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Cultural Intelligence: Nice Lofty Ideal or a Key to Survival?

davelivermore | December 15th, 2009 1 Comment

A couple months ago I spoke with a group of local business leaders about cultural intelligence (CQ)—a capability being tapped by many professionals to improve their effectiveness working across a variety of cultural contexts. It was an enjoyable afternoon with lots of great interaction about the challenges facing managers who are trying to keep up with the demands of today’s globalized environment.

Just before leaving the group, I had a one-on-one conversation with a CEO that left me a little discouraged. He said, “This was great content and we definitely want to be a business that’s culturally intelligent. But frankly, we’re still consumed with the question, How are we going to survive this economic downturn? This seems like information better suited for more economically stable times.”

I certainly empathize with this leader’s perspective. Cultural intelligence can feel like a lofty ideal best saved for less tumultuous times in business. At its core, cultural intelligence is about viewing and treating people from various cultures with respect and dignity, a soft skill set that can be hard to defend as a crucial “need” in times of economic uncertainty. But the research demonstrates that cultural intelligence also has direct correlation to the bottom line and to a company’s sustainability in the flat world of globalized business.

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from this same CEO with the subject line “CQ needed now!” His e-mail began: “Okay. We need some of this cultural intelligence material! Did you hear the breaking news about the Koreans’ building a 300 million dollar lithium battery plant here? Everyone is scrambling to be the logistics company of choice for them. I remember you saying that many Asian businesses are not only interested in the best price point, but also insist on contracting with affiliates they perceive as trustworthy. How do we earn these Koreans’ trust?”

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is defined as the capability to function effectively across national, ethnic, and organizational cultures.[1] You’ve heard about IQ and EQ. CQ stems from this same body of research on the various forms of intelligence needed to be successful in today’s workforce. As stated above, it’s rooted in the idea of being a person who seeks to understand and respect different cultures but it goes far beyond interpersonal relationships. It shapes the way a manager pursues marketing, negotiation, sales, and a whole lot more in a culturally diverse context.

CQ is a set of capabilities and skills proven to give employees and their organizations a competitive edge in our shrinking world. It consists of four different capabilities (drive, knowledge, strategy, and action) all of which can be assessed and developed in individuals and full management teams. Research demonstrates that 92 percent of companies that used the cultural intelligence approach (through training, hiring, strategizing etc.) saw increased revenues within 18 months of implementation.

Even if you don’t plan on booking an international business flight anytime soon, today’s economic crisis may be tomorrow’s great opportunity for tapping into new markets in your own neighborhood. Culture shapes nearly everything a manager does, from forging a compelling vision for a future in the “flat” world, to adapting to an increasingly globalized economy, appealing to the tastes of culturally diverse customers and constituents, managing, motivating, and evaluating a culturally diverse workforce, creating and managing organizational culture, and to making effective use of international travel. Cultural intelligence offers a common model and language for approaching these varied tasks.

Research on CQ by world-renowned academics combined with the experiences of thousands of successful leaders offers us a slew of CQ resources to not only survive, but thrive in today’s world. That’s my aim through this new column at Management Issues—to learn together how to enhance CQ personally and corporately in order to improve your effectiveness. In addition to sharing some of the latest research findings on cultural intelligence, I look forward to fostering a collaborative learning community where we can resource each other. And as we become more culturally intelligent, each of us can become more effective at reaching our bottom line goals while simultaneously making the world a better place.

[Originally written for my column in Management Issues]


[1] Soon Ang and Linn Van Dyne, “Conceptualization of Cultural Intelligence” in Handbook of Cultural Intelligence: Theory, Measurement, and Applications (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008), 3.

One Response to Cultural Intelligence: Nice Lofty Ideal or a Key to Survival?

  1. Pingback: David Livermore on Cultural Intelligence « Compassion in Politics: Christian Social Entrepreneurship, Education Innovation, & Base of the Pyramid/BOP Solutions

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