Many of us are aware of the work of Daniel Goleman and others on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) but recently I came across the work of Professor David Livermore of Michigan State University who studies Cultural Intelligence (CQ) in understanding and adapting to different national cultures. He describes ten value “polarities” that in some combination can be used to define and understand a particular culture whether of a nation or a region within a nation. I found this framework to be very helpful in understanding organizational cultures. Here is a brief summary of the basic ideas. Often these values are not consciously recognized by the people who hold them which can lead to conflict. Consider how you might use this framework as a way into understanding the present and shaping the future of your organization.

Identity—Individualist versus Collectivist
The cultural value of individualism versus collectivism is the degree to which personal identity is defined in terms of personal, individual characteristics versus group, collective characteristics. Individualism is organized around protecting the rights of individuals, and collectivism is organized around what’s best for the collective whole.

Authority—Low versus High Power Distance
Power distance is about the amount of hierarchy and inequality that is assumed to be appropriate and normal within a society. Therefore, independent behavior is not encouraged in high power distance cultures. Individuals are expected to defer to authority based on age, relationship, class or position.

Risk– Low versus high Uncertainty Avoidance
The uncertainty avoidance index is the degree to which most people within a culture tolerate risk and feel threatened by uncertain, ambiguous circumstances. Cultures that are high on the uncertainty avoidance index are anxious about unpredictability and ambiguity. These cultures prefer stability in their lives and careers. They want their environment to be predictable.

Achievement—Cooperative versus Competitive
Cultures that are more oriented around being cooperative place a priority on nurturing, supportive relationships while cultures that are more oriented around being competitive are more focused on achievement, success, and results. The United States is one of the most competitive cultures in the world. We’re typically seen as a very warm, friendly group of people who portray a very collaborative, personal approach, but we’re deeply driven by results and aggressive competition.

Time—Punctuality versus Relationships/Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation
Different cultures function on different timetables. These differences in time orientation are often referred to as clock time versus event time. Those of us from North America, western Europe, and increasingly many other developed nations around the world organize ourselves around clock time, while most cultures around the world function using event time, which means that times are set not to be exact start/end times but as approximate guidelines. Researchers have also compared the short-term versus long-term orientation, or present versus future emphasis of different cultures.

Communication—Direct versus Indirect/High vs. Low Context
In the cultural dimension known as low versus high context, a low-context culture takes very little for granted in communication. Things are explained explicitly and directly, and little is left to subjective interpretation. Very little emphasis is placed on using the context to interpret the meaning. In a high-context culture, communication presumes an understanding of unwritten rules and a shared narrative that informs a person of what is going on. It is not necessarily assumed that people mean what they say and say what they mean.

Lifestyle—Being versus Doing
Should time be spent primarily on being productive, or is it more liberally dispersed across various obligations in life? This is the debate that surrounds the “being versus doing” cultural value. The Scandinavian countries are some of the most “being” cultures in the world. The U.S. is a strong doing culture organized around performance and achieving results. Work is both a passion and preoccupation.

Rules—Particularist versus Universalist
The cultural dimension of particularism versus universalism is the dilemma of how you view your obligation to rules and laws versus your obligation to relationships. With universalism, there are rules for everyone. There is an obligation to adhere to standards that are universally agreed to by the culture in which a person lives. Universalist, or rule-based, behavior tends to be abstract. With particularism, there are particular obligations to people we know. Particularist judgments focus on the exceptional nature of present circumstances. For example, this person is not “a citizen” but is my friend or person of unique importance to me. I must therefore sustain, protect, or defend this person—no matter what the rule says.

Expressiveness—Neutral versus Affective
The key to understanding the cultural dimension known as neutral versus affective is that it is the way we express emotion—not whether we feel emotion. Neutral cultures see control of feelings as a sign of respect and dignity while affective cultures believe that emotions should be displayed openly.

Social Norms—Tight versus Loose
Two key components form the construct of tight versus loose: the strength of social norms (how clear and pervasive the socially preferred perspectives and behaviors are within a society) and the strength of sanctioning (how much tolerance there is for deviance from those norms). A loose culture would say, “Why does it matter?” One person believes what he or she wants to believe, and another person believes what he or she wants to believe—as long as it doesn’t infringe on one another’s freedom. Tightness is more likely when a culture is isolated. One of the great challenges facing us in contemporary society is that it’s becoming harder and harder to remain fully isolated.

Based on a course “Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are” taught by Professor David Livermore, Michigan State University