Introspection – an Antecedent to Cultural Intelligence

Monthly Archives: September 2015

Introspection – an Antecedent to Cultural Intelligence

DMIS IDI-It was a glorious summer evening in Portland, Oregon.  The air was so fresh it was as if my body was nourished just by deeply inhaling its sweetness.  This was fortunate because I had skipped dinner in order to take a long walk through the wooded campus at Reed College.

Every summer a group of interculturalists – professors, consultants, teachers, and directors from all over the world – converge upon this small, elite liberal arts college to live in the campus apartments, eat in the gourmet fresh cafeteria, and well, become students again.  They call it the “summer camp for adults” and those of us in research, teaching, and practice of “all-things-intercultural” come for an amazing time of learning and exchange with “the greats” in the field.

While the evening started out beautifully, it ended with my stomach in knots, my ego bruised, and my expertise as an intercultural specialist challenged.  I was there to study the science behind several intercultural assessment tools that I planned to use in my executive education courses and consulting practice.

That evening I had attended a session led by renowned intercultural scholar, Milton Bennett (  Years ago he had created the theory of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity that is now used by Mitch Hammer with the Intercultural Development Inventory to assess intercultural competence.  The theory is based on the DMIS model that suggests we move through levels of competence ranging from an ethnocentric perspective (denial of difference; defense of difference; and minimization of difference) towards an intercultural perspective (acceptance of difference and adaptation to difference).  When I took the inventory, I glanced at my results that glared at me: minimization.  This meant that while I saw difference, I basically tended to lessen differences through the all too often viewpoint of “we’re all humans; therefore we’re all the same.”

I had quite a heated conversation with Milton that night.  My ego was bruised – after all, how could I, an expert on intercultural communication with 20 years of experience (study, research, teaching, consulting, writing) be in the middle stage of cultural competence?! How could I not be in adaptation?! At least acceptance!  I had lived abroad (Mexico, Peru, Hong Kong), traveled extensively, and thought I had worked hard to be a culturally competent person.  I was upset to say the least.

Professor Bennett held firm to his stance that research shows only a small percentage of us have a deep self- and other-understanding of cultural differences; therefore most of us tend to overestimate our cultural competence.  While we all have the core aspects of our humanity – physical, emotional, and psychological needs – our cultures have shaped our worldviews and how we determine what our needs are.  Even though I had extensive training in the area of cultural knowledge; even though I had lived abroad and studied Spanish and Chinese; even though I thought I was competent – I STILL had to do the tough work of figuring out how I could change my mindset in order to see difference and become comfortable with it.  And this is the key – it is O.K. to see difference – because in identifying what is different we are able to acknowledge those things that challenge us when interacting with people across cultures. While I had a lot of knowledge and experience, I needed to practice shifting my cultural perspective and appropriately adapting behavior to cultural differences.

I left with a bruised ego that night and I’ll be honest, it took me several years until I was ready to revisit this notion of my own personal cultural competence.  I worked hard to become more aware of my attitudes, perspectives, as well as unearth my hidden biases.  I had to become comfortable with being uncomfortable around difference.  When I retook the IDI assessment, I was pleased to see that I had moved from an ethnocentric perspective to an intercultural perspective, entering deep into the Adaptation phase.  This was a huge learning experience for me and it’s made me a better teacher and person.

Two things I would like to note.  First, this movement from an ethnocentric to an intercultural perspective does NOT mean that one has to change her or his personal beliefs or values (i.e., it doesn’t mean to become culturally relative and believe that “anything goes”).  Rather, it means that one can hold firm to her beliefs, yet still be able to flex her perspective to see things from someone else’s view – to “have the nerve” to try and understand where someone else is coming from (see my comments in a previous post 8.29.15).

Second, because of my initial reaction to the IDI, I believe strongly in this particular assessment tool and use it with my executives and professionals across a wide range of industries.  Most people are offended when they see that they are not in the Acceptance or Adaptation phase.  When I work with my Executive MBA students at the University of Notre Dame, those who are willing to look at their results with an open mind and then work on their cultural competence are able to eventually move beyond the ethnocentric perspective.  It’s all about having the nerve to look deeply within and do the tough work of dealing with hidden biases.  Being open to personal change is a leadership challenge. It takes hard work to become aware of hidden biases.  But the work of introspection is the antecedent to cultural intelligence.

I can help your organization achieve intercultural competence – whether a small business, corporation, or educational institution.

A recent study of mine using an IDI Pre- and Post-Test for an intercultural exchange showed a 38.2% increase in the participants’ cultural competence through developing knowledge and doing intensive self-work.  THAT is statistically significant!  In my post next week, I’ll share this research as well as some other research findings with you.


The psychometric testing of the IDI indicates that it is a cross-culturally generalizable, valid and reliable assessment of an individual’s and group’s core orientations toward cultural differences.  It assesses intercultural competence, which is the capability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities.

Intercultural competence is a critical capability in today’s global marketplace – whether you work at home or abroad.  See my previous post (9.5.15) on developing knowledge – mindfulness – and skills.  Feel free to email me – and visit my site at to see how you can develop your cultural competence.  My method does work!

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