By David Livermore, PhD


Working with people from highly diverse backgrounds is rewarding but tough. Even those of us who are energized by cross-cultural work have to work harder when we work with people who have a different way of thinking and behaving than we do. And the more you’re under stress, the harder the work becomes. What begins as simply an interesting consideration of how different cultures approach queuing in a line or expressing an emotion, suddenly becomes irritating.

Even the most culturally intelligent among us may see our CQ Drive plummet when stressed. CQ Drive is your level of interest and motivation for working and relating with people from diverse backgrounds.

Try these 5 steps to build your CQ Drive in the midst of stress and fatigue:

1. Be aware of your triggers

The first step lies in being honest with ourselves. Grandiose, politically correct statements about being colorblind or viewing everyone the same do little to improve cultural intelligence. Instead, we need to be aware of the behaviors that are most likely to trigger our frustration and consider which cultures we most often associate with those behaviors. For example, how do you feel when you encounter these behaviors?

  • Someone speaking too fast/slow
  • Use of profanity
  • Cutting in line
  • Multi-tasking in a meeting
  • Never speaking up on a global call
  • Introducing one’s self with a formal title (or not doing so)

Many of these behaviors may not faze you when you’re well rested and have a positive outlook. But the same behaviors can strike a raw nerve when you’re tired and under pressure. Being more self-aware of your triggers is the first step to avoid behaviors like these dictating your mood and response.

2. Recognize your limits

Working on a project with a group of diverse colleagues requires more emotional and cognitive effort than doing so as part of a homogenous team. You have to adapt the way you present your ideas and accommodate the preferences of others. And that adaptation demands a different degree of self-regulation and willpower.

The more we must adapt to the perspectives and styles of others, the more it depletes our energy. This is one of the reasons why underrepresented groups find such great relief in coming together through employee resource groups or settings that are uniquely theirs (e.g., a gay bar, an African American worship service, etc.). At last, they’re in a space where they can let down their guard and reduce the amount of filtering and code switching they have to do.

In the very same way a rigorous, physical workout uses up some of our physical energy, the same is true for the emotional and mental energy that’s used for working and relating cross-culturally.

3. Don’t eat the second donut

The good news is, the more you exercise the self-control required for intercultural situations, the more you’ll strengthen those muscles for future encounters. One of the most highly regarded researchers studying self-regulation is Roy Baumeiester, who notes that willpower is like a muscle. The willpower muscle gets tired after being used for an extended period of time. However, regular and increased use over time also increases the strength and endurance of your ability to regulate your thinking and behavior.

One of the most encouraging findings from Baumeister’s research is that exercising the willpower muscle in one area appears to carry over to other areas. So when you exercise willpower by doing your morning workout, or resisting the second donut, or staying off email all evening, that same willpower will help you persevere through cross-cultural challenges in the midst of stress.

4. Recharge

Next, be aware of what builds up your motivational reserves and what depletes them. My initial research related to cultural intelligence was focused on the experience of short-term, itinerant travelers—including study abroad students, business travelers, and short-term missionaries. I used to urge North Americans to stay away from McDonalds when traveling abroad and instead, only eat at local establishments so they could truly experience the culture. However, over the years, I’ve observed how a familiar meal can do wonders for helping a traveler reboot.

Figure out what’s most important for you in recharging your batteries physically, emotionally, and mentally—whether it’s a familiar food, planning some alone time, or ensuring you get some time with people more similar to yourself. And recognize the importance of building up your reserve for the perseverance required to relate and adapt effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.

5. Plan ahead

Finally, be proactive by anticipating the kinds of encounters and responsibilities that will be most draining for you. When I go overseas, I try to build in an extra day at the front end to get acclimated to the time zone and my surroundings before having to jump into whatever I’m there to do. One of my colleagues prefers to do the opposite. She builds in a day at the back end of work trips and by doing so, it helps her persevere through some of the hard work by knowing what she has to look forward to at the end. If you’re going to be teaching a class with a diverse group of students and know you will need to significantly adapt your typical teaching style, plan ahead for how to build in additional time to refill your emotional tank.

Sometimes, diversity and global management professionals take our CQ Assessment and they’re surprised to see they didn’t score higher on CQ Drive, the indication of their interest and motivation for relating and working cross-culturally. After all, this is a crucial part of their jobs! But after additional reflection, these individuals often recognize that while they’re deeply committed to the value and importance of intercultural relationships and work, they may have underestimated how taxing the work has been on them, particularly if they continually experience resistance from others.

Your emotional and physical health plays a critical role in your cultural intelligence. Create a plan for how to do strength training for working and relating cross-culturally. And be gentle with yourself when you find you’re more irritated than usual from seemingly minor differences. Take a deep breath, go for a walk, or curl up for a nap, all in the name of improving your CQ!