To be culturally intelligent is to adapt and operate effectively in a range of contexts. These can be across national, ethnic, organisational, generational, and departmental settings.
Cultural intelligence is made up of four key capabilities. These are:
If we build our own cultural intelligence, we can play a significant part in improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at work.
In a globalised world of work, managers and leaders often need to have the ability to manage teams who live in different countries and represent a range of different cultures.
A diverse workforce will be made up of a range of different demographic groups and, post-pandemic, these groups are also likely to have a range of different flexible working arrangements and needs. This diversity is the reality of organisations and our society. With cultural intelligence, you can leverage the power of a globalised workforce, as your ability to perform in a cross-cultural situation is increased.
In recruiting, there can be a risk of confirmation bias. This is a natural human tendency to look for evidence that supports our held beliefs and avoid information that conflicts with these held beliefs. Additionally, some organisations look to hire based on ‘culture fit.’
Both of these tendencies, especially when overlaid with one another, can result in recruiters repeatedly hiring candidates who are like themselves. This results in teams that lack diversity of thought and often approach problem solving in the same way. By developing our cultural intelligence, we can tackle bias in recruitment by increasing our understanding and familiarity with those from different groups to us.
Additionally, being comfortable and effective when working across different cultures will turn us away from seeking to hire based on ‘culture fit’. In conjunction, this will support the de-biasing of the recruitment process and make it more likely that your organisation is hiring inclusively and building a diverse team.
Equity is not the same as equality. Equality means providing everyone with the same, regardless of their needs or circumstance. Equity, however, looks to give people what they need in order for the resulting playing field to be level.
Using the cultural intelligence you have been building at work will mean you can account for the cultural differences across your organisation and the needs of different markets and people. Building on the key ‘Knowledge’ capability referred to above means you will be developing an understanding of the way different groups will need to be supported and empowered in order to have an equal, meritocratic experience of work.
How do people feel once they have joined an organisation? Inclusion is a critical part of organisational culture. High levels of cultural intelligence can support workplace inclusion.
The ‘Action’ capability which is essential to cultural intelligence requires behaviour adaptation. Consciously modifying our behaviour to be inclusive creates a safer environment for those around us. It limits microaggressions and allows us to build a workplace culture where all of our colleagues feel able to be themselves at work. This, in turn, will help drive the innovation and effective problem solving that diverse teams excel at. Inclusion is an essential piece of realising this potential.
Culturally intelligent employees can drive up innovation and creativity across teams, as they are able to integrate diverse resources. High cultural intelligence in leaders is positively correlated with organisational performance. It boosts effective communication, meaning we’re better able to work across cross-cultural contexts.
If cultural intelligence can support creating more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organisations, how can we develop it?
1. Create a safe space: Psychological safety is one of the most critical elements of inclusion, but it is often overlooked. It’s crucial to create environments where all colleagues feel that they can share their true experiences without fearing judgement or backlash. In these spaces, we can have open dialogue and learn from one another. This develops the key capability of Knowledge as we better understand each other’s backgrounds, needs and motivations.
2. Acknowledge fears: Many of us will have avoided challenging conversations because we fear the repercussions of saying ‘the wrong thing’. Committing to the key capability of ‘Drive’, we can commit to our learning by normalising these feelings of fear and discomfort in order to have better, more insightful conversations.
3. Name it: Be specific and don’t dance around issues that need to be addressed. Using vague, indirect language for specific problems means it is unlikely that these issues will be addressed.
Cultural intelligence, and its key capabilities, can be trained and developed like muscles in a gym. By continuously working across these capabilities and the above steps we can become more culturally intelligent, no matter where we might currently be on this journey. With better understanding of people who are different to us, and proactively learning more as time goes on, we can be leaders and managers who create inclusive environments for those around us.
Lydia Cronin is Marketing Manager at consultancy, Included, and a contributing author to The Key to Inclusion: A Practical Guide to Diversity, Equity and Belonging for You, Your Team and Your Organisation, edited by Stephen Frost (Kogan Page, 2022).