Why you need to cultivate cultural intelligence

February 8, 2018

Culture has a host of different meanings.


For example, “I’m off to an art gallery to get some culture.”

In this post, I’m thinking about how we view the world; our beliefs and values, behavioural norms and attitudes.

As more and more of us work with others in different locations and from different backgrounds, our capability to do so without causing misunderstanding – or offence – becomes more important.

I’ve had the privilege to work in different countries and with different cultures. Each and every time there’s been a wake-up call of some kind:

  • What to say (and not to say) in a meeting
  • How someone can inadvertently unravel an agreement – in seconds
  • Why it’s a bad idea to complain about yet another power cut


I can also claim to have taught a surly customs officer to say ‘please’ – but really wouldn’t recommend it.

Here are my top tips to build your cultural intelligence:


Beware your biases

We’ve all got them and very often they’re so automatic we don’t realise they’re making decisions for us without us even thinking. “They’re lazy”, “They’re timid”, “They’re loud”, etc. Notice the assumptions you make about people and scrutinise them – where’s the evidence? We can all too easily view the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’, particularly when we encounter beliefs, values, customs and attitudes that differ from our own.


Check the time

In some cultures, the agreed time for a meeting or conference call seems to be entirely optional. In Spain, locals have the good humour to smile when they say ‘mañana’ (‘tomorrow’), knowing their attitude to deadlines may differ from those they’re conversing with. Other cultures are very time-bound, as demonstrated by the apology issued in Japan for a train departing 20 seconds early.


Detect degrees of directness

Sometimes an outright ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just isn’t going to happen. It might cause offence or loss of face. So tread carefully around asking closed questions that can only be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’. By contrast, I’ve found groups of participants in The Netherlands to be breathtakingly direct. Different degrees of directness apply in non-verbal communications too: looking someone in the eye can be far too direct in some situations. Whereas ‘eye-balling’ can be inferred as seeking to demonstrate sincerity in some Western cultures, in others it can be too direct to the point of being confrontational.


Notice levels of reserve

Some cultures are expressive when it comes to emotions: expansive in showing joy, sadness and anger. Conducting a negotiation can be a roller-coaster experience in this cultural context. Others are much more reserved, to the point where expressing emotion would cause unease and embarrassment. Again, this shows up in gesture and posture as well as what is said, so be sure to read the body language.


Assess attitudes to power

Are people accustomed to being empowered to speak up? Or would it show disrespect for another’s status to make a suggestion? Having worked in countries where gender, wealth and connections dictate the status levels, there may be little room for manoeuvre. In some cultures status is fairly fixed but in others – particularly where status is something someone achieves – it can be gained and lost rapidly. Observe the behaviour towards those in positions of authority; how do others address them (by first name, title or job role)?


Observe orientation to group – or individual

This aspect of cultural intelligence can bedevil collaborating across different cultures, as those who are wired to value individual effort, expression and achievement may feel impatient at others’ demands to satisfy group needs. Incentivising individual results can backfire in collectivist cultures such as China (and some will argue it hasn’t worked very well in the individualistic West).


Do your homework

Read up on the cultures you’ll encounter in your work. Observe the behaviour of those with more experience; how do they demonstrate cultural awareness and intelligence? Notice the verbal and non-verbal cues that get favourable responses. Listen for concerns and issues that matter, so that they can be respectfully explored.


About the author

Dawn SillettDawn Sillett has been designing and delivering training workshops and executive coaching for over 15 years.


Author of: The Feedback Book

THE FEEDBACK BOOKMaintaining performance today is no longer simply about having an annual appraisal and telling employees “you must try harder”. Research demonstrates that regular discussions about performance and providing feedback to the people you manage is a more effective way to motivate them and keep them on track.Distilled into this single, handy-sized volume are 50 tips, advice and techniques to help any manager become quickly skilled at regularly discussing performance, setting goals and objectives and providing the necessary feedback to ensure individuals and teams thrive in the company. Structured into five key parts, each of the 50 concise chapters also contains a practical exercise to help the reader understand and implement the concepts and ideas of this book.




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