A Quick Guide to Cultural Intelligence

In today’s connected world, cultural intelligence (CI)—also known as cultural quotient, CQ—is increasingly important as people need to relate to others from different cultural backgrounds. This is particularly true when it comes to global organizations and international businesses, where cooperation is crucial for success. A wrong interpretation of a gesture, human behavior, or communication style can jeopardize entire projects or break down negotiations. 

Here are a few key considerations on cultural intelligence. 

Is diversity enough?

It is the first step. But, if an organization hires a diverse workforce thinking that the action will translate automatically into profitability, it is in for a big surprise. The organization will also be making a mistake if they bring in diversity just to meet a quota. A team is a team, only when its members come together to achieve a common goal. Instead of working collectively, a group of people of different cultures without cultural intelligence will result in friction and frustration. 

What is cultural intelligence?

It is the ability to relate and cooperate effectively across cultures. It is having the capacity to read the unfamiliar behavior of someone from a dissimilar background and adjust one’s actions accordingly. This skill applies to navigating corporate cultures as well, because companies also have distinctive values and ways of doing things. 

Cultural intelligence allows you to move past differences in social norms and belief systems, into an environment of understanding and collaboration.

Why should you care for cultural intelligence? 

Because having cross-cultural skills gives you the holy grail of competitive advantage. The list of benefits is substantial.

  • Better communication: by lowering the chances of misunderstandings, you can build trust and rapport more quickly. 
  • Effective teamwork: being able to deal with differences in approach and methods converts into greater participation and better decision-making. 
  • More information and idea sharing. 
  • Fruitful international partnerships. 
  • Greater creativity and problem-solving capabilities: through access to more knowledge, tools, and perspectives from the expanded talent pool. 
  • Improved service for external and internal clients: due to deeper understanding of customer needs. 
  • Productivity boost: on account of efficient teamwork.
  • Successful negotiations: as a result of meaningful relationships. 
  • Increased profitability: driven by innovation and employee engagement.
  • Growth opportunity: by means of capability to expand into new markets. 
  • Enhanced corporate reputation: attracting top talent and investors. 

What are the competencies of cultural intelligence?

  • CQ Drive (motivation): readiness to be in a diverse setting. 
  • CQ Knowledge (cognition): understanding cultures and what makes them different. 
  • CQ Strategy (meta cognition): awareness as you experience a cross-cultural interaction, with flexibility in the way you react to it.
  • CQ Action (behavior): adapting both verbal and non-verbal manners to match the cultural context. 

What are the qualities of a high CQ individual?

  • Knowledgeable of other cultures.
  • Skilled at relating with people from other cultures.
  • Perceptive of the other person’s emotions. Empathetic.
  • Adaptable to situations.

Can cultural intelligence be cultivated? 

Yes, it can be developed. It is not innate. (None of the types of intelligence are totally innate.) It takes experience and practice. 

How do you develop these competencies?

Get exposure to other cultures. Growth comes when you leave your comfort zone. 

  • Gain knowledge: watch foreign films, read books written by authors from other countries, go on an immersive trip, make friends from other backgrounds, learn a new language. 
  • Get first-hand experience, by studying, working, or living abroad.  
  • Be attentive to other’s reactions. 
  • Assess whether you interpret situations correctly.

What are some tips when engaging in cross-cultural activities? 

  • Be curious. Observe other people’s way of life, their values, their perspectives. (That you have come this far reading this article means you have that natural curiosity in you.)
  • Be aware of yourself, your own cultural history, your thoughts, your biases. You will notice your biases only when you encounter someone who is different from you. 
  • Be open to new ideas and you will expand your worldview.
  • Never assume. Do not judge other’s behaviors based on your own way of thinking. 
  • Don’t fall for stereotypes. Generalizations help you make sense of the world only up to a certain extent. Not every person with a shared culture thinks the same way. Individuals are unique in their experience and personalities.
  • Be patient and persistent with your own learning process. 

Who is cultural intelligence for? 

Anyone who wants to score a competitive edge. 

Cultural intelligence is beneficial not only to organizations, but also entrepreneurs who want to increase their chances of success, individuals who strive for a rising corporate career, and those who are looking for new opportunities. 

As demographics change and economics supercharge mobility, we advance in the direction of ever more pluralistic communities. Our workplace reflects this change, as companies look to increase capabilities and to grow business by reaching new markets, foreign and domestic. 

CI is for all who travel internationally, live abroad, work with a diverse team, or work across different organizations.

It is especially relevant for those in leadership roles in multinationals, who have the responsibility to build bridges and to bring out the strengths of their teams. 

When is a good time to start developing cultural intelligence?