, Melissa senses that the father is becoming more impatient and suspicious, and she is uncertain as to why. She notices that the father dominates the conversation and responds to the questions she poses to the mother. He also seems evasive when responding to her.

Melissa is beginning to feel very frustrated with the father. She finds herself repeating a lot of what she’s said and explaining to the parents the reason for the meeting. Halfway through the meeting she knows she isn’t going to accomplish what she initially set out to do. She’s dreading a second meeting with the family, and she’s becoming more and more impatient with the father. Why would he treat his wife like that? Doesn’t he realize that she can answer for herself? For the rest of the meeting, Melissa loses her focus and finds herself thinking about other things. The meeting ends earlier than scheduled, but she’s more than happy that the meeting is over.

After the meeting, Melissa shares the experience with her colleagues. She says, “The dad was always interrupting and the mom was really quiet. I’m pretty sure she’s scared to disagree with him. Now, I have to meet them again because I didn’t even get what I needed from them. This second meeting better not be a waste of my time. It’s not like we have the luxury in this job to meet parents whenever they want.”

Melissa’s thoughts and actions revealed her stress and her level of discomfort with the situation. Because this is the first time Melissa has met with a Middle Eastern family, she does not know the proper cultural etiquette. She may not be aware of the cultural information she needs ahead of time to work with the family, which may explain why she does not pick up on the mother’s hesitation when shaking hands. Additionally, Melissa uses judgments based on her cultural values system to explain the uncertainty she feels. For example, she finds the father to be suspicious and evasive. How does she know that what she sees is a representation of suspicious and evasive behavior? She only knows what she sees based on her cultural experiences—her cultural lens.

Notice that in the latter half of the meeting, Melissa lowers her expectations and focuses her attention elsewhere. This is evident of her thinking, which implies that her cultural experiences are the only ways to interpret the world. Rather than taking responsibility for how the meeting was run, she puts the blame and responsibility on the family. To her, the father’s constant interruptions and the mother’s silence represented disregard for her objectives; thus, her comment, “It’s not like we have a luxury in this job to meet parents whenever they want.”

What can be done to help Melissa improve her self-efficacy? Using the principles of CI, Melissa can think about future cultural interactions in this way:

Acquire: Melissa can identify what she knows and does not know about Middle Eastern culture and in particular, Iraqi culture and customs. By identifying these areas, she creates a chart of her knowledge. Culturally intelligent leaders need to know what gaps exist for them when they interact with different cultures. In this case, Melissa will need to start at the basics, not just learning about Iraqi culture; she needs to learn about her own culture in order to understand how Iraqi families may be different from her own.

Build: Melissa can build her knowledge of the culture by gathering information from different sources such as books, documentaries, attending local events, or speaking with someone who knows about the culture. These are strategies she builds for herself to understand more about Iraqi culture. Some of these may be challenging to her because she may have never tried the strategies or activities before. But, as she conducts the activities, she can pay attention to how she feels and what she is thinking. By doing this, she will understand where her level of comfort is and where she needs to be challenged.

Contemplate: When applying this component of CI, Melissa may create a goal for herself to listen more to families’ nonverbal cues. Paying attention to this enables her to suspend her assumptions. She may even reflect on what assumptions come up for her before, during, and after meeting with families. In contemplation, Melissa may reflect on her own motivation to helping families. How committed is she to helping all families, no matter their ethnic background? How motivated is she to keep trying even when she feels uncomfortable? These are some questions that she can ask herself and then find solutions to, moving her forward in a positive manner.

Do: Melissa’s work in this particular CI element is to observe her own behaviors with families from different cultural backgrounds. As she practices her strategies, she can monitor and evaluate whether the behavior was appropriate or not by observing the responses from others. By checking her level of adaptability in the meetings, she will learn to mimic and mirror the appropriate cultural gestures and cues.