What is Cultural Intelligence?

What is cultural intelligence - group communicating positively

Cultural intelligence – also known by the shorthand CQ for cultural quotient – has been doing the rounds in recent years as the buzzword to be aware of in the diversity and inclusion field. But what does it mean?


What is cultural intelligence and why is it important?

Cultural intelligence refers to the skill to relate and work effectively in culturally diverse situations. It’s the capability to cross boundaries and prosper in multiple cultures. It goes beyond our existing knowledge of cultural sensitivity and awareness by highlighting certain skillsets and capabilities needed to successfully realize your objectives in culturally diverse situations.

An individual possessing cultural intelligence is not just aware of different cultures – they are able to culturally adapt and effectively work and relate with people across a variety of cultural contexts.


Is cultural intelligence the same as emotional intelligence?

Cultural intelligence links to emotional intelligence but goes a bit further. People with high emotional intelligence can pick up on the emotions, wants and needs of others. People with high cultural intelligence are attuned to the values, beliefs, and styles of communication of people from different cultures. They use this knowledge to help them relate to others with empathy and understanding.

Unlike IQ, cultural intelligence is not something that can be quantified by a score. Instead, it should be viewed as something that we must continuously improve on and work on.

“Cultural Intelligence: an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would”Harvard Business Review

See our guide on how to adapt communication for cultural differences to learn why it is important.

What’s the relevancy of cultural intelligence for your business?

The big question now is: why does it matter for your organization?

Before we can answer that question, let’s first ask, what separates the highest performing organizations from the rest? Is it having a clever strategy in place? Phenomenal products and services on offer? Better people? All these things can make a difference but only for a short while.

It is culture, ultimately, that enables a competitive advantage to sustain and grow over time. It is how you do things that is important.

The business case for promoting diversity and inclusion has never been more compelling. We live in a world with exponentially increasing connectivity across all businesses and individuals alike. The greatest prospect for growth now comprises of breaking into new markets at home and abroad.

With global collaboration becoming progressively instrumental for business success, cultural intelligence is now more important than ever in our daily lives. Businesses with culturally intelligent staff will be more likely to accomplish their goals in today’s globalized world. Big problems can no longer be solved by just one individual, one culture, or even one continent. As a result, leading collaboration across boundaries is essential to effective problem-solving.


Gaining cultural intelligence adds a competitive edge to your business

Gaining cultural intelligence adds a competitive edge to your business by improving communication, cooperation, teamwork, and overall performance.

It also results in leaders that intentionally manage what is known and how power operates in organizations. An adaptive culturally intelligent leader will be able to notice the differences and harness them rather than allow them to result in disharmony or conflict.

Communications technology has also radically changed the face of ‘global businesses’ as it is no longer just the remit of a few large companies. Smaller companies and individuals even can now tap into global markets thanks to the innovations brought to us by breakthroughs in communications technology.

Likewise, the boundaries between the private, public, and NGO sectors have blurred resulting in a diverse environment that is becoming increasingly difficult to understand without some help and guidance from experts accustomed to traversing across different settings.

Thus, when conducting business in a globalized context this also comes with increased hurdles and potential barriers in terms of understanding how different cultures and customs operate.

No matter how culturally diverse a workplace environment is, it’s important to remember that there will always be a multitude of experiences, ideas and standpoints shaping the way we see the world and interact with one another. The process of developing cultural intelligence means increasing our understanding of the ways that different cultures operate within business settings to develop language and behaviors that promote better problem-solving.

For help with developing inclusive leadership in senior teams see our inclusive leadership section and our bespoke unconscious bias training.

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