Why Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Is Vital To Your Workplace

An older woman is giving instructions and feedback to a younger man at work while his female coworker sits alongside him.

When looking to better the organizations, spaces, and groups we’re part of, we first need to reflect on our own experiences and analyze what our cultural intelligence looks like.

The Harvard Business Review says cultural intelligence is an outsider’s “seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures in just the way that person’s compatriots and colleagues would.” Put more succinctly, cultural intelligence is someone’s capacity to relate to and work with cultures, backgrounds, and diverse situations other than their own.

While some people innately have a level of cultural intelligence based on their upbringing, everyone has some level of work to do when it comes to fully relating to, understanding, and accepting all types of cultures and backgrounds.

Cultural intelligence is also known as CQ, short for cultural quotient–a play on an IQ, which is short for intelligence quotient. However, there is no test to quantifiably score cultural intelligence.

Why Cultural Intelligence is Important in the Workplace

A critical component of a successful team is the ability to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Having strong cultural intelligence helps with that.

As our “normal” shifted from enclosed office spaces to crowded living rooms, bedrooms, and makeshift couch offices, the lines between work and “life” significantly blurred. With that, we’re spending more and more time with coworkers virtually. As the transition to a hybrid model for many companies started in 2022, though, the in-person time with team members has started to increase again.

Oftentimes we find ourselves engaging with our coworkers just as much as we engage with our families and other interpersonal relationships. Culturally intelligent people play a huge role in bridging the gaps in groups by educating peers about differing cultures, transferring knowledge between groups, and building interpersonal connections in multicultural groups, teams, or organizations. Culturally intelligent employees also posses the ability to drive innovation and creativity by integrating and utilizing diverse resources. They lean into the varying perspectives that come with a multicultural workplace and help make work a more equal and equitable place.

Workplaces with high cultural intelligence are less likely to have one-track mindsets and are more likely to experience diversity of thought–a crucial trait for organizations operating in workplaces growing more diverse by the generation.

How To Improve Your CQ

While understanding and connecting with others is the end goal, we must first start with awareness. Understanding cultural differences can be challenging, especially for those who haven’t been exposed to a diverse cultural environment. For example, in Chinese culture, elderly people are traditionally acknowledged first and spoken to softly. That may be seen as ageist or discriminatory in Western culture for those who aren’t aware. Acknowledging the difference in societal norms like this allows us to start understanding, accepting, and embracing the differences.

But you also need to make the effort. Once you’re aware of cultural differences, you need to make the effort to understand these differences. Keeping in mind the climate of the United States has changed significantly in recent years, as well as the climate of corporate America, being considerate of all your team members and coworkers can make all the difference in a team that succeeds and a team that fails.

Make your employees or coworkers feel like they can speak up, too. Psychological safety–the ability to feel one can speak up with bold, fresh, and unique ideas and thought processes without being punished–often ties hand in hand with cultural intelligence. The more an individual can feel comfortable in their surroundings, it will allow them to be themselves. It harbors a sense of belonging. It also breeds the comfort needed to present ideas others in the group may not have thought about.

Cultural Intelligence in Action

A client of mine at a Fortune 500 company within the embedded engineering space told me he expanded his team significantly in recent years and wanted to understand his employees better. He served in the U.S. Military, spent time abroad, and loved history. When he found out one of his employees practiced Islam, he realized he had no idea what that meant and how it affected this person. He didn’t understand Ramadan or his employee’s need to do daily prayer five times a day.

My client recognized the lack of cultural intelligence he had with someone that he interacted with on the daily basis. Awareness.

From there, he decided to learn more about Islam and even took the time to read the teachings of the Quran. His employee immediately recognized how impactful it was for his boss to take an interest in his religious beliefs that played such a large role in his personal life. He was now able to bring his full self to work while also improving his productivity in the organization. My client’s dedication to understanding the differentiating cultures on his team impacted them in a way far beyond just the work they were doing. It brought them together as a team.

Two employees talking while sitting across from each other at a table

Learning At “Home”

I had a unique upbringing. Both of my parents were in the United States Air Force. My mother was a protocol officer, and my father was a fighter pilot who later held various roles outside of the cockpit.

My parents’ careers took us across the world. We lived in Texas, Alaska, South Korea, Italy, and Germany, and we took advantage of the opportunity to travel. Growing up we would spend weekends, spring breaks, and winter breaks in Egypt, Morocco, China, Switzerland, Poland, and more. As a child, my hometown was nowhere, my friends were everywhere, and if I hadn’t been somewhere yesterday, I was sure to go there tomorrow. I could say, “Hello,” “Goodbye,” and count to twenty in five languages. I spent more time on buses, planes, and trains than I did in cities and countries, and my bookshelves were lined with trinkets and knickknacks from around the world.

Between all this travel, I had to go to school. In all overseas Department of Defense schools, we were required to take Host Nation classes. These are classes that detail the cultural differences of the country hosting you while teaching you basic conversational linguistics of the country. In South Korea’s Host Nation classes, we learned origami and the significance of the Hanbok; in Italy’s, we learned about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and its destruction of Pompeii, while also learning the history of the significant pasta consumption; and in Germany, we learned about the concentration camps in World War II and the lasting impacts of the Holocaust on the country.

All of this helped my cultural intelligence. It was vital to our success as foreigners within the communities we were part of, and from it came a mutual respect for one another.

When my parents retired from the Air Force, we moved to a rural suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I found myself feeling more like an outsider there than anywhere I’d lived before. The culture shock was unlike anything I had experienced. I was expected to attend Lutefisk dinners and know how to operate within a slower-paced environment. I was shocked when my school bus didn’t do bomb checks at every stop, and I didn’t understand why every classmate had known each other for years. The two-year turnover rate in Department of Defense schools is over 90%, so I never had deep-rooted friendships with classmates. In my civilian Minnesota school, nearly every classmate spoke English as their first and (for most) only language.

I had to take a step back to check my cultural intelligence, and likewise, so did my parents.

When my father transitioned into his executive role within our family’s propane company, he had to recognize that the language he used was often un-inclusive to those who hadn’t been in the military. Though he had relevant leadership experience, leading a team of soldiers is significantly different than leading bulk truck drivers, mechanics, and branch supervisors. He was also moving from leading an organization with teams based in France, Germany, and big cities in the United States to a regional team in the Midwest. It took a lot of emotional and cultural intelligence on his and his employees’ end to foster a healthy work environment. He eventually built the psychological safety that allowed him to speak up and voice his opinions, provide examples of previous projects he had worked on internationally, and explain how they could help this company based in a small town.

Understand the World Around You

A poem titled I Am A Military Brat explains cultural intelligence well, saying:

“Travel has taught me to be open. By age nine, I had seen more of the world than most do in a lifetime. I had touched many and allowed their cultures to touch me. Shaking hands with the universe, I found a familiarity in all.”

Take a step back to understand the cultural differences of those around you. Also, do your due diligence and to make it a priority to better your understanding of those around you. Lead by example. Your understanding will lead to drastic improvements in team culture, productivity, and teamwork within your organization.

Savannah Buck is an account manager and DE&I advisor at Insight Global’s Minneapolis office. She sells staffing services in the Twin Cities area, and she works with fellow account managers to highlight DE&I consulting and staffing solutions to clients across the United States.