Cultural intelligence and competing with robots

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Mar 23 2021 by David Livermore Print This Article

Listen to many futurists and you would think the only jobs left in ten yearsí time will be robotics engineers and therapists. Thereís plenty of reason to pay attention to the massive disruption from the automation of work. But if youíve ever attempted to do a virtual chat session with a customer service robot or talked to a voice activated receptionist, you know thereís still plenty of work left for humans.

CNN medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta says the human brain can perform in a way that no computer ever will. In his new book, Keep Sharp, he writes, ďNo matter how sophisticated artificial intelligence becomes, there will always be some things the human brain can do that no computer can.Ē

But just having a brain isnít enough. Itís using the power of this small, mighty organ to do what technology canít do nearly as well: adapt and create.

Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University says students need to be prepared to work alongside smart machines. Rather than taking a dystopian view of a world overrun by robots, Aoun argues that humans should focus on what we alone can do - exercise our cognitive abilities to invest, discover, and create something valuable to society. And in his view, this comes down to developing human literacy - flexible thinking, creativity, and cultural agility. In other words, cultural intelligence.

AI is notoriously bad at adapting to change. Cheaper processing and the availability of data has certainly improved technologyís flexibility to address myriad problems that arise. But AI lacks the human agility to address unforeseen contexts and circumstances. A culturally intelligent individual however, can take whatís learned from one context and apply it to another. We have the ability to build relationships, work together, create artistic masterpieces, and come up with cures for devastating diseases. Cultural intelligence allows us to leverage the super powers of the human brain. There will be plenty of work left for us to do in the world of automation. But itís going to require unlearning how we work and relearning new ways.

Here are a few examples of how CQ allows us to compete with robots:

Reading People

One of the critical skills needed in a world characterized by robots and increased diversity is the ability to accurately read people. If you can read people, you have a secret power that will not only mean great things for your career but broaden your friendships and networks. Pretty much any job involves reading peoplesí cues and figuring out how to respond. Teachersí ability to understand a student, graphic designersí grasp of a clientís wishes, and nursesí conversations with patients are all effected by how accurately they read people.

This is the kind of skill that Qatar Airways has prioritized in training their cabin crew. They recognize that luxury equipment and products donít set them apart from Emirates or Singapore Airlines. Itís the ability to provide five star service from crew who can read their customers and serve them with a personal touch that will truly set them apart.

Understanding cultural values is one of the best ways to get better at reading people. Itís less important to memorize which groups have which cultural value preferences. Someoneís behavior, particularly in the work environment, may be more strongly shaped by their organizational culture or role than their ethnic or national identity. Instead, look for cues that indicate their value preferences and respond accordingly.

Presenting Yourself

People are reading you just as much as youíre reading them. First impressions emerge within the first seven seconds of meeting. In fact, one study found that we only have a millisecond before people size up whether weíre trustworthy.

Articles across the web repeatedly tell us the behaviors we need to make a good first impression, including how to dress, the kind of hand shake to use, and what kind of informal conversation is appropriate. But these tips are biased toward certain contexts. The first time I showed up at Google with a tie on, my host said, ďYou need to take that off unless you want it to cut off and added to our wall of shame.Ē Yet when I walked into Qatar Airways on a Saturday afternoon to set up for an upcoming training, I quickly observed that I was the only one in the building not wearing a suit, including the people who were carrying boxes and moving tables with me. Far too much advice about professional etiquette assumes that one-size fits all.

Or what about small talk? One of the most significant ways we create a first impression is the communication that occurs informally when we meet someone. International students tell me that the most intimidating part of a job interview is the unscripted portion. What do you say when youíre sitting at the table waiting for the interview to start? What about when your host walks you to the elevator or has lunch with you?

Theyíre right to be concerned. A job candidateís likeability and trustworthiness may be judged far more based on how they behave informally than during the formal interview. Itís not fair. Robots arenít judged for their likeability and trustworthiness but we are. CQ will help you present the best version of yourself for a diversity of audiences.


One more example of how CQ helps us compete with robots is problem-solving. Iíve always been relentless with my teams about never presenting a problem without also suggesting a solution. But problem-solving might be over-rated. Algorithms and sophisticated technology have become very good at analyzing problems and creating solutions more efficiently and accurately than humans do.

Even if you donít have a robot at your disposal, the Internet is full information about how to solve everything from using Excel to having a difficult conversation with your boss. But where CQ is needed is in finding what the problem is in the first place, particularly if itís a problem that hasnít happened before and canít be identified by running an automated diagnostic.

We donít have to look far to find corporate examples of failed problem-finding. Best Buy and Walmartís failures in Western Europe stemmed from an assumption that the market wanted big box stores. Kodak, Blockbuster, Blackberry, and Nokia misread technological trends and needs.

Unclear solutions begin as unclear problems. The ability to identify problems and come up with innovative solutions is the secret to any good business. And itís at the core of good medicine, education, engineering, and more. The 21st Century workforce needs culturally intelligent humans who are adept at problem-finding for a diversity of people and contexts. The skills we develop to read people are the same ones we exercise to find problemsóslowing down, using perspective-taking, questioning assumptions, and understanding the invisible values that shape behavior.

Always Adapting

Darwinís 19th Century words are relevant for how we compete with robots: "It's not the strongest that survives, not the most intelligent. It's the one that is most adaptable to change." If the last year has taught us anything, itís that adaptability is critical. CQ not only makes you more competitive in the job market, it gives you the skills to adjust to the constantly shifting world surrounding us. Employers and universities know it. Robots know it. But do your priorities show that you know it?

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.