Growing Your Cultural Intelligence (CQ)

‘Do I really need to learn about culture to be better at my job?’ ‘Don’t you just automatically know this stuff and adapt accordingly?’ ‘Surely it is just common sense. I can just follow my intuition.’ Questions and statements, I often hear in the corporate world. The answer to this is simply, that you probably do have some sense, but can someone just define common sense one more time… What is common behaviour for one, may be exactly the opposite for another.

For example, how would you respond if you are new at a workplace and your colleagues work until late and then want to go and socialise together until midnight? Some of you may be mortified at the thought of socialising with your colleagues. Others may see it as their duty or simply the way they do things. The reality is there are some things that we deeply believe in and often think is the only way to do it, until we come across someone who does it differently.

Culture is a bit like gravity – we do not know that it is there until we take a leap.

Once you’ve leapt you have two options:

  • Dismiss them as obviously wrong and continue in your own way or;
  • Be open to another way of doing things and consider that your way may not be the only way.

Depending on what this is, you may be more or less inclined to consider the options. However, when you practice different perspectives and expose yourself to different perspectives, you’ll stretch your brain to become more and more comfortable with those.

When we are stressed, we tend to fall back on our comfortable default behaviour as in the moment of stress we do not have the energy or capacity to rationally find the best solution. That is why it is so important to practice the correct behaviour, so it does become second nature.

Who has not had a driver do something silly like cut you off? What did you do? In that moment of rage, you may have chased past the person to glare through the window to confirm your stereotype of what you already decided. Then you continued with a sigh, thinking that was typical (insert your stereotype here). Was it fair? Can you really say all (insert stereotype here) are (insert your belief system)?

I’d like to challenge you to be curious to others and their behaviour and question your own stereotypes.

Let me be clear that no one can constantly operate in that space of exposure – it is exhausting. However, like all things in life, the more you practice it, the more comfortable you’ll get with it.

Cultural self-awareness is the key to start growing your cultural intelligence (CQ). We can only adapt to others if we are aware of our own comfortable operating system (OS). So, what is your OS?

Do you tend to be more direct or less direct when you express yourself? Are you willing to take changes or are you more measured in your OS? Would you cross the street where there is not a traffic light or rather walk an extra 100 meters to the nearest traffic light? Are you happy to just do it, or would you rather spend more time planning , researching and weighing up all your options? Are you comfortable with being on a first name basis with your colleagues and superiors or do you prefer a more formal approach? Combine all these different scenarios into one workplace, one meeting and you could be facing a melting pot of potential conflict.

Most confusing is when we don’t even recognise when a misunderstanding has occurred.

Self-awareness and situational awareness are key to managing this potential conflict and building stronger relationships.

Slow is neither good nor bad, it is simply slow. Direct is neither good nor bad it is simply direct. What are your belief systems (BS)? I want to point out that when I refer to culture – it could be ethnic culture as in where someone is from, but there is so much more to culture. There are generational differences, gender differences, organisational differences, socio economic background differences and many more.

These are all part of us. You are not even like all the others that are ‘like you’. You just have to look at your family – people from the same background (possibly) with similar value systems (possibly) and already you are all so different.

Once you are aware where you sit on the cultural scale, you can start comparing where are others are coming from. You don’t need years of experience and having travelled to several countries. Rather, commit to being culturally intelligent and plan how you can get there. You can start by self-awareness and step up to the next level by observing others.

I dare you to do a few things out of your comfort zone.

Be patient and have fun.