Category Archives: Diversity

Thoughtful Travel and Cultural Intelligence

In 2009, I had the opportunity to backpack through Europe with my sister. We didn’t really know the logistics of doing so but fortunately our cousin, who has worked and backpacked there, advised us to buy Rick Steves’ guidebook. Ever since I’ve used Rick Steves’ guidebooks for Europe, I haven’t turned back (and I have used Lonely Planet, Fodor, Frommer’s, etc. you name it). When you read his books, it’s like you have an travel guide there with you, actually talking to you and telling you to “walk past the colorful walls” and “turn left after you go down the little steps on your right” (yes, his walking guides are that detailed). I highly recommend anyone going to Europe, backpacking or not, to buy one of his books.

But beyond Rick’s books, I’ve really grown to admire his travel philosophy. Although I’m paraphrasing, Rick’s introduction in his Best of Europe book basically tries to tell his reader/fellow traveler that we’re no longer in North America (the US, specifically, where his company is based), and we can’t bring with us our North American assumptions and expectations on our journey. It is with this mindset that we’ll have a great traveling experience.

More recently, Rick gave a TEDxRainier talk on The Value of Travel, which you can find below. Rick is a great story teller and although you might or might not already enjoy traveling, you should definitely watch this video. (If you don’t have 20 mins to spare, I’ve added my favorite quotes from the talk at the end of this post). Rick stressed the point that it’s not just travel, but thoughtful travel, that “is well worth the time and the money.”

One example of a “Eureka!” moment that Rick had on his travels to Iran (Rick says, “Why am I going to Iran?…and it occurred to me I’m going there because I think it’s good character to know people before you…bomb them.”) was when he was in a cab in a traffic jam and suddenly the cab driver, who mainly only spoke Farsi yelled out, “Death to traffic!”

Rick was surprised and asked the driver, “Death to traffic? Is it not ‘Death to Israelis’ or ‘Death to the Americas’?” And the driver responded, “No, right now, death to traffic.”

The driver goes on to explain that “Here in Iran, when anything is frustrating or out of our control, we say ‘death to that’.”

And Rick realized that this was equivalent to him saying “Damn those teenagers!” when he’s back in the states, although he doesn’t wish that the teenagers burn and rot in hell for eternity.

Now, you don’t have to be a researcher in cultural intelligence (CQ)—defined as the capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity—to realize that someone like Rick would score high on CQ. To break it down into its component parts though, CQ consists of:

Metacognitive CQ = the higher order cognitive functioning that is used to acquire and understand cultural knowledge. Individuals high on this component consciously monitor and reflect upon their own cultural assumptions and their interactions with culturally different others. They are able to suspend their judgment, be mindful, and adjust their own cultural knowledge in an unfamiliar cultural situation.

Cognitive CQ = refers to the knowledge the individuals possess of cultural universals in addition to differences in cultural norms, practices, and conventions, Those are who score high on cognitive CQ have knowledge of other cultures’ economic, legal, and social systems.

Motivational CQ = is “a source of drive” which leads individuals to direct their attention and energy towards effectively functioning in situations with culturally different others. Individuals who possess high motivational CQ are confident in their abilities to do well in contexts characterized by cultural diversity and are intrinsically motivated to do so.

Behavioural CQ = reflects the capability of individuals to exhibit appropriate verbal and nonverbal behaviours, such as appropriate words, tones, gestures, and facial expressions depending on the cultural context. Individuals with high behavioural CQ should possess a wide range of culturally appropriate behaviours, understand the display rules of different cultures, and be proficient at interpreting the meanings of culturally different others’ behaviours.

Now the chicken or the egg question: Did Rick Steves score high on CQ because he traveled lots? Or did he gain successful travel experiences because he already scored high on CQ?

If CQ is like (cognitive) intelligence, then it might be the latter. But actually, researchers in the field of CQ think that it’s a trainable/changeable capability.

To score high on CQ, for me, it really all comes down to being mindful, knowledgeable, motivated, and flexible.

1)      Be mindful that there are cultural differences. Reflect on your experiences and rethink your assumptions.

2)      Gain knowledge about cultural differences, either by reading about it, asking culturally different others, or traveling to another place.

3)      Motivate or push yourself to actually acquire the knowledge, talk to culturally different others, ask questions, and change yourself.

