Cultural intelligence recognizes that different members of your team may have different ways of thinking or expressing themselves. Understanding how a team member’s culture differs from your own makes you a more inclusive, supportive, and effective manager.
Cultural intelligence is applicable in a variety of situations—from helping you lead effective 1:1 meetings to making your team members feel more comfortable in group settings. In this article, we’ll walk you through how to build your cultural intelligence to support all of your team members, no matter where they’re from.Read: The secret to great group dynamics
Simply put, cultural intelligence is the ability to work with and across multiple cultures. Managers with high cultural intelligence actively acknowledge the role culture plays on their team and adjust their management style accordingly.
Broadly speaking, culture is the beliefs, behaviors, norms, traditions, arts, customs, and habits that a group of people share. This umbrella term doesn’t necessarily refer to an individual’s country(s) of origin so much as the societies or communities they are a part of.
Cultural intelligence is a key skill for every manager, even if you don’t work on a distributed or global team. That’s because each individual’s unique background is part of what makes them a valuable asset to the team. Understanding how cultural context impacts each team member helps you become a better leader.Read: How this management style can help you support your team
CQ, or cultural quotient, was first used by Christopher Earley and Soon Ang in the early 2000s. Additional research done by David Thomas and Kerr Inkson around the same time period contributed to a holistic framework of cultural intelligence. Ang and Linn Van Dyne later expanded on this work to build a research-backed way to measure intercultural performance: the CQ Scale.
In 2015, David Livermore published Leading with Cultural Intelligence to further develop the CQ Scale that Ang and Van Dyne developed. According to Livermore, there are four main elements of cultural intelligence:
CQ Drive, which is a person’s confidence in their ability to function effectively in diverse cultural situations.
CQ Knowledge, which encompasses a person’s understanding of the similarities and differences between cultures.
CQ Strategy, which includes how a person understands and processes experiences that are culturally different from their own.
CQ Action, which is a person’s ability to adapt their verbal and nonverbal behavior to match different cultures.
People with high CQ have all four capabilities. You can take a test or self-assessment to gauge your CQ, but this skill isn’t typically as numerically driven as other intelligences, such as IQ. Rather, CQ is a skill to build over the course of your life, similar to any other soft skill.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to recognize and regulate your own emotions to improve collaboration, connection, and empathy—as well as connect with other people or reduce conflict. EQ is key to developing good interpersonal relationships.
Cultural intelligence specifically focuses on using EQ when engaging with people whose cultural backgrounds are different from yours. People with high CQ apply their empathy and connection to understand the needs of team members who don’t necessarily share the same cultural norms.
Cultural sensitivity is the practice of being aware of the difference between cultures without valuing one culture over another. This practice follows the belief that just because a team member does something differently than you doesn’t make it better or worse. Instead, leaders with high cultural sensitivity know how to recognize cultural differences, celebrate them, and address them where necessary to create a strong team environment.Read: Managing distributed teams: How to lead with cross-cultural empathy
Cultural intelligence is becoming an increasingly important skill in business because of how it impacts team building. One of the best parts of managing a team is getting to work with team members who each bring a unique perspective and skillset to the table. Learning to lead with cross-cultural empathy, factor in different cultural backgrounds, and come to the table with cultural knowledge are all ways to improve your leadership skills.
Multicultural teams benefit from a diversity of opinion. To unlock the impact of a diverse team and build team synergy, you need to manage and encourage teamwork. That’s where a high CQ comes in.
For example, some team members are probably more comfortable with direct communication and feedback, whereas you might have other team members who are more comfortable with indirect feedback. Identifying what each team member needs in order to feel heard and welcomed at work is the best way to make them feel comfortable on your team.
Building CQ is an ongoing process. This isn’t a one and done thing like a technical skill—rather, you need to invest in and develop this skill over time.
Before you can apply any CQ learnings, you first need to invest in your own education and understanding. This includes learning about the culture(s) your team members are from, what their communication styles are, and what they expect from you as a manager or leader.
The best way to build cross-cultural connection is through shared experiences—so start by learning about holidays and important events that are culturally meaningful to your team members. This could be anything from their birthday to significant religious holidays to local holidays for team members who are located in a different country. Learning about these topics is an ongoing process, but by demonstrating interest in important events for each team member, you can make them feel more comfortable in the workplace and more welcome on your team.
Once you’ve learned a little about each team member’s culture, apply that learning to your own actions. For example, if one of your team members is observing Ramadan and fasting during the day, consider not eating or drinking in front of them if you can help it, since they may be thirsty. These small things help you increase comfort on your team.Read: Managing distributed teams: How to manage your time and energy as a global leader
Team members from different cultures typically communicate in different ways. Part of your job as their manager is to keep these communication preferences in mind during conversations—and especially when providing constructive feedback.
If you haven’t already, take some time during your next 1:1 to ask about each team member’s preferred communication style. Ask them if there’s anything a manager has done well in the past that you can emulate. If you’re comfortable, discuss how they prefer to receive feedback—for example, do they prefer to receive feedback in writing, or live? Developing these skills takes time, but it’s something you can do together with your team members.Read: The manager’s guide to communication styles
Communicating effectively is critical to managing a collaborative team. It’s equally important to pay attention to what isn’t being said on your team.
Some cultures aren’t confrontational, and team members might not say what’s on their mind. For example, you might have a team member who doesn’t feel comfortable approaching you directly with a concern. To become a more effective manager for that team member, try to notice if they’ve been quiet around the office or on the team Slack, and ask them if there’s anything on their mind.
Similarly, if a team member isn’t speaking up during meetings, ask them in a 1:1 if there’s anything you can do to support them as a manager. They may prefer to review the meeting agenda beforehand so they can come to the meeting prepared with questions instead of thinking of them on the spot. These small details go a long way towards supporting your team.
Gratitude and recognition are a great way to build close connections and show your team members that you see the work they’re doing. But it can be hard to give recognition unless you’re actively thinking about it. It’s especially difficult to recognize team members who might be in different offices or working remotely, since you’re not with them day in and day out. To combat that, go out of your way to recognize their accomplishments—not just in your 1:1s, but in front of the broader team as well.
Consider setting up a team gratitude tradition—even if it’s as simple as a “kudos” agenda item in your team meeting, or a Slack channel for gratitude. You can lead by example and kick off the gratitude sharing, but encourage all team members to participate.
Nonverbal communication and cultural details are important. But it’s equally important to think about the logistics of your team. If you're managing a distributed team across time zones, think about what time it is for your team member when you schedule a meeting or send a message. Make sure they’re included and, if they can’t be, record the meeting for them so they can catch up later.
Sometimes, it simply isn’t possible to have every team member in every meeting. If your team spans the globe, consider hosting team meetings at different times. For example, if you’re located in the United States, host your recurring all-team meeting at alternating times. One week, schedule it in the morning, so EMEA team members can join. Then the following week, schedule it in the afternoon, which is more friendly for the APAC region.Read: Managing distributed teams: 3 tips for practicing inclusive communication
Cultural diversity is a gift, but knowing how to manage a culturally diverse team takes practice. Part of this is building up your cultural intelligence. Like any interpersonal skill, building cultural intelligence takes time. But the investment you make in developing these skills is reflected in your team’s ability to be their full selves at work.
For more tips, read our blog on how to build a tight-knit team across time zones.