With many of us having ever more international experiences, wouldn’t it be nice if we used it for intercultural learning? After all, we all call out for interculturally sensitive and global leaders, right? Recent research indicates how we can best use an international experience to become such leaders.

Well, first it is about the duration of the experience. The message is clear: The longer the international experience, the deeper the potential for intercultural learning. So is there nothing that can be done except staying abroad longer? There is, as the way you approach your international experience, and the way you strive to learn from the experience influences your degree of intercultural learning.

A divergent learning style has been identified as best for developing intercultural intelligence. People with such a learning style crave for real-life experiences: they like to do things, to carry out plans and tasks, to interact with people from different cultures. However, they also tend to be imaginative and emotional. They can view a situation from many perspectives, check assumptions and adjust mental maps, are sensitive to meaning and values, and connect their feelings closely to their immediate international experience.

This learning style is set apart from three other learning styles, which have not been found effective for the purpose of using an international experience for developing intercultural intelligence. The accomodative learning style also cherishes real-life experience, but lacks reflection. The focus here is more on intuitive trial-and-error behavior, and on relying on other people for information, rather than on an analytical or reflective review of the international experience. Both the assimilative and convergent learning styles prioritze abstract conceptualization instead of real life-experience, thereby often preventing deep direct contact with cultural knowledge. Whereas individuals with assimilative learning styles do not seem to possess high motivation to interact with people of other cultures at all, individuals with convergent learning styles tend to focus on technical tasks and problems rather than social and interpersonal issues when interacting with people from other cultures.

The challenge now is to bring divergent styles to the forefront. First, it is important to understand one’s own preference for a particular learning style. With this awareness, an assessment can be made about the degree to which one already applies learning techniques conducive for intercultural learning. If these techniques are not sufficiently used, an effort can be made to acquire these techniques, through deliberate and planned behavior in the mode of a divergent learning style, or through modeling the behavior of individuals with this particular learning style. Also, resources can be recruited that help acquire the learning techniques needed, through training programs as well as coaching and mentoring processes.

So let’s all use the international experiences we have for developing intercultural learning. Wouldn’t it be a waste of effort and time otherwise?

Ming Li, William H. Mobley, & Kelly Aidan (2013). When do global leaders learn best to develop cultural intelligence? An investigation of the moderating role of experiential learning style. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12(1), 32-50.