4)      Be flexible in your own behaviour so that it’s appropriate in the current culture/situation. Not only will you “fit in” more and gain trust or respect from culturally different others, it might also open your eyes to why people do things a certain way.

As our world becomes more globalized and different cultures are increasingly coming in contact due to work, leisure, curiosity, change in policies (e.g., the ASEAN’s AEC), or other necessities (i.e., home displacement due to war), perhaps waiting for someone to develop their own CQ is not enough. I think that it should almost be a necessity to incorporate diversity and cultural training into educational and training programs for both children and adults.

The world would definitely be a better place if one day, everyone becomes someone who would say something like this:

“This man is very different from us, but he’s fundamentally the same. And if we can take home that understanding, that’s the best souvenir possible. And for the rest of our lives, when we look at the rest of the world, rather than fear its diversity we can better celebrate it.” Rick Steves

 My other favorite quotes from the talk:

“Travel opens us up to the wonders of the world…It helps you appreciate nature…It connects you with culture…It connects you with people…It’s people that makes your experience vital.”

“[The American] dream is beautiful but so is theirs.”

“When we travel, we gain a better appreciation of what is the baggage that people are carrying when they respond to us.”

“My friends in Europe always remind me a society always has to make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons.”

“European example of pragmatic harm reduction when it comes to soft drugs.”

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain

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Filed under Culture, Diversity

Diversity Issues in Assessment Centres and The Human Factor Project in Nuclear Facilities

Yes long time no post, but I was busy with finishing my Master’s thesis and looking for an internship. Both a success because my thesis has been approved by the Graduate Studies Office of the University of Waterloo (if anyone cares, a copy can be found here:, and I’m now an intern at the Talent Development Service of GDF SUEZ in Paris, France!

I’ll do a “What I’ve learned from my internship” post at the end of my internship in October, but I learned 2 things today that is quite relevant to the IO field that I thought I really should post.

1) Diversity Issues in Assessment Centres

GDF SUEZ is a large, multinational company and hires external consultants for assessment centres (AC). Although my team mainly focuses on developing the talent after they have already been identified as such, my bosses still attend the AC sometimes or at least meet the candidates beforehand. The interesting practice GDF SUEZ does is that they give AC to different groups based on nationalities. For example, Northern Europeans (mainly Scandinavians or Dutch, etc.) would all be in one AC session while an American would only have interviews because if they put the American in the Northern European group and they have to do the AC in English, there is unfair advantage for the American person. So on the one hand, I think it makes sense with the language issue (the Northern Europeans also get to do the AC in French I believe) but the weird thing is, if the American person does pass the test and starts working for the Group, he/she will be working in a culturally diverse (but mainly French) company, so his/her experience with only English interviews do not reflect the real work environment, whereas the Northern Europeans would’ve had been tested in a situation that has higher fidelity to the real working environment. So there could still be an issue of fairness there. For example, if the Northern European in the group AC did poorly, could they argue that they were not given a fair opportunity because an American got “private” treatment for the selection process?

Side funny European cultural thing: if there is one French person in the Northern European AC, the Northern European complains because the French person (from the “South”) would talk too much. LOL.

The weirder/even funnier thing is regarding gender diversity. They try to set up 50% males and females in the group AC. However, there was a particular incident that 2 of the males did not show up. Turns out one male complained that he couldn’t perform well because there were too many females! Now that is a first (for me). My reaction when I heard this was, “Wow, so we know who’s not making it far in [the working] life.” Reality is that there are some industries or departments or teams with more or less males/females and one would just have to adapt to that. But on the other hand, if a female were to complain that there were too many males and she can’t perform well, perhaps that would be viewed differently, for example, “Yes, she has a point, we need to be fair to the woman.” So perhaps this is my own personal bias and that males have the right to complain that way, but it’s still strange to use that as an excuse for one’s poor performance in an AC.

