Here's Why You Need Cultural Intelligence — Plus 4 Steps for Building It

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Haley Baird Riemer57
June 12, 2024 at 6:5PM UTC
The world is not a homogenous place. It's a vibrant landscape of many different countries, cultures and languages, and often (hopefully), we encounter people with different cultural experiences from our own. When that happens, it's important to be aware of cultural difference and how it shapes our interactions with other people. Being conscious of the fact that not everyone thinks and acts the way we're used to is a valuable skill. And pertaining to cultural difference, it's necessary in order to treat others with respect. 
Whether you work internationally or on very multicultural team or you're just a considerate person functioning in the world, learning how to work with other people despite differences in culture is an important skill to have. The ability to do so is measured by cultural intelligence, a tool you can use and develop to function more effectively in cross-cultural environments.

What is cultural intelligence?

The term cultural intelligence, or CQ, was first introduced by Christopher Earley and Soon Ang in 2003. CQ is basically a tool used to measure how we relate to each other across cultures. It refers to the ability to work effectively in environments where multiple cultures are represented or encountered. If you're part of a company or educational setting that works regularly with many different nationalities, cultures or ethnicities, having high cultural intelligence is essential for building an inclusive, representative environment. Say you're an ambassador to a foreign country, or you work at a company with employees from many diverse backgrounds. Being able to engage respectfully and effectively with people of different cultural experiences is essential to your job. 
Even if you don't see a direct need for cultural intelligence at the moment, it's a good idea to work on it anyway. Being knowledgeable and attentive to cultural difference makes you a more informed leader, coworker and person in the world. Plus, accommodating cultural diversity in your workplace is something you should prioritize, regardless of whether you're encountering it at the moment. A lack of cultural intelligence could even be contributing to the lack of cultural diversity in your work environment. When you work on your CQ, you're working on creating a more welcoming and understanding space that will draw people of all backgrounds to want to work with you.  

Why is it important?

Our worldviews and beliefs are shaped by our own experiences. This means we have very subjective ways of seeing the world, and often we have blind spots when it comes to understanding experiences outside of our own. We all hold internal biases based on our cultures, identities and privileges that impact how we relate to people from different backgrounds. Implicit bias based on race, nationality and religion are informed by power structures in the world and media we consume, which means that we may be bringing habits and practices to the office that lack an awareness and understanding of cultural differences. Cultural intelligence is a bit like emotional intelligence in theory — it makes our interactions with human beings more compassionate and fair. In business settings, it also means you can work well with many different kinds of people, which is often beneficial to the quality of your work and partnerships.
Cultural intelligence sets a bar for how effectively and equitably teams work across difference. People with cultural intelligence are well-versed in languages, values, customs, holidays and the general ways of doing things in different cultures — or are simply aware that those differences exist and should be respected. CQ means using that knowledge to interact with people with empathy and respect. The difference between high and low cultural intelligence can mean making someone extremely uncomfortable with a joke or gesture that seems perfectly fine to you but is deeply offensive to them versus doing the work to avoid such missteps and ensure you aren't overstepping anyone's boundaries. It means being aware of how others' experiences differ from yours and how your way of understanding the world isn't the standard for everyone. 

How do you develop cultural intelligence?

According to experts in cultural intelligence, there are four major components used to measure CQ; in other words, areas on which you can improve to enhance your overall understanding of cultural difference. These four categories are drive, knowledge, strategy and action, and together they form a holistic picture of someone's complete cultural IQ. By learning about each category, you can make changes in your behavior or your workplace culture to ensure you're prioritizing creating a culturally-sensitive standard. 
Here's a breakdown of the categories, as well as tips for implementing change in your life and work environments.

1. Have a willingness to learn (drive).

In order to develop any set of skills, you need to have an interest in doing so. Drive describes the willingness and desire to learn about other cultures and improve your ability to work across cultural lines with respect and awareness. If your mind is open to learning about different cultures and attuned to cultural difference, you are available to see difference in the first place and regard it in a positive way, rather than as an obstacle. 
To increase your drive, you can take steps in your daily life to learn about different cultural backgrounds. Maybe your drive comes from external factors, like a business trip to a different country that requires you to learn about the culture. In the absence of a situation like this, though, you can create your own drive from your desire to expand your knowledge. Begin to learn a new language or volunteer for organizations and projects in different communities. Consider expanding your social circle if you tend to only hang out with people from your own background — though beware of tokenizing people. Instead of seeking out friends or colleagues of different backgrounds for the sake of doing so, ask yourself why you have no regular interaction with people culturally different from you. Is there something you're doing that is closing you off to people of different backgrounds? Do you gravitate toward environments where everyone has similar experiences and characteristics to yours? Is it something you've noticed before? 
Put yourself in situations that challenge you to develop your cultural intelligence and get out of your comfort zone

2. Learn about cultural difference (knowledge).

Knowledge doesn't necessarily refer to knowing specific cultures backward and forward. You don't necessarily need to be well-versed in the details of many different cultures in order to have high CQ. Rather, you need to be aware of cultural difference and know how culture can affect our beliefs, customs, values and actions.
There are several different ways you can go about learning about culture and its impact on our lives. You might be working on location and need to learn about a specific culture in order to do so effectively. Otherwise, you can pick a culture you're interested in and immerse yourself in learning about it, studying its customs and the characteristics people in that culture have in common. Think about how that culture is influenced by its history, religion, language and geography. You could also join a multicultural organization that brings together people of different cultures and learn about the experiences of the new people you meet. 
The most important aspect of this step is learning how to identify and anticipate instances where cultural differences come into play. This comes with practice, and your cultural intelligence improves as you get better and better at working across difference without consciously thinking about it.

3. Plan to implement changes (strategy).

Developing strategies to work more intelligently across cultural lines is something that often happens subconsciously once you become attuned to cultural difference. If you're aware of cultural differences, you begin to plan for and around them naturally. For example, working in a foreign country managing a team of employees who all belong to an entirely different culture than yours will change the way that you work as a manager. It may change the way you communicate, frame a problem or concern or write emails. Etiquette, particularly professional etiquette, changes from culture to culture, and anticipating those changes is using strategy.
To develop effective and ongoing strategy skills, ask "why" in situations where you may have a cultural barrier with another person. Why are they acting a certain way? Why did you expect them to act differently? What factors are influencing the situation? Understanding different scenarios and how culture comes into play will help you get into a habit of thinking critically about cultural differences and planning accordingly.

4. Put your knowledge into practice (action).

No matter how much strategizing you do, interactions with other human beings don't always go as planned. Especially when you're working cross-culturally, you can hardly anticipate every bump in the road. The action aspect of your cultural intelligence relates to how you behave and adapt in situations where working with cultural difference is imperative. Are you aware of the business etiquette in the culture you're working within? Have you made the effort to learn about the language, customs and values you might encounter in your interactions?
How can you use your drive, your knowledge, and your strategy to inform your behavior? This is the practical aspect of CQ that assesses your ability to be culturally aware and sensitive in all of your interactions, eventually (and ideally) without having to think consciously about how to do so. 

Becoming culturally intelligent is beneficial to everyone because we are all working with people from different backgrounds all the time. And even if you're not, chances are, someday you will be, and developing the ability to work with people who come from different cultural experiences from you is a valuable skill to have, regardless of when or how often you use it. Cultural intelligence helps you not only become a more effective coworker and networker but a person who is contributing to making the world a more accommodating, empathetic and compassionate place for all people.

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