Author’s note: I would like to thank Pvt. 1st Class Dong Jun Lee and Maj. Steven Orbon for their invaluable contributions to this piece.
The challenges of tribalism, highlighted by retired Gen. and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in his recently published book, requires expanding our definition of culturally intelligent leaders from the regional experts of counterinsurgency warfare to cultivating the metacognitive flexibility, both to bridge American social divides and more effectively work with our many partners around the world. In an American context, the need to pivot our talent development strategies is evident in everything from security force assistance brigades’ recruitment shortages to ongoing challenges in collaborating with Silicon Valley. More broadly, while some proposals for addressing this challenge include expanding language and cultural training for officers, these initiatives benefit only a small number of leaders. Cultural intelligence training for the broader force often consists of abbreviated PowerPoints with local phrases and facts before deployments. While these classes can provide context, they are not designed to train the cognitive skills needed to operate within international coalitions and units often lack the resources for more expansive training objectives. While the Pentagon attempted to mitigate this gap by deploying anthropologists as leaders in Human Terrain Systems teams, the program was shut down in 2015.
As part of United Nations Command in Korea, we explored this challenge with an experimental pilot program, using a triple-loop learning approach focused on “how” to think about cultural interactions using universally applicable skills instead of “what” to think via regional knowledge. The training borrowed from partners across the civilian-military ecosystem to explore something called “cultural intelligence” (CQ), negotiations training, and anthropology. Insights from this pilot indicate there are immediately available training strategies to help build cultural intelligence across the ranks.
What is CQ?
The first step towards enhancing cultural intelligence is defining it. Dr. David Livermore of the Cultural Intelligence Institute describes CQ as “the capability to function effectively across national, ethnic, and organizational cultures.” This definition, and his model, provided our team with metrics to benchmark our desired behavioral outcomes for growth.
While military leaders accept cultural intelligence as critical to success for events like US-Thailand Cobra Gold exercises, it has far more local impacts. While being interviewed for insights on how studying human terrain can empower military leaders, Maj. Steven Orbon, an Army officer with a background in anthropology, said that organizational cultures vary from “the entire United States Military to as narrow as a platoon or even a squad. Each group’s sphere encompasses slightly different cultural norms and accepted practices. Leaders must be attuned to these tribal ‘customs and expectations’ in order to fruitfully operate within the boundaries of each culture or at the very least conduct a successful cross border visit.”
Maj. Orbon recommends leaders “approach each new unit or situation with an almost quasi-ethnographic research mentality. . . . A leader must appreciate certain aspects of each individual and organization if they intend to gain better understanding and trust. . . . Things like contextual setting, native perspectives, common language and values must truly be understood if a military leader’s CQ is going to increase and make them more effective.” This anthropology-inspired approach allows leaders to understand their environment and establish rapport with different teams by creating nuanced cultural frameworks to guide interactions.
An existing challenge for military personnel assigned to roles requiring CQ is the lack of clear training progressions. Unlike standard deployment preparations that move from individual skills to validating units at combat training centers, assignment to coalition environments puts training responsibility on that individual or the receiving commander.
Since our team explored this challenge while already overseas, we combined reflecting on our culturally diverse operational environment with online study and classroom discussion. Although we initially prioritized CQ training from the Cultural Intelligence Institute, we supplemented the curriculum to include negotiations training with support from partners including the United Sates Institute of Peace (USIP), American University’s School of International Service, and the Defense Language and Nation Security Education Office (DLNSEO). Our final structure was:
- Week 1: Baseline CQ assessment and DLNSEO’s Culture Ready Basics
- Weeks 2–3: Exploration of the CQ model through readings and the MyCQ course
- Week 4–6: USIP’s Global Campus negotiations course, supplemented with readings, videos, and resources exploring principled negotiations.
What Did We Learn?
1. CQ balances the resilience of predictive value while targeting behavioral outcomes that can be improved with training.
Although rigorous assessment pipelines exist for education programs like the Olmstead Scholarship, expanding cultural intelligence requires faster and cheaper selection methods, especially when soldiers are being in-processed.
While the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery assesses recruit intelligence and the Defense Language Aptitude Battery measures foreign language aptitude, Pvt. 1st Class Dong Jun Lee, a soldier from the pilot, notes that “there isn’t a way of evaluating an individual’s ability and potential capacity to assimilate, adapt, improvise, and overcome the cultural differences.” The cost of this missing psychometric evaluation can be assigning the wrong personnel to critical assignments and failing to improve international alliances.
The CQ assessment can help overcome this challenge by providing predictive insights for individual performance in intercultural environments by assessing four domains: drive, knowledge, strategy, and action. This allows military leaders to balance the resilient value of personality assessments for mass-screening populations with behavioral outcomes that can be positively influenced through training. That is because CQ leverages change-resistant personality traits from the Big Five personality test (especially openness to experience) alongside behavioral competencies that can be learned. This approach does not ask soldiers to change who they are; instead, it improves their interactions by crafting training methods for overcoming their biases.
This allows the military to use the psychometric stability of openness to experience (comprised of creativity and openness to intellectual concepts) to predict performance in critical international assignments in ways that cannot be replicated through traditional intelligence assessments. The need for a more powerful predictor than academic tests scores has been reinforced by research from New York University, for example, which found that innovation (and, by extension, the creativity and openness to experience vital to the CQ model) and GPA are inversely correlated.
We found soldiers armed with the insights and baseline scores from their intake CQ assessments were motivated to grow, with several soldiers echoing that objective metrics revealed the need to “change their mindsets.” This growth mindset led to developing individual plans for cultivating high-performance behaviors and overcoming bad habits. Soldiers in leadership roles found that their performance improved their awareness of existing biases, leading to improved empathy and flexibility. This enhanced self-awareness then amplified their curiosity as they explored diverse perspectives and social norms.
