Why Cultural Intelligence becomes an essential competency to develop in organizations

15 January 2018 by Elena Ivanushkina, Professional Business Coach at Ocean Coaching
Why Cultural Intelligence becomes an essential competency to develop in organizations

The globalisation of world business and advancement in technology in the last decades has led to an era when cultural differences have become vitally important to leaders, managers and executives.  The complexities of merging corporate cultures, issues of leadership, planning, decision-making, recruitment and task assignment are all compromised by the nation-traits of the people involved.  Changing business environments have prompted businesses in every sector to create multinational and multicultural teams. What allowances must be made when outlining organisational culture?  Where can one look for guidelines?

It is recognised, that understanding other cultures determines effectiveness in the workplace, influences how conflicts are handled, and shapes the future. Cultural Intelligence (CI) is a competency , combining  insights, attitudes, and behaviors that enable to assess intercultural situations accurately, in order to engage effectively with the world around us.

Cross-cultural collaboration requires careful management and attention, so that misunderstanding and frustration  do not form within teams and external collaborators over how decisions are made, meetings are run, performance is measured, feed-back is provided, conflicts are resolved and more.

What are specific situations we need to develop this competency? Here are some examples:

  • Working with leadership teams during mergers and acquisitions
  • Develop sales professionals with clients in diverse markets
  • Facilitating new multinational product/service development teams
  • Supporting leaders and their families as they prepare for international assignments
  • Improved marketing and customer service through better understanding and accommodation of diverse customer groups and their needs

What is Cultural Intelligence

There are several definition of Cultural Intelligence, the most compelling is the one of Early &Ang, 2003, defining it in Individual level as

"One’s attitude toward diversity, characterized by unique mixtures of similarities and differences, includes thoughts, feelings, and behavior; person’s capacity for successful adaptation to new/unfamiliar settings, attributable to cultural context. 

And on organizational level as :A set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, policies, procedures, and services that enable leaders to embrace employee and customer differences and customized management-practices to various needs.

One of the great challenges is to choose which cultural dimensions to focus on in order to create a cultural competency inside the organization. Several dozen cross-cultural experts have proposed such dimensions, and it is a challenging task to capture the whole field. We can use the variety of best-known models to build company's unique approach to CI development:

Hofstede’s 4-D model looks at power distance, collectivism vs. individualism, femininity vs. masculinity and uncertainty avoidance and long-term vs. short-term orientation.

The Lewis Model being developed in the 1990s and articulated in Richard Lewis’s book, When Cultures Collide (1996).  Lewis, after visiting 135 countries and working in more than 20 of them, came to the conclusion that humans can be divided into 3 clear categories, based not on nationality or religion but on BEHAVIOUR.  He named his typologies Linear-active, Multi-active and Reactive.

In The Culture Map book, 2014, the latest to gain world-wide recognition,  Erin Meyer provides a framework to understanding eight areas fundamental to all business interactions that routinely trigger cross-cultural conflict. Each of the eight scales is described as a continuum between the two ends which are diametric opposite or at least competing positions as follows:

  • Communicating – Are they low-context simple, verbose and clear, or high-context -rich deep meaning in interactions?
  • Evaluating – When giving Negative feedback does one give it directly, or prefer being indirect and discreet?
  • Leading – Are people in groups egalitarian, or do they prefer hierarchy?
  • Deciding – Are decisions made in consensus, or made top-down?
  • Trusting – Do people base trust on how well they know each other, or how well they do work together?
  • Disagreeing – Are disagreements tackled directly, or do people prefer to avoid confrontations?
  • Scheduling – Do they perceive time as absolute linear points, or consider it a flexible range?
  • Persuading – Do they like to hear specific cases and examples, or prefer holistic detailed explanations?

What are the steps to develop CQ on individual and organizational level?

We should focus both on developing individual culture-related competencies and the processes and

First, develop awareness:

understanding the similarities & differences . Understanding the differences on individual level would means  to have high level of self-awareness and self-regulation and

adopting non-judgmental approach to cultures,

Second, building a knowledge base, understand cultural norms, differences, dynamics, etc.

Next, focusing on developing skills :

communication and management across those differences by developing style-switching - our ability to use a full range of different behavioral, thinking, and attitudinal approaches. Style-Switching can be a difficult skill to develop, which requires being open-minded and flexible, including constant reflection on one’s own culture-based values, beliefs, preferences and traditions. 

And finally, leverage the differences.

Which means, not only focusing on potential problems or gaps, but on the strengths those difference can provide: recognize and communicate the value of diverse perspectives, voices and opinions. Many companies have realized that a variety of perspectives can be a strength in problem solving, in the development of new products or services, come up with innovations, entering new markets and in establishing international business operations.


Leaders have always needed to understand human nature and personality differences to be successful in business. Twenty-first century ones need to understand a much wider and richer array of work styles and need to be able to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with colleagues, customers , suppliers and communities  around the world. Therefore Cultural Intelligence should be considered as one of the core cross-functional competencies to focus on in the enterprise of today and tomorrow.

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Erin Meyer ,The Culture Map (PublicAffairs, 2014), 

When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures Paperback – Sep 15 2005
by Richard D. Lewis 

Hofstede, Geert (2001). Culture's Consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.)
Dr. Terrence E. Maltbia

A Leader’s Guide to Leveraging Diversity – Strategic Learning Capabilities for Break-through Performance (2009) 

The Elusive Cultural Chameleon: Cultural Intelligence as a New Approach to Intercultural Training for the Global ManagerP. Christopher Earley1 and Randall S. Peterson1

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