Once You Wake Up, Time to Grow Up: Understanding Cultural Intelligence
Have you ever pushed your way through on a project, convinced your team it was the only way forward, only to later realize you could have benefitted from a different perspective? It’s human nature, and it has been happening since kindergarten. Most of us have learned along the way, but everyone struggles with tunnel vision from time to time.
It’s no secret: diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams when it comes to creativity and innovation, among other things. But it doesn’t happen by default. Conflicts and misunderstandings easily arise among different identity groups, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, culture, or even workgroups. How many companies do you know where the sales team is always at odds with the legal department?
It can be difficult to communicate with someone who holds a completely different worldview. It’s even harder to work with them on a team, and harder still to be the leader of a diverse group. But if you want to succeed in today’s marketplace, you must master cultural intelligence.
What is Cultural Intelligence?
Much like self-intelligence, cultural intelligence requires us to think before we act. It invites us to get off the dance floor to see if there are other possibilities — other ways of being — that invite other people to be and bring their best to work.
I prefer to take a passport perspective, meaning you see borders, not barriers that allow you to connect with people across lines of difference.
Why Cultural Intelligence?
There was a time when cultural intelligence was seen as an add-on or something extra. It was marginalized to certain departments like human resources or community relations. Fast forward to today, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are now part of the business lexicon.
A critical part of our work as leaders is to support all employees in reaching their full potential and contribution to the organization. Cultural intelligence is a key component because it means you’ve taken the time to assess the cultural lens through which you view the intelligence of other cultures. Failing to do so leaves talent on the table — yours and theirs.
So how do we gain cultural intelligence?
We all have a culture. An important first step is to get really clear about the cultures we have been a part of and what we learned from them. What did socialization teach you about education, work ethic, communication? This is your cultural identity.
Next, check your cultural lens, which is how your background informs the behaviors, attitudes, and assumptions you have about people, places, and events. Cultural lenses are formed deep within childhood. Much like the glasses on our faces, we get so accustomed to seeing the world through these lenses we often forget they are there.
Global consciousness means trying on a different lens. It means wearing another person’s perspective for a moment, just to see how it fits and to understand the world from their point of view. We do this as a way to expand and amplify our own — not to replace it.
Actively mitigate bias
All of our decisions and interactions have an opportunity for bias to show up. If you have a brain, you have a bias. As a leader, you have a responsibility and an opportunity to understand and interrupt bias when it shows up in yourself and others.
A critical tool in doing this is intercultural communication. Cultural intelligence is in part communication arts, meaning it’s less about conveying information and more about the exchange of ideas, feelings and making meaning with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. This allows us to not only find common ground but also practice shifting perspectives.
Manage cross-cultural conflict
A mature leader realizes that conflict is inevitable. When you have multicultural teaming it can be amplified because you’re working with people from diverse cultural backgrounds and divergent perspectives, approaches, and experiences.
It’s important to remember that healthy conflict is not only a teaching opportunity but an opportunity for innovation and deeper collaboration.
When you walk through conflict rather than shy away from it, you reveal blind spots or weaknesses. Ultimately, you have a stronger product because of the divergent perspectives that went into its creation.
Understand Your Leadership Power
As a manager and leader, you are powerful — more powerful than you know. You have the power to create misery or magic, pain or possibility. Your cultural intelligence determines your ability to leverage all of the talents, gifts, and strengths that exist in the individuals under your charge.
You must understand that you play a critical role in creating the conditions for innovation and creativity to happen. The way you exert and wield your power determines whether people stay or go, or whether they “quit in place,” meaning they’re doing just enough to collect a paycheck. Your cultural intelligence amplifies your power to motivate, inspire and engage.
Now More Than Ever
We need leaders with cultural intelligence now more than ever. Think of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and any number of social movements that have happened over the last decade and it’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.
I know what’s possible when managers and leaders commit to cultural intelligence. It takes deep courage — a recognition of what’s right and a willingness to be wrong in moments. Exponential leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable and build trust across lines of difference.
This is hard work. It forces us to really dig into some places where there’s not deep awareness or understanding. But you don’t have to do it alone. There are tons of resources and, more importantly, relationships you can leverage to grow your cultural intelligence, team, and impact.