On Earth and in Space, Cultural Intelligence Matters

| By TMA World

Peggy Whitson, a NASA astronaut who has spent more time in space than any other American, says we are at a tipping point for space flight.  In 2018, private companies – as well as NASA – are forging ahead with plans to give ordinary citizens a glimpse into space, to slingshot the moon, or even colonize Mars.  The success of the shorter trips may not require too much cultural intelligence (CQ), but those of longer duration will need higher levels.

By CQ, I mean: The ability to develop and employ appropriate attitudes, awareness, knowledge and skills for adapting effectively across different cultural contexts.

Working Across Cultures

The phrase ‘across different cultural contexts’ is important in the above definition.  I could become competent in working with say the Russians, the Japanese, or the French, but that doesn’t mean I would have a higher chance of working effectively with all those cultures.  That would take development of an underlying cultural intelligence that is not tied to working with any specific cultural group.  For example, developing attitudes of amiability, cooperation, curiosity, mindfulness, openness, and patience would serve well when working with any culture.  Skills of identifying cultural differences, and strategizing how to bridge them to achieve best outcomes, are again not tied to working with a specific culture.

Space Culture

Longer duration space missions are likely to be too complex and expensive for one nation/agency to accomplish, and so in-flight crews and ground control personnel are likely to be multinational and multiorganizational.  In high-risk space missions, misunderstandings between national, organizational, and professional cultures are unfortunately likely to be serious, not just inconvenient.  

Aviation research has found significant national differences in attitudes, such as acceptance of hierarchical leadership, and the necessity of adhering to rules and procedures.  Differences in values and norms (e.g. appropriate gender behavior, privacy and personal space preferences), communication styles, emotional expressivity, the importance of relationship building, scheduling, prioritization of work activities and different cultural preferences for collectivism vs. individualism also increase the likelihood of conflict and tension. 

Cultural differences in space are not all bad news.  Studies have found that decisions in cross-cultural aircrews are often verbalized more fully and there is stricter adherence to standard operating procedures.  One of the biggest challenges in space is monotony, and diversity can lead to more rewarding interpersonal experiences.  Diversity can also challenge ‘group think’ which is known to lower performance.  

Developing Cultural Intelligence

Tension – whether its experienced in space or not is neither good nor bad, but appropriate training is necessary to ensure the tension is constructive rather than destructive.  One research paper makes the valuable point that, “Both ground personnel and crews need to be trained to carefully monitor group dynamics and strategies to deal with dysfunctional patterns resulting from too high or too low-tension levels.”  A significant challenge is making sure interpersonal difficulties are identified quickly enough.  One researcher suggests that a crew member should be trained and assigned to recognize the influence of culture on individual and group functioning.

Evidence shows that space crews do develop their own group cultures over time.  The nature of crew cultures is more difficult to predict, and they take longer to cohere, the more heterogeneous the group.  The emergence of crew cultures is a topic being studied by the At Home in Space project – Canada’s first psychosocial experiment on board the International Space Station (ISS).

While space crews can be cohesive, difficulties sometimes arise between the crews and ground control, and between teams on the ground.  Crews often displace their anger and frustration by directing them at support personnel (it’s safer than attacking fellow crew members).  

Ground teams are often located in different space agencies in different geographic locations with different cultural systems, and they usually do not have the intense bonding interactions experienced by space crews.

Although global business teams don’t face the extreme environments as crews on long-duration space missions, members can still experience isolation, different cultural values and expectations, communication challenges, and local pressures on teamwork.  They too must develop a shared microculture that is not “Yours” or “Mine”, but “OURS”.   

Cultural intelligence is not just about working with differences, but developing common ground that is more than the sum of our cultural parts.

On earth and in space, cultural intelligence is a critical factor for collaborative success.  

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