Cultural Intelligence: Thriving in Culturally Diverse Environments
7 Minute Read
"CQ is critical for navigating today’s increasingly global and diverse business environment…the good news is it’s entirely learned. It’s so important that we made it one of our core behaviors at PwC.”
- Robert Moritz, PwC Chairman
The world is getting smaller and increasingly connected and with it companies worldwide, no matter how big or small are facing a culturally diverse work environment and the challenges that come with it.
Today’s top leaders need to understand how to effectively relate to people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.
A misunderstanding of a seemingly innocuous comment can lead a business deal astray or jeopardize cooperation.
A lack of insight and ability to read and adjust to the norms and habits of different cultures can bear a high cost to an organization.
Cultural intelligence is a skill that can set apart an average leader or collaborator from an extraordinary one, and organizations worldwide are acknowledging this and training their workforce in this vital competence.
What exactly is Cultural Intelligence?
"Cultural intelligence (CQ) is the capability to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations."
- Cultural Intelligence Center
Cultural intelligence is the ability to understand and lead people from different cultural backgrounds. It’s the skill that allows people to go beyond borders and thrive in diverse environments.
Even within organization's, different departments might have their idiosyncrasies, making it hard for workers to interpret what’s being communicated, causing them to struggle to feel a part of the company.
They need to learn the skills of CQ (Cultural Intelligence).
What’s the difference between Emotional and Cultural Intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence and Cultural Intelligence are related but distinct concepts.Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify our own and other people’s emotions and to adaptively use that information to choose behaviors that are aligned with our goals and adjusted to the environment. Cultural Intelligence picks up where emotional intelligence stops. CQ allows individuals to discern out of someone’s behavior what is culturally influenced and what is particular to that person. Someone with high CQ can interpret another person’s ambivalent behavior in the exact way someone from the same culture would.
Can we learn Cultural Intelligence?
Cultural Intelligence can be developed, even though some people have a natural way of reading and adjusting to diversified environments, healthy and competent individuals and teams can learn the skills that help navigate culturally complex situations.
Why do we need it?
There is a myriad of situations in which this skill is vital. Too often, people go into these situations without much thought or planning, only to realize how culture shapes our thinking and actions and makes it hard to respond to ambivalent manners or traits.
These are some examples of situations where lack of cultural intelligence can lead to misunderstandings and potentially undermine communication and business:
1. Expectations of punctuality
The standard expected punctuality in Portugal is not the same as in Germany, for example. For a Portuguese manager a 5-minute delay is hardly reason enough to apologize, but for a German one, those same 5 minutes might come across as disrespectful.
2. Greeting people
In Japan bowing is a sign of deference. In our own cultures, the way we show respect might vary, but if we want a Japanese to feel like we respect him, we need to behave in an unambiguous way.
Failing to receive and demonstrate culturally characteristic gestures is a sign of low cultural intelligence, namely, the physical component of it.
Jeffrey Sanchez- Burks is a professor at University of Michigan who studied the impact of cultural barriers in business settings and found that job candidates that were able to adopt the mannerisms of the recruiters with different cultural backgrounds had a greater probability of being made an offer.
3. Maintaining appropriate physical distance
In Latin-American cultures, people naturally gravitate closer towards each other. Their personal space limits are, in general, smaller when compared, for example, with Northern European cultures.
A Hispanic leader will tend to move closer to his Dutch listener, while the last backs away. If they both ignore the role of culture in this behavior, they’ll dance around, frustrated and dismayed with each other.
4. Overcoming divisiveness
True cooperation, teamwork, and creativity require trust. People communicate, share ideas, projects and feedback whey they feel it’s safe to do so.
How many times do you see different departments in an organization struggle to get along? Each group has their own dialect, rules, norms and expectations.
The engineers complain about the accountants, the accountants just can’t seem to get their point across to the designers? How many synergies are lost in these challenges?
It’s hard to talk people into trusting you, but when you behave in a way that clearly shows you understand and respect them, trust ensues and cooperation is possible.
These are just a few examples of situations where CQ plays a vital role. As diversity and complexity increases in workplaces, so will the need for CQ.
The CQ Triad
We have to address 3 aspects of CQ to develop this skill.
First of all, how likely is it that anyone will have the time to study all the manners, characteristics and traits of every culture he needs to interact with? Not only, unlikely but also not the most effective way of going about it.
Instead, we need to consider helpful learning strategies. People who are not highly influenced by their own culture are more apt to fitting in other cultures. Because CQ demands that we momentarily suspend judgment, in order to notice the clues and subtleties that can appear in different ways and contexts and provide a line of interpretation worth pursuing.
This aspect reflects our ability to acknowledge the influence of culture in our own demeanor, and the beliefs, attitudes and tendencies we have when we interact with unfamiliar cultural contexts.
We trust and empathize with people who are like us. Adopting people’s habits and gestures is a way of demonstrating we’re entering their world.
We do this in many different ways, in the way we greet people, how we order a meal, the way we lead a conversation or sit across the other person. These are all small signs that either further the likelihood of the other person trusting us or undermine it.
3. Emotional and motivational
Let’s face it, our professional lives are challenging as it is, inevitably we’ll face situations in which our emotions can lead us away from our goals and intentions.
If, from the onset, someone doesn’t believe he’s capable of connecting with people from different cultures than he won’t put any effort into it and give up at the first signs of struggle.
Another person, with a higher sense of self-efficacy, will encounter the same obstacles but persevere and strive to learn from mistakes, trusting that learning is always possible.
Therefore, the emotional and motivational part of CQ is of crucial importance and can determine whether or not someone advances in this skill.
Core & Flex
One of the questions that naturally arises when people think of CQ is this one:
Is adjusting to someone else’s gestures and habits equated with inauthenticity? Won’t I lose myself If I’m constantly molding to someone else?
Julia Middleton, founder of Common Purpose, one of the biggest leadership development organizations in the world, came up with a framework to address this question. She called it “Core & Flex”.
Core is about knowing what is true about yourself and so important to you that you’re not willing to compromise it. It’s those values that help define who you are, if you acted against them you would feel inauthentic and it would take a toll on you.
Flex is about understanding which gestures and behaviors you can compromise on because they’re not so significant to you.
Julia exemplifies this with a project she had in the Middle East that required her to wear a Burka. At first, she thought no way. Any woman that complies with it is being a wimp. But on closer examination she realised that appearance was never really important to her but that she could learn a great deal with the experience and that project, so she decided wearing a Burka was in her Flex domain.
Here’s Julia’s Tedx Talk on Cultural Intelligence.
Wrapping it up
As universities, workplaces, and cities around the world welcome people from different countries, the ability to go beyond borders and leverage the opportunities of cultural diversity is a skill no organization should ignore.