Why Cultural Intelligence is so Important

What is Cultural Intelligence?

In today’s dynamic workplace, leaders are confronted with the complex task of managing an increasingly diverse workforce. A significant part of the leadership challenge is the differing expectations of employees in terms of how they want to be led. Many leaders have discovered through trial and error that what passes for good leadership in one region, organisation or context, doesn’t necessarily work in the next. So how do organisations ensure that they support their leaders to transition into different contexts and effectively lead diverse teams and individuals? The answer, in short, is build cultural intelligence.

When we see the words “cultural intelligence”, (CQ) many of us immediately think about the ability to work with people of different ethnicities. But while ethnic differences are important, the range of diversity dimensions that we encounter in today’s workplace are much broader than that. We work with people with different skills sets, from different educational backgrounds, across different generations and across teams and organisations with different working cultures. These differences, if not engaged with effectively, can create roadblocks and misunderstandings and can distract us from reaching important organisational goals. What we really mean when we talk about CQ is the ability to learn how to effectively work across all of these contexts to leverage the diversity of thought and collaborate effectively to achieve the right strategic goals. Research shows that, diverse teams who have this skill, can benefit from their differences and create a competitive advantage which accelerates performance across the board.

No-one is born culturally intelligent. It is not an innate skill. The good news though, is that CQ is a practical intelligence, which means that it can be learned. Moving beyond earlier thinking which equated knowledge with capability (I know it, therefore I do it), it goes deeper to look at four key factors which should be in place to build CQ, viz. Drive, Knowledge, Strategy and Action.

Why CQ is important

1. Organisations are changing

Global talent shortages, the ease of travel and technology advances have resulted in a melting pot of talent with increasing demographic diversity in almost every region of the world. This diversity is being reflected in the workplace, along with the growing number of women joining the workforce and generational diversity as older workers remain in the workforce for longer. This means we are increasingly working with and having to manage employees who may have fundamentally different worldviews, educational backgrounds, thinking styles and cultural values. Along with this upsurge in diversity comes tremendous opportunities as well as potential obstacles.

Organisational leaders are feeling this challenge. It is tough to manage and drive performance when you are required to interact with and manage stakeholders with differing expectations, needs and wants. Not everyone builds trust in the same way or responds equally to the same leadership approach. In fact, global research supports the fact that leadership is highly contextual and ideas about good leadership and management are culturally shaped.

2. Common sense is no longer common

Detractors of Cultural Intelligence might argue that all it takes to lead people from different contexts is a little common sense and emotional intelligence (EQ). The research does not support this. While it is true that EQ involves an element of self-awareness and awareness of others, its limitation is that it is highly contextual. EQ is developed as we spend time within a particular setting and use our experiences and feedback from others within that context to appropriately adapt our behaviour to fit in. When the context changes, the rules of the game change and what worked ‘there’ doesn’t necessarily work ‘here’. Many individuals have experienced the culture shock of moving to a new organisation to find that what was valued and celebrated in their old culture, is frowned upon in their new culture. Organisations too have learned this truth the hard way, with some suggesting that more than 80% of Joint Ventures fail due to the inability of the parties to adapt to the new working culture.

3. Our cultural values show up at work

Understanding and managing workplace behaviour is a task that requires a deeper understanding of cultural dynamics. In the workplace, cultural values influence our behaviour on a range of dimensions, including: how we like to communicate, give feedback, give presentations, lead, make decisions, build trust, handle disagreements and schedule activities. For example, those from low context cultures prefer communicating in a direct way, making use of words to convey meaning. Those from high context cultures, on the other hand, are more inclined to use non-verbal cues to communicate, giving weight to contextual factors and listening for tone, emphasis and perhaps even for what is not being said. For the Japanese, who come from an extremely high context culture, this way of communicating is literally described as ‘reading the air’. Understanding and adapting to these differences means that we can more effectively communicate and build trust with those who are on the opposite side of any particular cultural values dimension.

