I work with brands from all around the world, and I’ve noticed that organizations are – thankfully, finally – becoming much more diverse. Perhaps you’ve noticed the same thing. Perhaps your own colleagues and clients increasingly represent a broader range of cultures, ethnicities, economic statuses, and so on.
It makes sense, then, that cultural intelligence is fast becoming a highly desirable attribute in the workplace. But what exactly is cultural intelligence, why does it matter for workplace success, and how can you become more culturally intelligent? Read on to find out.
What is cultural intelligence, and why does it matter?
Cultural intelligence refers to our ability to work effectively in culturally diverse situations. Someone who is culturally intelligent is not just aware of diversity; they're able to relate to (and, where appropriate, adapt to) people of different races, genders, cultures, ages, religions, sexual orientations, political beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, (dis)abilities, and so on. This ability to work successfully with people who have different backgrounds and life experiences is crucial. In the 21st-century workplace, it's a vital part of being an effective team player and a good leader.
In fact, some experts argue that cultural intelligence is such an important predictor of success in the workplace; it's right up there with cognitive intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ). For this reason, cultural intelligence is often referred to as “cultural quotient” or CQ, reflecting its importance alongside EQ and IQ.
But what does CQ look like in practice? Culturally intelligent people are often:
- Curious and open-minded
- Empathetic and emotionally intelligent
- Collaborative, and able to work well with others
- Effective communicators
- Adaptable and flexible, and able to adapt their behavior when needed
How to improve your cultural intelligence
Many organizations are investing in training and education in this area. But what can you do as an individual to boost your CQ? A good starting point is to look at the above traits and find ways to cultivate your skills in those areas. For example, you can work on your adaptability by pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and putting yourself in new situations. Or you can become more empathetic by routinely putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
Looking beyond those traits, here are some simple and practical steps you can take to become more culturally intelligent:
1. Firstly, remember that no culture is superior to another. Underneath our cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or whatever, people largely want similar things – to live a decent life, do a good job, be happy, have a family (in all the forms that may take), have a safe roof over our head, achieve some level of financial security, cultivate friendships and relationships, and so on. I’m not advocating downplaying the many ways in which people differ – recognizing our differences is important – but we should also recognize that our own culture and experiences aren’t necessarily “better” than others. Just different.
2. Think about the sorts of biases that may narrow your vision. For example, how does your own cultural background influence your worldview? Think also about the biases that may exist in your organization.
3. Have lots of interesting conversations with people who have different experiences and beliefs than your own.
4. Practice active listening. Becoming a better listener can help you understand where people are coming from and deepen your knowledge.
5. Consume content from around the world. I like to read news stories and watch news broadcasts from countries like India and China because it helps me understand how other cultures view the world. You can also watch movies or read books from other countries to widen your worldview.
6. Watch a TV show or read books or articles that demonstrate opposing viewpoints. For example, if your politics lean towards the liberal, you might tune into Fox News – it probably won't sway you from your political beliefs (in fact, it may cement them even further!), but it’ll certainly help you understand what matters to those at the other end of the spectrum.
7. Go to a religious service for a denomination that's different from your own.
8. Where possible, immerse yourself in different cultures and perspectives. If you travel to a new country, for example, get out there and wander through the food markets, ride public transport and generally soak up the culture (it’s more effective than purely reading about it).