The Case for Cultural Intelligence 

June 12, 2023

Cultural intelligence is sometimes seen as the latest buzzword or is interpreted as being something formal that we can learn as if it is facts and figures. For me, cultural intelligence is something that should be seen as important and beneficial for individuals, teams, and organisations. It is about being able to understand, respect, communicate and work with culturally diverse groups of people and appreciating the benefits that this can bring. 

Developing our understanding of culture can also prevent misunderstandings and cultural faux pas, HSBC have a series of TV adverts which uses humour to reflect how things can be interpreted very differently but it can also impact on business and organisations. Consider for example how a friendly physical gesture in one culture can be interpreted as something quite different, as people from different countries are used to different types of body language. One example is that in Western cultures nodding the head usually means agreement, however in some countries this means the exact opposite. Other areas that might be perceived differently include: 

  • Attitudes towards time 
  • The way that people share ideas – do they feel comfortable speaking up in front of a whole group? 
  • The extent to which people use space – in some cultures there is an expectation that people have a higher boundary of personal space. 
  • The extent to which people expect to work collectively or individually. 
  • How people may respond if they are unsure or don’t know how to do something 
  • The respect that people may have for their elders or people who are higher up in the hierarchy. 
  • What is particularly valued in the workplace? 
  • How people like to be acknowledged for their contributions 
  • The types of relationship that people expect to have with their work colleagues. 
  • Perceptions of work deadlines and the amount of flexibility that may be anticipated. 

Being culturally intelligent does not mean that individuals have to agree to everything that someone else presents or suggests, it is about having a respect for different cultural differences and having an open mind.  

From an organisational perspective having a culturally diverse workforce can bring with it a series of benefits including different approaches to working, solving problems and creativity. With over 200 nationalities, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates at large is a great example of a diverse workforce working successfully. However, teams usually need some support and development in being able to recognise the way that other people work and to understand the advantages of having diverse experiences and backgrounds. Investment in this area of team development usually presents a strong cost/benefit for the organisation and can be a source of competitive advantage. Understanding other cultures can be a great way of getting to know people and to build positive relationships. 

From an individual perspective it can be fascinating to learn about the customs and practices of other cultures, to understand the similarities and the differences. Whilst we can always read about the theory and there are lots of websites which talk about national culture, one of the best ways to learn is simply to speak to people.  

How can we enhance cultural intelligence? 

As an organisation you could consider using some of the cultural intelligence tools that are currently available, some in the form of a questionnaire. Of course, the results from the questionnaires are only really useful if people have been honest in completing them, but for many people even just thinking about the questions that they have to answer gets them to reflect on their experiences. 

I have found that people usually enjoy being asked about their culture and to have the opportunity for a two-way conversation. This could be undertaken as part of team building or included within existing training sessions such as new staff induction. Some organisations choose to develop specific events such as cultural days where people may be asked to wear their national dress or provide food which is popular within their culture – both approaches can be a great way for staff to get to know each other. 

Some organisations may choose to incorporate cultural intelligence as one of their core competencies, particularly if they are working in a large, complex, and diverse organisation. This can send out a very powerful message about what is valued in an organisation, but only if it is then incorporated throughout their people policies such as training and performance management. 

Author
Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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