Understanding Cultural Intelligence

managing-across-bordersToday, managing across borders is no longer just the responsibility of the jet-setting few at multi-national conglomerates. It has become a part of every management job in organizations with global or regional aspirations. Businesses, large or small, have to venture beyond their home geography to collaborate and compete. Many organizations have since identified finding and developing effective cross-cultural personnel as one of the top management priorities. Therefore, Cultural Intelligence (CQ) has become one of the most sought-after soft skills for leaders.

Today’s leaders need to engage people, build connections, find common purpose, and turn resources into capacity amid the global challenges. Confronting diversity and the ability to harness values from it, has become critical for their success. Leadership qualities such as being visionary,inspirational, supportive, competent, fair, resilient,etc. still apply. Except, for now, they have to be perceived equally by people outside one’s home base, across different cultures, as manage and operate the complex web of global operations and marketplaces.

What is Cultural Intelligence?

iq-cq-eq.jpgCultural Intelligence (CQ) is our capability to function effectively in a variety of cultural contexts (e.g., national, ethnic, organizational, generational, vocational, etc.) It is about being ourselves while respecting others.

While high Emotional Intelligence (EQ) may help us understand the expectations and adjust our actions when we interact with people in a general manner, a high Cultural intelligence (CQ) will help us interpret the expectation of these people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

According to the Cultural Intelligence Center (USA), there are four CQ capabilities:

1. CQ Drive: being interested and compelled to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds and navigate a culturally diverse environment.

2. CQ Knowledge: having the requisite information of various cultural backgrounds, and the ability to identify differences between them based on cultural context.

3. CQ Strategy: effectively utilizing the cultural information at your disposal to formulate a plan to optimize the outcome of the encounter.

4. CQ Action: adjusting one’s behavior and body language to execute said strategy in a culturally appropriate manner.


Individuals with high CQ possess strength in all four. They usually are natural bridge builders, establishing trust, and connecting people. These individuals can handle different multicultural situations with ease because they know how to adapt and adopt strategies appropriate to different cultural situations. Anyone can develop cultural intelligence. So long as you possess a genuine interest and curiosity. A good cultural coach will first help us understand our cultural traits and value preferences before working on how we can interact better with other cultures.

ResearchconductedbyDukeCorporateEducationshowsthatcompaniesleaderswillhaveto espouse inclusive behaviors in order to leverage diversity in their teams. The behaviors (5Cs) comprise Curiosity, Connection, Compassion, Clarity, and Courage.

Notably, at most cross-cultural workshops, participants tend to be more engaged and attentive when it comes to CQ Knowledge, especially when we start discussing the “Dos” and “Don’ts” for a specific culture. While it is encouraging that a lot of interest is shown about learning a new culture but to develop our CQ fully, it is important for us not to “over-fixate” on the need for perfecting our CQ knowledge. Yes, there are some very important social norms and traditions one should know, but it is not realistic to expect “perfect” knowledge for every culture we encounter.

Referring to Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher, sometimes, it is perfectly fine to be clueless about something. With that humble state of mind, only can we focus our energy to find something more profound.

“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters -don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.” -Epictetus, Enchiridion, 13a, CE55-135

world-flagsArmed with“curiosity,” that will give us the CQ Drive to explore and interact with those different from us. Our interactions with others will form the foundation of a positive relationship if both parties act with genuine interest and mutual respect. In the process, we will gather more knowledge or validate our understanding to supplement what we think we already know. Curiosity will help increase our CQ Knowledge.

More important and perhaps the harder aspects are to develop our abilities to strategize (CQ Strategy) and appropriately adjust our actions (CQ Action) so that we can attain the intended outcomes under the different cultural situations. Good strategies and actions can only be found and achieved when we focus our energy on establishing the “connection” with the people. Ultimately, to have a good foundation for CQ, it is not about learning and recalling every detail of the cultural norms and taboos. It is about having a healthy dose of “curiosity” and making an effort to” connect” with people.

groupTherefore, when it comes to cross cultural interactions, let’s try not to “stick”to what we think we know, lest it takes away our curiosity to discover something new. Be curious, take an interest, and make our own discovery by dialoguing with the person, genuinely and respectfully. One will be amazed by how “rewarding” our effort can be when a genuine connection is made.

Developing Cultural Intelligence is a continuous process. There is not a point where we can declare ourselves completely capable. It requires the resolve to evaluate others’ behaviors in response to ours. That is, we need continuously questioning what we think we know, acknowledging our mistakes, engaging in healthy self-reflection, and adjusting our actions accordingly. Laozi, the ancient Chinese sage, once said chineese-writing which roughly translates to “A journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step.”

Congratulations, reading these articles means you’re already on your way to developing your CQ. We all start somewhere, and this can very well be the beginning of your journey. Take an active role in your journey in developing your global leadership. Equip yourself with Cultural Intelligence, so that you can be an effective leader in our increasingly inter-connected world.


Keng Keng Tan

Keng Keng Tan

Keng keng Tan is CEO and founder of TRANSCultural Group (TCG), a premier consulting firm that provides high-quality learning programs, including workshops and customized cultural experiences to those in search of traditions, values, and excellence.

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