Cultural Intelligence in the Office: Why You Should Be Integrating and How

TSP • @myTSPnet


Have you ever met someone and been unsure about whether to shake hands, bow or hug? Understanding why others have different values and priorities is having cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is the ability to relate to and work effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. Those who have cultural intelligence are able to bridge divides and fill in knowledge gaps that naturally exist between people from different backgrounds. Often times, companies will prioritize cultural intelligence during business-related trips to foreign countries but not in internal office relations. It’s equally important to integrate cultural intelligence into your everyday routine to maximize your company’s success.

Cultural intelligence goes further than cultural sensitivity and awareness. It requires strategizing differences in culture so that your company can work together to create innovative solutions. Simply put, cultural intelligence will pick up where emotional intelligence leaves off. An employee with high emotional intelligence can understand similarities and differences between individuals, whereas an employee with high cultural intelligence is able to grasp what behavior by a person or group is true to all people and groups. For example, while eye contact is understood to be a sign of respect in some cultures, in others it is considered disrespectful.

Indeed found that a quarter of employees felt discriminated against in their workplace due to their race, gender, age, religion or sexual orientation — identities which all contribute to your office’s cultural intelligence. While hiring diverse talent is wonderful, it’s not sufficient enough to overcome discrimination. Workplaces must ensure that their employees’ cultures and attitudes are also being addressed.

While bettering your office’s cultural intelligence may seem like a daunting task, following these three steps will put you on the right path.

Have you ever disagreed with a coworker or superior because you know his or her opinion is simply wrong? Most of us have experienced this, which is why we know the importance of considering a situation from another culture’s perspective. While this may seem like a lesson from elementary school, a 2014 study found that when employees imagined and wrote down the challenges that marginalized minorities face in an organizational setting, it improved their attitudes towards coworkers from differing backgrounds.

These improved attitudes continued for months after the experiment was conducted, allowing employees to understand the obstacles that others face. The acknowledgement of differences ultimately creates an office environment with improved communication and cooperation.

On the surface level, employees appear to have the same values and beliefs. However, once you dig deeper, you will find the ways in which religion, culture and region have influenced individual mindsets. Give your employees the opportunity to share their cultural norms and life outlooks with one another. After discussing your employees’ values, your company can introduce a spectrum of “fluid” and “fixed” values to give employees an idea of where they fall in comparison to others.

The categories of these values can range from the importance of timeliness, to body language and even eye contact. However, it’s crucial to emphasize that there is no correct answer on this spectrum.

Cultural intelligence is dependent upon your employees’ ability to empathize with one another, which cannot be accomplished without making each employee feel like he or she matters. As a manager, facilitate conversations with employees about their unique perspectives, creating a safe space to explain how their beliefs and values were shaped. While it may be hard for employees to become vulnerable in a workplace setting, creating a sense of psychological safety is essential for productivity and innovation. A psychologically safe work environment allows employees to share their opinions and take risks without embarrassment or fear of ridicule.

Experience sharing can not only be used to discuss cultural backgrounds, but also provides an opportunity to share professional backgrounds. The Harvard Business Review recommends using cultural intelligence practices to break the bonds of your company’s subculture between departments. Different departments and professions within the same company have their own practices, values, manners and meanings. The inability to understand these differences will hold your company back. For instance, have your tech department socialize with the public relations department — employees will likely find more similarities than they previously realized.

Once a manager can fully understand and relate to the challenges that their employees face daily, managing and communicating with different employees will become easier. Cultural intelligence begins with one’s curiosity and motivation to work well with others. Once this is established, then it is important for a manager to understand the needs and desires of one group versus another. Next, the manager must learn how to effectively strategize in light of cultural differences. Finally, a manager must be able to adapt behavior when cultural differences require it. With a few simple changes, you’ll notice a difference in your office environment.