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How to become culturally intelligent

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Global cultural intelligence‘Cultural intelligence’ is a business skill that can bring bottom line benefits through enhanced teamwork and improved cross-cultural communication. Richard Wilkes explains how to develop your cultural intelligence and avoid a culture clash.


As today’s organisations grow increasingly global and diverse – with different work practices, employee preferences and cultural norms – there is a very real business case for providing employee training in ‘cultural intelligence’.

Cultural intelligence means understanding the different expectations, attitudes and assumptions that exist in multinational workplaces and the impact that an individual’s experience and cultural background has on his or her behaviour.

“Different cultures understand time in different ways, they make decisions in different ways and they may have a different perspective on what constitutes ethical business practice.”

Employees can use cultural intelligence to improve cultural perception, resolve cross-cultural friction points and therefore enhance performance. A better understanding of cultural heritage and values can also help an organisation to harness the power of its cultural diversity.

Within HR, an understanding of different cultures is vital because HR approaches cannot be standardised across global organisations. For example, career models that work well in the UK may not be so attractive in India or China, as individuals may have different expectations. So, HR practitioners have to tailor global processes for each local market.

Understanding cultural difference

Different cultures understand time in different ways, they make decisions in different ways and they may have a different perspective on what constitutes ethical business practice. As a result, there is considerable scope for cultural misunderstandings.

There are a number of excellent guides showing what to do when working in a culture different to your own. These can range from the types of habits you can expect in a particular culture, to expectations of business practices. Cultural intelligence addresses more the mindset required by individuals and teams.

There are many stereotypes and generalisations about particular cultures. For example, in Mediterranean countries, time may not be treated as strictly as it is in northern Europe; or in the Middle East, personal relationships can dictate the progress of business more than in North America. These generalisations may well be grounded in reality and it would not be wise to ignore them. However, it would also be unwise to place all of your faith in them.

How you prepare, how open you are to your own culture, how adaptable you can be in the given context – all this requires cultural intelligence.

A key cultural intelligence attribute is the ability not to be surprised. How often have you heard people say: “I went to such and such place and they didn’t even look me in the eye”, or “it was weird, they kept asking about my family, how my kids were doing at school, we didn’t get down to business until the meeting was due to finish”.

These examples could be very different had the individuals had an open, sensitive, adaptable and intelligent mindset. These attributes are at the heart of cultural intelligence.

Developing cultural intelligence

Cultural intelligence requires a combination of social and personal awareness, emotional intelligence and cultural understanding.

Four tips for developing your cultural intelligence are:

1. Be open minded. Try never to make assumptions based on nationality. Enjoy the possibilities and the benefits of working with people from different cultures.

2. Raise your self-awareness and your awareness of others. Try to understand how your own culture influences your thinking and your behaviour. Then try to appreciate how and why others may do things differently.

3. Develop your cultural knowledge. When working in – or with people from – another country, find out as much as you can about that country’s customs, history and religion. No one will expect you to know everything about that culture but do try to get a feel for anything that particularly interests you, such as the country’s art heritage or its fashions.

4. Adapt your behaviour. To achieve a rapport with others, you have to be prepared to modify your behaviour accordingly.

Dealing with people

To effectively modify your behaviour, in order to develop rapport, it is important to understand what drives the other person (and what drives you).

“The old adage ‘think global, act local’ is still very much the way forward for multinational organisations.”

We have developed a cultural intelligence model to help individuals assess themselves and others. Think about yourself and then think about a person who you work with. This person can be someone you work with effectively, or not.

Try to rate yourself and the other person, on a sliding scale from one to five, in the following areas:

  • Focus: What is more important to you – rules and process (one) or people and relationships (five)?

  • Individualism: Do you function best – as an individual (one) or as part of a group (five)?

  • Emotion: To what extent do you display your emotions – are you neutral (one) or expressive (five)?

  • Communication: How direct (one) or indirect (five) are you in your communication style?

  • Time: Is your attitude to time – strict (one) or more flexible (five)?

  • Power: Do you have to prove yourself to earn power (one, egalitarian) or do you accept power by virtue of who you are (five, hierarchical)?

If you compare the rating for yourself against your rating for the other person, you may find areas where a ‘gap’ exists between you. These gaps are where cultural clashes could potentially occur – or they may accentuate a difference that underpins a strong relationship.

Think through the implications of any gaps. Do you need to change your behaviour towards that person as a result? Recognising that you are approaching an issue from two different perspectives may help you to work towards a mutual understanding.

This model can be applied across cultures – and even across departments within organisations – to help you develop a better rapport with others.

The old adage ‘think global, act local’ is still very much the way forward for multinational organisations. By developing your skills in this area, you can help your organisation to improve cross-cultural communication, harness employee diversity and avoid potentially damaging culture clashes.


Richard Wilkes is a director of drama-based learning specialist Steps, which provides training in cultural intelligence, using facilitated drama to bring the issues to life.

Steps will be running a seminar on ‘Cultural Intelligence’ in October, showing how multinational organisations can improve cross-cultural communication and harness the diversity of their employees. For more details, please call Steps on 020 7403 9000 or email [email protected]

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