4. CQ is a critical leadership competency

Often capabilities like emotional and cultural intelligence (EQ & CQ) are written off as soft skills with limited value in the real world. Business leaders might view a discussion about Cultural Intelligence as being far removed from P & L issues and customer demands that dictate the direction of the organisation. However, there is a growing body of evidence supporting a view that gaining a competitive edge in today’s diverse world, increasingly depends on the ability of business leaders to know how to work across different contexts and when and how to adapt their behaviours. Hence the need for CQ to be a key critical leadership competency.

Scientific research reveals that the most predictable results you can expect from increasing organisational CQ include:

  • Better decision making – Individuals with higher CQ are better at anticipating and managing risk and at making decisions that involve complex, multicultural dynamics.
  • Enhanced negotiation skills – Individuals with higher CQ are most successful as cross-cultural negotiations because they are more likely to persist in reaching a win-win solutions, despite the ambiguity and absence of cues which exists in many cross-cultural negotiations.
  • Stronger networks – CQ enhances individuals’ abilities to build relationships across a broader geographic, cultural and ethnic span. These networks are the currency that matters in today’s global environment.
  • Greater leadership effectiveness – Leaders with higher CQ are far more effective at engaging and effectively leading multicultural groups which are the norm in todays marketplace.

In fact, in the diverse marketplace of today, you could argue that the level of CQ in your leadership team, has more to do business success, than other predictors such as industry experience, skills, qualifications and tenure.

Best practices for building CQ in your organisation

#1: Hire for attitude, not just aptitude

Make sure you hire people who have a growth mindset and are energised by the thought of working with diverse teams and unfamiliar contexts.

In other words, people who are not averse to change and are motivated to learn about others! This means that the focus during recruitment should not only be on the candidate’s past experience and qualifications, but also on their motivation to work with diversity, their learning agility, their adaptability and willingness to flex their behaviours. Most of us have some interest in working with people who are different to us, especially when we start on a new project or a role. Usually we are curious about what we will encounter and what opportunities lie ahead of us to discover something new about our work, ourselves and others.

However, as we encounter challenging differences between ourselves and our colleagues, things can change. We may begin to feel ambivalent or unsure about the differences we are dealing with and how to tackle them. If we aren’t able to resolve our questions or challenges, we may begin to lose our motivation to interact with those whom we believe to be very different from us. We lose the ability to remain open minded and biases begin to play out in our decision making and behaviour. In some cases, this may lead to a disengagement, as we start to feel that we are underequipped to manage our diversity challenges. The above phenomenon is known as cultural fatigue and is, at least in part, responsible for the high failure rate of expat assignments and joint ventures.

Hiring for the right attitude, will in the first instance, help you to minimise cultural fatigue and ensure that even when roadblocks are encountered, your team are motivated to overcome them.

Competency based interview questions you might want to ask:

  • Can you tell me about a time when you worked with a team who were very diverse?
  • How did you go about building trust?
  • What where your key learnings?
  • What will you do differently next time?
  • What did you find difficult? How did you overcome this?

Psychometric assessments to give you more insight:

Interviews alone are not highly predictive of workplace success. To create a more robust process, you can measure the cultural intelligence of your new hire or existing leaders by using psychometric assessments. These assessments can help you to understand current CQ strengths and development areas as well as the cultural values preferences of your prospective or existing talent. This will give you an instant data on their motivation to interact with differences, their knowledge about differences, their ability to plan for differences and their ability to adapt their verbal and non-verbal behaviours when dealing with differences. The strengths and development areas outlined in the assessment reports can provide you with your team’s areas of development and shed light on areas you might want to focus on in training.

#2: Provide CQ training and coaching

As we have seen, CQ is a practical intelligence which can be learnt. So, with the right kind of learning inputs, anyone who is motivated can improve their CQ.

Because we are all different in more ways that we realise – personality, worldview, training, approach, thinking styles, values and cultural norms – building CQ starts with raising self-awareness and understanding of the unique lens through which each of us views the world. Understanding our own pre-determined views (or biases), helps us to understand what drives our behaviour and why we do the things we do. This allows us to understand others better and enables us to be less judgmental about how they might think, behave and see the world.

