Cultural intelligence: A key approach with cross-border colleagues

Instead of cultural knowledge you need a higher order skill: cultural intelligence

If you work on a global team you soon find that other cultures think and act differently to us. The culturally illiterate response is to be shocked and wonder why people don’t all behave the way those back home do. You can be assured that the rest of the team will be equally shocked by the way you behave and they will wonder why you don’t behave properly, like they do. You need some way of bridging this huge culture gap, which is a constant source of misunderstanding, conflict and poor teamwork.

At this point a common reaction is to try to acquire some cultural knowledge in an attempt to decipher the other culture. But it is hard enough trying to decipher colleagues sitting next to you; trying to understand 1,000 different global cultures is an exercise in futility. You will never learn enough, and your goal is not to become the world’s leading anthropologist; your job is to make the global team work well.

Instead of cultural knowledge you need a higher order skill: cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is a mindset that allows you to succeed in any context, and it has four key elements:

  • Openness. If you never want to try new foods, music or films and all your news sources reflect your own beliefs, you will struggle on a global team. Be open to new ideas and new ways of working.
  • Adaptability. 'My way or no way' gets you nowhere on a global team. Accept that different ways of working may be as good or even better than the ones you know now.
  • Learning. You may not know a foreign culture, but be ready to learn very fast. As long as people see you are making an effort to learn and adapt they will forgive lapses of etiquette. Learning a few words of the local language shows goodwill and earns goodwill.
  • Positive regard. Positive regard looks for the best in other people and cultures. It sees differences as an opportunity, not a problem.

The difference between cultural knowledge and cultural intelligence reflects how we think about different cultures. In workshops teams are quick to guess the nationalities that lie behind the national stereotypes described in the left-hand column below. That shows good cultural knowledge, but it also shows that most stereotypes are negative. The more culturally intelligent response is to see the positive side of different cultures, and to use that to build high performance (as you can see on the right-hand column below).

Cultural knowledge

Cultural intelligence

Loud, brash and pushy. Talk too much

Optimistic, energetic, can-do

Euphemistic, pessimistic and monolingual

Fair play, flexible and open

Think they are intellectually and culturally superior; aloof

Bringers of reason and insight

Deferential and say yes even if they cannot deliver

Partners who will do their best to please

Dull and boring engineers; very literal

Highly practical and reliable

Never say anything, avoid conflict, insular but polite

High effort, high quality, high reliability and good team players

Pushy and focused on face and money

Hardworking and focused

Cultural differences are not just between nationalities. Within your office there will be endless different tribes with different cultures: sales versus finance, top management versus junior management. And every family discovers that each generation comes from a weird and alien culture. Understanding the endlessly changing culture of a teenager is impossible.

No-one can achieve sufficient cultural knowledge to master all these tribes. Instead cultural intelligence will help you thrive in any alien culture, whether it is around the world, around the office or around the family.

Jo Owen is a leading social entrepreneur and award-winning author. Global Teams is one of his latest books