When you’re working in an international environment such as Citrix, you need to make a real effort to understand the cultural backgrounds, beliefs and attitudes of the people around you and who you work with. If you don’t, you’ll struggle to get things done and collaborate with others. Some people – those with high “cultural intelligence” – are good at spotting cultural differences, and they adapt their behaviour accordingly. This is a key skill when working with culturally diverse groups to yourselves. In my experience of collaborating and working overseas it’s a hugely beneficial skill to have and develop.

Here, we’ll look at what it is, and we’ll see how to develop it.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to adapt successfully to a new cultural environment. It’s related to emotional intelligence, but it goes further. People with high emotional intelligence can pick up on the emotions, wants, and needs of others. Those with high cultural intelligence are attuned to the values, beliefs, attitudes, and body language of people from different cultures and they use this knowledge to interact with empathy and understanding.

People with high cultural intelligence are not experts in every culture but what they do well in is use observation, empathy, and intelligence to read people and situations, and to make informed decisions about why others are acting as they are. They also use cultural intelligence to monitor their own actions. Instead of making quick judgments or relying on stereotypes, they observe what is happening and they adapt their own behaviour accordingly.

Developing Cultural Intelligence

According to Dr David Livermore, an expert on cultural intelligence and author of the 2011 book “The Cultural Intelligence Difference,”  there are four things that contribute to it:

  • Drive
  • Knowledge
  • Strategy
  • Action

According to Livermore, you must develop each of these to be culturally intelligent. Let’s look at how you can do this.

Drive  – is your motivation to learn and adapt to a different culture. People who aren’t interested in what shapes a particular culture are unlikely to adapt well to it. But think of what happens when you make an effort to learn about this new culture. Your mind is open, and, instead of seeing difference as a difficulty, you see it as something that you want to learn about. To strengthen your drive, make an effort to explore new cultures and communities.

Knowledge  – cultural knowledge isn’t about learning a new culture inside out. Rather, it means learning about how a culture in general shapes someone’s behaviors, values, and beliefs. To broaden your knowledge of this, start by learning about a culture that you’re interested in, or that you’re working with. Reviewing Richard Lewis model will give you a good overview of cultural differences, and you can also deepen your understanding by observing how people from different cultures behave. We explore this model in more detail during the workshop.

Strategy  – this involves taking what you have learned from being aware of cultural differences, and making robust, culturally sensitive plans as a result. This is actually quite simple – if you make a habit of thinking about cultural differences and their impacts, they will naturally feed into your planning. There are several ways to build this habit into your daily life. First, question your assumptions about why things happen differently in different cultures. Use a technique such as the 5 Whys to get to the heart of what you’re seeing or hearing.

Example:  A colleague in Japan sends a polite reply to your email asking him to do something, but then doesn’t start the task.

Why?  Your Japanese colleagues may consider that saying “No” is impolite.

Why?  This is part of their cultural heritage, which also applies in the business environment.

Why?  Japan’s traditions have developed over thousands of years, and are deeply rooted in people’s daily lives, including in the workplace. In addition, Japanese workers tend to identify strongly with their employers, and are unlikely to do something that could cause offence to colleagues and managers. This example shows how an understanding of Japanese culture could help you to phrase requests in a different way in the future. It also shows how the concept of politeness differs across cultures.

A manager  or employee who understands this would change the way that they ask people to do things, when working with colleagues in other cultures.

Action  – relates to how you behave, and, in particular, how well you adapt when things don’t go according to plan. Cross-cultural interactions won’t always go smoothly, so it’s helpful to be able to think on your feet, and to stay in control of your emotions. Learn about business etiquette in the culture in which you’re working, this will help you with the culture’s social and business rituals, and it won’t go unnoticed. When observing a different culture, pay close attention to what people say and do. For example, explore their voice intonations, body language, and conversation style. This will give you a deeper understanding of them, and help you interact with them in a better way. Good luck.

We have recently launched a new virtual workshop – ‘Communicating Across Different Cultures’   where we’ll explore this topic in more detail and provide you some practical steps.

Contributions from Masterclass and Mind Tools