CQ: Cultural Intelligence – Why You Need It Now

Heidi Thompson and Marietta Stalcup Walking down a hall with luggage

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable with people from different countries.” Robin Scheffer, Director Price Waterhouse Coopers Netherlands told my MBA students during an interactive Zoom session he was leading. Solving complex global issues requires cultural intelligence.

An MBA student once remarked that she didn’t think it necessary to learn about other cultures because she had no intentions of working overseas or for an international company. Yet, we don’t need to leave our home base to conduct business on a global scale in today’s world.

On a local level, we engage with professionals who are on business in our country, we study alongside international students, we live and work among visa holders, including entrepreneurs, subject-matter-experts as well as refugees and immigrants. With an increasingly diverse workforce, increasing our CQ enables us to improve our communication and our outcomes.

Digitally we connect online with our colleagues in other regions and countries. Never before have we had so much access to new markets, products and services. The pandemic has opened our eyes to the array of international, sometimes multilingual, content at our fingertips: courses, conferences, webinars, podcasts, videos, live streaming events. The world has arrived on our doorstep and we have access to online tools to grow our CQ.

What is cultural intelligence, and how can that apply to me?

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is our ability to relate and flourish in multicultural environments. In the Harvard Business Review article “Cultural Intelligence,” authors P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski define cultural intelligence as “an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.” In layman’s terms, how fluidly do we interact with another culture? How mindful are we of the sometimes delicate balance with how greetings and meetings are conducted and their impact on outcomes? What is the perception from other countries about how well that we “fit in” with their cultures?

The CQ Intelligence Center further breaks down cultural intelligence into two segments:
GLOBAL CQ: working and relating effectively across international cultures.
DOMESTIC CQ: working and relating effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds in your own country.

Like the MBA student mentioned above, many assume upon hearing the term “cultural intelligence” that it applies only to our interactions outside our international borders. The reality is, the world has come to us. Greater mobility, human migration, and the ease of connecting across the globe put us in direct contact with cultures markedly different from our own. As professionals, we have both the chance and the choice to actively engage in strategies, relationships, and activities that enhance our CQ and professional performance. The best part is that it can also be fun and enrich our personal relationships.

Nurturing mutual understanding and respect for other cultures affords us expanded access to information, tools, and broader perspectives from cultures outside our own. This access leads to faster problem solving (reduced cost), increased innovation, and products and services that resonate better with a wider audience (increased sales). The challenge is that without a more developed CQ, our initial impressions about people from other cultures are often off-putting, misleading, and offer an incomplete cultural snapshot at best. With a high CQ, we can look past the cultural dissonance to uncover fresh perspectives and stimulate innovation.

David Livermore, founder of the Cultural Intelligence Center writes, “90 percent of leading executives from 68 countries have said that cross-cultural skills are one of the most vital capabilities in order to remain competitive.” Global surveys of executives consistently report the top skills in the development and need for MBA graduates include communication, influence, and problem-solving. A high CQ is a desirable skill that answers all three needs. Organizations increasingly need and demand this competency of their professional workforce. They need good global citizens.  

The good news? You can improve your CQ.

Of the many activities that you can do to improve your CQ, select those that you find enjoyable. Then say yes at least once to those that are novel. What types of activities might you enjoy to augment your CQ? When unsure how to connect in a new environment, and you aren’t sure what to talk about, remember the 5 Fs: People love to talk about their family, their food, their fashion, their faith, and how they have fun. Thinking about your own culture, what information would you willingly share about yourself with others using the 5 Fs? What might you like to learn about the 5 Fs from a different cultural perspective?

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