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Business professors 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.”  

Put more simply, cultural intelligence, sometimes referred to as CQ or “cultural quotient,” is the ability to relate to people from other cultures. It doesn’t mean simply speaking the language. It’s more about empathizing and actively working to understand customs and norms of cultures outside of your own. It is an extremely valuable social skill in an increasingly global world and one that businesses should seek to develop in employees and leaders.i

Some people possess an innate ability to assimilate into other cultures, but for others it’s a harder leap. It relies on a variety of factors, including upbringing and personality traits. However, regardless of your natural inclination, cultural intelligence can be learned. A great place to start is to define your cultural quotient. 

There are many assessments available online to measure CQ. Similar to an IQ test, cultural intelligence is rated on a scale. The questions aim to establish an individual’s level in four key areas:

  • Drive: Motivation to thrive in culturally diverse settings
  • Knowledge: Understanding of differences and similarities between cultures 
  • Strategy: Sense of self-awareness throughout a multi-cultural interaction
  • Action: Ability to draw on different behaviors for different interactions 

Determining your strengths and weaknesses in those areas can help you focus on where you can improve your cultural intelligence. And improving cultural intelligence can make a major impact on your business.ii

Cultural intelligence in business

Cultural intelligence is an essential business tool for both internal and external purposes. Internally, cultural intelligence helps employees of all levels better understand each other, and in turn, create better results together. For a business with multiple locations across different cities, states or countries, cultural intelligence equips you to work efficiently and respectfully with colleagues of different backgrounds. Business leaders should leverage cultural intelligence to help their employees grow and develop by drawing out the unique attributes that make each employee strong.iii

From an external perspective, cultural intelligence is imperative. Your customers may come from diverse walks of life, or even completely different cultures. Rely on cultural intelligence to help them achieve their goals in doing business with you in a way that feels comfortable and respectful. Your customers will respond more positively when business is conducted in a way they can relate to because it will result in less strain on them.

For an example of how cultural intelligence, or lack thereof, can make or break a business interaction, read through this case study from the Universitá della Svizzera Italiana’s Master of Advanced Studies in Intercultural Communication program. It examines just how easy it is to make false assumptions due to your own cultural bias and highlights how applying cultural intelligence and empathy could have helped a business interaction go much more smoothly.

Cultural intelligence examples

It’s easy to see why large, multi-national corporations must hone their cultural intelligence, but how does it relate to small businesses? The truth is that it comes into play in every single interaction you have. Your customers, employees, and even suppliers could be from a different cultural background than you. Recognizing that and applying cultural intelligence to your interactions with them will result in a much more positive workplace — and much better business results.

For example, if you have a supplier who is based in Spain, you might find yourself frustrated that you cannot get ahold of them at certain hours that you’d expect to be able to. It feels like during your normal morning hours, from approximately 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., you can’t reach anyone there. You might be frustrated by the lack of response, because to you, those hours (2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in Spain) are perfectly normal business hours. But upon further research, you’d find that those hours are during the siesta in Spain, and many businesses observe that time during the day to relax or take a longer lunch. Taking that into account, you learn to reach out to your supplier during different hours when you know they will be more likely to be at work. This is a very simple example of how basic cultural intelligence can save you the headache of worrying about why your supplier might not be responding.

On the other hand, lacking cultural intelligence can lead to offending people or generally not conducting your business at its fullest potential. For instance, you might hire an employee who has lived and worked in a different region before working for you. You might find yourself irked at their mannerisms and perceive that they aren’t a good cultural fit because their way of carrying themselves is unfamiliar to you. And even though they might do their job very well, both of you will feel the strain in your relationship. If both parties involved don’t practice cultural intelligence, the employee is likely to leave the company for one that feels more comfortable. And so, the company loses out on valuable talent and a diverse perspective that could have made it stronger in the long run.

How to improve cultural intelligence in your business

Improving your cultural intelligence must be an active choice. And in reality, you’ll never stop learning. The world is becoming an increasingly global community, even within the small business sector. Businesses that don’t practice cultural intelligence may find themselves falling behind as customers favor products or services from businesses that provide a more empathetic experience.iv

There are many courses available that can formally train you to hone your cultural intelligence and openness to different cultures. But it’s also something you can start practicing on your own. Here are three ideas to help you get started: 

  1. Understand your cultural history. Examining yourself and where you come from will help you identify your own biases. Being aware of your cultural biases will help you shape how you interact with other cultures. 
  2. Travel — even if it’s just to a different state or city. Talking to people and experiencing cultures outside of your own will increase your comfort level with other cultures and increase your appreciation of the strengths diverse thought can bring to your business and life.ii
  3. Read one of the many books written on the topic. Just like any other skill, cultural intelligence can be improved through study. As a topic of research for nearly 20 years, there are many books that can help guide your journey to cultural intelligence through expert research and testimony. 

Cultural intelligence will make you a better business owner, will make your business more successful, and will make your employees feel more fulfilled in the workplace. And improving cultural intelligence starts with you simply opening yourself up to new experiences. 

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