But learning about cultural differences isn’t about doing a deep dive into every cultural group. It’s about recognising that different groups have different social and language rules, different workstyles and different values sets. This broad level of understanding allows us to formulate a tentative approach when working with different groups and enables us to plan our strategy for working with them.

Running CQ workshops offers individuals the opportunity to explore cultural differences and develop a deeper understanding of each other through the lens of culture. They provide a shared framework and vocabulary for talking about differences and create a safe space to share challenges and concerns. It is often said that the hardest culture to come to terms with is your own. In workshops, individuals are offered the opportunity to deepen their self-awareness by becoming aware of their own cultural lenses and the difference between their intention and their impact when interacting with those who are different to them. In addition, valuable insights are shared about the 4 components of cultural intelligence and what it takes to become competent in this area.

However, awareness alone doesn’t necessarily shift our behaviour. For our learning to be useful, it must be translated into new behaviours. This is where 1:1 coaching is a powerful tool to enable us to move past the blockers that would normally stop us from demonstrating new behaviours, such as low confidence. Training and coaching for CQ are a potent combination in building your leaders cultural intelligence.

Cultural values that impact workstyles:

  • Communication (preference for high context or low context)
  • Feedback (direct or indirect)
  • Persuasion (principle first or application
  • Leadership (low power distance vs high power distance)
  • Decision making (consensual vs. top down)
  • Trust (task/competency based vs.
    relationship based)
  • Challenge (direct vs indirect)
  • Scheduling (linear vs flexible)
  • Emotional expression (high affect vs low affect)
  • Success Indicators (individualist vs collectivist)

#3: Foster continuous learning

Cultural intelligence requires ongoing learning and a key part of that learning can be done in the workplace itself.

Holding a learning mindset and being intentional about benefitting from successes and failures in intercultural interactions creates the best platform for those wishing to build their cultural intelligence. Organisations that put cultural intelligence at the front and centre of their learning agenda, are uniquely positioned to foster a continuous learning mindset and accelerate their cultural intelligence. For leaders and their teams alike, this involves not only gaining new insights, but also learning to un-know some of what they thought they knew as biases and stereotypes are challenged. A key part of this learning process is providing opportunities for feedback and reflection. These critical learning skills enable individuals to learn about their own impact from others (feedback) and to create new thinking strategies (reflection) for moving forward.

Providing your team with the skills they need for feedback and reflection means that they will have the ability to:

  • Plan before intercultural encounters
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Notice what is happening
  • Adapt their strategy
  • Monitor their effectiveness

Three aspects of feedback and reflection are important:

  1. Planning
    To what extent do you plan for intercultural interactions?
  2. Awareness
    How would you know if the interaction was going well or not?
  3. Checking
    How do you review your success afterwards?

To sum up

Those working with diversity need to know how to ‘be themselves’, whilst at the same time flexing to the dynamics of different groups they are interacting with. This requires Cultural Intelligence – the ability to recognise when the context has changed and to adapt your strategy and approach accordingly.

The cultural context here is determined by many factors including ethnicity – generations, functional areas, organisations, genders etc. Cultural Intelligence goes beyond previously held notions that assumed that knowledge translates automatically into cultural capability. It recognises the importance of having a positive motivation, a robust approach strategy and a broad behavioural repertoire to enable you to adapt or flex to different contexts.

On the way to becoming Culturally Intelligent, individuals need to learn new ways of thinking and behaving and unlearn some previously held beliefs or biases. They also need to develop understanding of when to flex behaviour and when not to flex behaviour because it might have the opposite effect of what was intended.

No-one is born Culturally Intelligent – it is something that we need to develop on purpose. First we master the basics and then, through feedback and reflection, we continue building our capability in the ‘laboratory’ of the workplace.

Arguably as important to leaders as emotional intelligence, it is an essential skill for anyone wishing to succeed in the multi-cultural and dynamic workplace of today.

“CQ is an essential skill for anyone wishing to succeed in the multi-cultural and dynamic workplace of today.”

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