2) The Human Factor Project in Nuclear Facilities

One of my bosses got sent a video that she couldn’t view and because I’m more tech savvy (it’s funny because I’ve helped 2 people with “how to watch a video that was sent to me” already!) I figured out how to watch it (I’m actually surprised at how quick I can solve these problems, too, because I’ve never encountered watching a video through a security-enabled ftp site before). Anyway, the video was about safety at a nuclear power plant in Russia. The video started with “errare humanum est” (“to err is human”) and they talk about how people make mistakes, but with a culture of punishment from management, employees would hide their mistakes and it could lead to disastrous consequences, especially in a nuclear power plant. So this particular plant started implementing a Human Factors Project (originating in Belgium) where they want to change the culture of the organization so that employees would report their mistakes and there would be an investigation board to help prevent the problem in the future and not punish or blame the individual who made mistakes. The point was that progress could not be made if people keep hiding mistakes. Someone in the video was saying that this was a difficult shift for the mindset of some Russians because it’s a culture with high authority and employees are used to being “scared” of management. They had to work to get the employees to trust the management so that the would actually report the mistakes…a “progressive change of mentality.”

They even had psychologists on the team (yay, representing!) and this one lady talked about how when someone makes a mistake, they tend to blame the machine because they feel guilt and shame. So they had to find ways to work around that to, again, build trust and, although they didn’t use these words (I’m sure this is the same point), psychological safety.

The concept of “transparency” also came up in the video and although I don’t study that at all, I’ve heard of it more now because GDF SUEZ’s policy is also one of transparency. So to me, I thought that was the norm for companies, but apparently being “transparent” is an “innovative” thing that companies that want to be leaders are trying to do and promote. My response, “Well, duh.”

So many things I’m learning here, I’m so glad I got this internship! 🙂


Filed under Culture, Diversity, I/O Psychology

Diversity Awareness “Experiential” Learning

Yesterday, I had an unsettling experience with an old lady in a wheelchair (also known as “an elderly with a physical disability”).

I was at the mall by myself to buy groceries. As I was walking from one side of the mall to the other, at one point, the aforementioned old lady in a wheelchair was wheeling herself in the opposite direction. I was walking near the wall and there was some space between her and the wall, so I figured that I could squeeze pass her.

But as I was about to squeeze pass this space, the lady sped up her wheeling, ran her wheelchair into the wall in front of me to block my path, made a face at me (but thinking back, her face was in that horrible grimace the entire time), and pointed to the floor behind her back indicating for me to walk around her.

To an outside observer (who all turned to look because her running into the wooden wall – for construction – was loud enough for others in the vicinity to hear), it would seem like this situation had no effect on me: my steps didn’t skip a beat and when that happened, I agilely and quickly changed my path and navigated my way around her as I kept my eyes fixed in the distance as I was doing before (side note: I don’t make much eye contact with people when I walk around).

However, on the inside, I WAS PISSED OFF. The thoughts in my head were along the lines of, “What is her problem!? I wasn’t going to hit her as I was going to walk pass her! She’s already old and in a wheelchair, and now she wants to piss others off and make enemies? Are all old women in wheelchairs bitter?” This actually went on for awhile in my head. Notice that I used those externally salient features of the woman to judge her actions (“She’s a bitter old woman in a wheelchair.”)

Luckily, alternative thoughts came into my head after I had a chance to calm down a bit. Currently, I am helping to develop a Diversity Awareness Workshop for the staff at my university as part of a series of Inclusivity Workshops. Therefore, I’ve been reading a lot about assumptions, stereotyping, prejudice, attributional biases, and mindfulness. So I came up with an alternative explanation, “Maybe something similar has happened where someone wasn’t aware that the space between her and the wall was too narrow and he or she walked into this lady in the pass, and that has happened too many times so the lady got irritated.” (Side note: are there any alternative explanations to her behavior? Perhaps her husband died the day before? But from my end, she was pretty rude!)

So on both ends, we were making assumptions. (I can only assume that) She assumed I was an ignorant, young girl who didn’t even consider that I might potentially walk into her, and I assumed that she was a totally bitter bitch because of her circumstances. But by me being aware that there were assumptions and potentially inaccurate interpretation of the behavior and situation going on in addition to potential alternative explanations, it made me feel less angry about the situation. Also, at first, I noticed myself generalizing this behavior to everyone in a wheelchair (“I guess I’m supposed to walk at least 1 meter away from them!”) but because I caught myself in this process, I intend to ask my guy friend in a wheelchair what his thoughts are on the “minimum” distance people in wheelchairs need to navigate so that either a) I can be aware of it and follow those guidelines in the future or b) hear from him whether there is a minimum distance at all.

A little more awareness, communication, understanding, and less assumptions would benefit us all.


Filed under Diversity, Life