2. CQ strategy and principled-negotiations preparation are mutually reinforcing.
While the Army’s official communication style emphasizes being “clear, concise, organized and right to the point,” it avoids exploring how diverse cultural values can impact communication effectiveness. Mitigating oversights like these requires leveraging CQ strategy—“the metacognitive aspect of cultural intelligence, measuring a person’s ability to strategize before, during and after crossing cultures,” which is composed of skills like planning, awareness, and checking.
During our pilot we discovered an overlap between CQ and principled-negotiations concepts, like those in Harvard’s Getting to Yes. The US Institute of Peace online course Negotiation: Shaping the Conflict Landscape trained our soldiers in these skills and provided problem-solving skills to improve collaboration and conflict prevention with international partners. As soldiers gained experience identifying stakeholder positions and selecting engagement strategies, their cultural understanding also increased.
The overlap between cultural awareness and negotiations skills, given the influence of Confucian values on social norms, requires adopting strategies that differ from the directness that is prized within the combat-arms community. This is especially present in strategic interactions between leaders, given hierarchical power structures for decision making and the need to adjust definitions for success.
Military leaders using strategies like focusing on interests instead of positions must understand how their partners will evaluate outcome criteria. This mutually empowering relationship goes both ways, as negotiations provide opportunities for developing intercultural skills in competitive and controlled environments. As soldiers gain experience applying CQ strategy during negotiations planning, they can more effectively leverage empathy and improve their team’s intercultural performance. The impact of training your team to leverage skilled negotiations and cultural empathy is a central theme from a 2010 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Extreme Negotiations,” and although that article focused on combat applications of these skills, they are powerful within your own formation.
3. Cultural training improves team collaboration.
Organizational culture’s role in overcoming strategy has critical implications for military leaders in both securing competitive advantages against our rivals and building teams that leverage divergent skills and value sets. The problem is that few leaders have the anthropological language and lenses required to seize these available opportunities. These cultural challenges exist across the Department of Defense, including elite special operations units.
Retired Gen. Stanley McCrystal famously changed the interagency culture within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during combat operations in Iraq by hurdling cultural and procedural barriers. One of the most important was removing himself as a bottleneck in the decision-making process and pivoting to a “team of teams” approach that capitalized on opportunities identified at their level. His capacity to amplify the impact of existing organizations by pivoting his organization’s structure and culture changed US special operations and marked a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda.
Despite the success of cultural flexibility with JSOC, military leaders consistently struggle to integrate technologist and digital talent at a rate that is jeopardizing national security. A critical challenge in leveraging these groups is overcoming the tribal differences and value sets explored in a recent War on the Rocks article, “Every Marine a Blue-Haired Quasi-Rifleperson.” While policy changes take time, learning cultural flexibility and expanded empathy to partner with diverse talent pools is a behavioral outcome that can be immediately trained with existing tools.
A step leaders can take today towards developing the mental flexibility required to manage these teams is exploring frameworks like Deloitte’s Business Chemistry model. This model has been shown to enhance collaboration by providing insight into four primary work styles (pioneer, driver, guardian, and integrator) and offers recommendations for greater collaboration.
Traction from better understanding your team can be expanded by identifying divergent values with operational partners. Maj. Orbon leveraged this approach while commanding a pathfinder infantry company within an aviation brigade. He began to understand that “the aviation community values calm personalities and procedurally oriented individuals, and its tactical expertise rests primarily within the commissioned and warrant officer corps (i.e., pilots). These characteristics work well in the stressful cockpit of an aircraft in which the slightest wrong step or emotional outburst could result in disaster. Things are different in the infantry community, [which values] physical dominance, calculated audacity, and heavy reliance on noncommissioned-officers’ tactical leadership.” By learning to see through these differences and creating shared awareness around “one another’s culture,” he continued, you can “develop a new level of trust . . [and a] more effective working relationship.”
As leaders gain confidence detecting and maneuvering around differing authority structures and social norms, their teams benefit from greater flexibility and operational performance. This builds on institutional practices and policies that protect diversity by developing a strategy for employing it for strategic outcome.
The US military’s position of global leadership owes much to the strength of our alliances and our longstanding tradition of leading military coalitions to enforce democratic norms. This global perspective requires developing a force that can simultaneously manage longstanding alliances like NATO and the ad hoc partnerships that tackled the Islamic State. Our success within these partnerships comes from training soldiers at all levels to leverage cultural intelligence skills to influence our partners.
Even within the Department of Defense, the success of operations spanning services and branches requires understanding and adjusting to different military sub-tribes. At the tactical level, cultural differences have critical impacts on leadership’s success in navigating personality differences and integrating technical talent for multi-domain operations.
The demand for culturally intelligent leaders requires spanning the gap between short-term training solutions, like simulated key-leader engagements, and resource-intensive programs that create regional experts, like the Foreign Area Officer program. Our pilot indicates a pipeline integrating CQ and negotiations training can help build critical metacognitive skills that enhance performance on internal teams and external coalitions. The low resource costs associated with this strategy would scale across previously underleveraged military populations, supporting US strategic objectives. The result, according to Pvt. 1st Class Lee, would be “a distinct advantage in selecting individuals that are culturally sensitive, and yet can assert the interests of the United States; someone that’s not only knowledgeable about other cultures, but also has the ability to take the initiative.”
Capt. James Long is an Army infantry officer, MD5 Innovation Fellow, and experienced tactical innovator. He currently serves as an operations officer with United Nations Command Security Battalion–Joint Security Area. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Cpl. Charles Morrison, US Army