What is Cultural Intelligence?

Explainer / Common Purpose / 9 min read

Harness the ability to cross boundaries and thrive in multiple cultures

The world is shrinking and leaders from different cultures are finding that they need to work together. The cultures are formed of geography, faith, gender, generation, organization and sector. In a world where problems cross borders between cultures, we need leaders who can cross those boundaries and cross cultures too; people who can communicate effectively and build diverse networks necessary to solve messy problems. We need leaders who don’t just shy away from difference, but gravitate towards it. They don’t see heterogeneity as threatening; they see it as creative, exciting, inspiring and enriching. They are the leaders with Cultural Intelligence (CQ).

old and new divides are being crossed

Yet wherever you go in the world, people are being thrown together and are struggling to adapt and get on. Old and new divides are being crossed. Populations are becoming more diverse. Communication technology means that ‘global’ business is no longer just the remit of a few large organizations, but is increasingly the ambition of small businesses and individuals. It is also happening with sectors; the boundaries are blurring between the public, private and NGO sectors and leaders are struggling to understand one another.

IQ, EQ and CQ: An evolution in Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is the natural evolution from the now well-established notions of Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Good leaders need all three if they are to lead effectively.

Measuring CQ

CQ differs from IQ in the fact that it cannot be quantified by a score. There is no simple Cultural Intelligence scale by which to measure ourselves against, and indeed it is unhelpful to think of CQ as a number.

Instead we should think of Cultural Intelligence as being something which we can continuously improve and develop over the duration of our lives. The difficulty is in acquiring it. We do this through our experiences, but also with knowledge imparted by other people whom we trust, and who trust us enough to give us their knowledge.

this does not mean that you have to change who you are, but it does change how you express it

CQ in practice: Core and Flex

Understanding what Core and Flex are, and how they work, is the key to developing CQ.

Our Core comprises the things that define us: our own personal 'over my dead body' list. These are things that won't change (or won't change easily). Their solidity is our strength. In our Flex are things that we can choose to change; things that we can adapt to circumstances, or to other people or other cultures. Their fluidity is equally our strength.

Core and Flex cover more than just our principles, they also account for everything from spirit and identity to behaviours and habits; from grand beliefs to small actions. Sir John Parker gives a good account of some behavioural values he is able to Flex, and how this represents more than just etiquette:

‘You must bow in Japan; it is how you show deference. At home, I might do this in another way but, in Japan, I do it their way. You simply have to take account of where you are, and show people that you have done so. You have to get the basics of the Flex right: when to bow, when to smile, how to show that you are polite. This does not mean that you have to change who you are, but it does change how you express it. You have to figure out how other human beings, who have grown up in a different culture and society from you, express their honesty and integrity in their own way, and then you must do it in the same way.’

Once we've worked out what is Core and what is Flex for us, we need to keep them in review. Testing. Weeding. Transplanting. To make sure that the right things are in the right places, and our Flex is actually Flexing.

A well defined Core and Flex, kept under constant review is key to Cultural Intelligence because it equips us with the ability to experience new situations and adapt to other people without fear of losing ourselves, while changing and accommodating without ever compromising on what matters.

Keeping our Core and Flex under review also helps to keep our biases under control. Although it can be sometimes tough to admit, we all hold biases in one form or another. They are the knots in our Core that we know should not be there. And for those of us who have experienced prejudice ourselves, it is especially important to scrutinize our Core for biases (because we have them too) and move them to Flex. They need to face the light and air. They need to be regularly dusted down, examined and tested. Because, for leaders, they produce blind spots and they cause us to miss opportunities

Why do we need Cultural Intelligence?

Big problems can no longer - if they ever could - be solved by one person, one culture, or even one continent, operating alone. So leading across boundaries through collaboration is crucial.

Organizations face challenges internally; requiring their separate divisions, whether that's production, sales, marketing, or finance, and their leaders to collaborate. Cities need the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to find ways to work more effectively together, if they are to use their resources and assets to the best effect. Countries and continents face global problems of an order that requires old and new divides to be crossed.

The world is crying out for innovation: new ways, new ideas, new processes, new technologies, and new ventures. The secret of innovation is that it comes best from well-led discord. The enemy is 'group-think'. Culturally diverse groups - led by leaders with CQ - see things differently. Innovation needs people who actively seek to encourage difference, to prod it, push it, test it, enjoy it and thrive on it. It needs people who want to de-harness, even if they secretly know that they have no real idea where it might take them, only that it won't be where they went before.

the world is crying out for innovation

Expanding your business

Today, many businesses can be described as global. Even small businesses and entrepreneurs are taking advantage of sophisticated advances in communication technology. And if you are looking to expand your business overseas and take your company global, Cultural Intelligence is vital.

Jim Sutcliffe is Managing Partner at Arboretum Partners LLP and Chairman of Sun Life Financial in Canada. He stresses the business value of CQ in helping managers to see the wider context in which the company operates:

‘You need CQ to run a business today, because, in the long run, you will make more money with CQ. I know we have all thought business was about products, customers, finances and people, but it’s more than that now. You have to understand the context in which you are operating and the communities you are part of. You have to work with other sectors and, if you are international, in other countries, and you need it not just at the top, but right through the business. Without it, you won’t judge when to stand firm and when to give way, when to spend money, whether you like it or not. Without it, you will walk into impossible, messy situations that are sometimes at least partly of your own making. And, when the solutions do not lie in financial models, better products or new technologies, you will make bad judgments, because none of those things are much use when you are dealing with the media and politics, and you find yourself and your company in the public eye.’

if you are looking to expand your business overseas and take your company global then Cultural Intelligence is vital

The Flying Dead

Cultural Intelligence is vital for those of us who are based in different countries and especially so for those who regularly travel abroad to work. Otherwise, they risk becoming one of the Flying Dead: people who fly around the world, stop every now and then and are expected to deliver, with no real idea where they are (and, increasingly, who they are).

Globalization has meant that there are more potential Flying Dead leaders than ever before. Many, of course, would claim to have CQ in abundance. Unfortunately, they measure it in Air Miles. The real challenge for them is to get enough CQ so that, when they land, they understand where they are and who they’re talking to, and then use what they have learned to succeed.

The leaders who fail to do this will just continue collecting stamps on their passports without really touching down anywhere they land, while the ones who do it well will become the bridge-builders who can genuinely change the world.

CQ and students

More than 6 million students travelled to study in 2020, with that number on the rise with every year that passes. Many of them are studying in the Magnet Cities of the world where 100 or more nationalities convene to study.

To be a student in such a city is an incredible opportunity to learn CQ. However, we know that many students are not taking advantage of this. Instead they choose to ‘stick with their own’. For example, it has been shown that many mainland Chinese students who come to the UK to study actually see their English language skills deteriorate by the end of their first year as a result of talking exclusively with other mainland Chinese students. Similar cases of missed opportunities to learn from one another can be seen in universities across the world.


The CQ quiz for students

Several hundred students were polled in a survey conducted by Common Purpose. We saw that in principle, there was a genuine willingness to interact and learn from other cultures, but ultimately there was a lack of substantial engagement.

This demonstrates why it is so necessary for students to develop CQ so they can better engage with other cultures in a deep and meaningful way and take advantage of the unique learning opportunity the university experience presents. This is especially the case for those studying as (or with) international students who are well positioned to become global leaders.


Test your Cultural Intelligence

You may know your IQ, even your EQ - but what about your CQ?

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