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10 Effective Ways to Increase Your Cultural Intelligence (CQ)


In our increasingly globalized and connected world, the ability to work effectively across cultures is more crucial than ever. But what exactly does this entail?

In this episode, we delve into the concept of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and its role in navigating the challenges of working in a cross-cultural environment.

What is cultural intelligence?

The traditional golden rule—treating others as you’d like to be treated—may prove risky in multicultural contexts. Different cultures tend to have different expectations, and a more nuanced approach to bonding with people across cultures feels like a more appropriate approach.  This is where cultural intelligence, or cultural quotient (CQ), comes into play.

Let’s start by looking at the definition of cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is the ability to interact effectively with people from different cultures. It involves understanding and appreciating cultural differences and being able to adapt your own behavior to accommodate those differences.

Individuals with high Cultural Intelligence excel in cross-cultural interactions, as they are able to navigate the complexities of diverse cultures with ease. They quickly build trust and rapport and are proficient in communicating across cultural boundaries.

How culturally intelligent are you?

In an increasingly globalized world, cultural intelligence (CQ) has become an essential skill, both personally and professionally. But what does it truly mean to be culturally intelligent?

Cultural intelligence goes beyond mere awareness of different practices, languages, and customs. It involves an active understanding and appreciation of cultural differences and the ability to adapt your behavior and attitude accordingly.

So, how culturally intelligent are you? Consider these aspects:

  • Awareness: Can you recognize differences and similarities across cultures? Are you aware of your own cultural biases and how they might impact your interactions with people from other cultures?
  • Knowledge: Do you actively seek to understand the cultural norms, practices, and values of others? This includes both the observable aspects, like traditions and behaviors, and the unobservable ones, like beliefs and values.
  • Empathy: Can you empathize with people from different cultural backgrounds, seeing things from their perspective without judgment
  • Adaptability: Are you able to adapt your communication style, behaviors, and expectations to fit various cultural contexts?
  • Curiosity: Do you have a genuine interest in learning about other cultures, asking questions, and engaging in cross-cultural experiences
  • Respect: Do you show respect for different cultural perspectives and practices, even if they are vastly different from your own?
  • Reflection: Do you regularly reflect on your cross-cultural experiences to gain deeper insights and improve your interactions?
  • Flexibility. Are OK with being uncomfortable and not knowing everything? Can you make sense of unfamiliar situations and blend in?

Cultural intelligence is not about knowing everything about every culture. It's about being aware of your own cultural lens, showing respect and empathy towards other cultures, and being willing to learn and adapt. It's a continuous journey, one that enriches both our personal and professional lives.

So, take a moment to reflect: How culturally intelligent are you? And more importantly, how willing are you to grow in this area?

Four cultural intelligence components 

Ang, Van Dyne, & Livermore describe four cultural intelligence components or CQ capabilities: motivation (CQ Drive), cognition (CQ Knowledge), meta-cognition (CQ Strategy), and behavior (CQ Action). If you take a CQ Assessment, you will likely be tested on all four (and several sub-dimensions for each capability). Here’s a brief summary:

  • Motivation: CQ-Drive is a person's interest and confidence in functioning effectively in culturally diverse settings. Those who have high CQ-Drive are motivated to learn about other cultures and to interact with people from different cultures. They want to understand how other cultures think and operate, and they’re not afraid of challenges.
  • Cognition: CQ-Knowledge is a person's knowledge about how cultures are similar and how cultures are different. Those with high CQ-Knowledge know a lot about different cultures – their customs, values, beliefs, etc. They’re able to see the world from multiple perspectives and can easily adapt to new situations.
  • Meta-cognition: CQ-Strategy is how a person makes sense of culturally diverse experiences. It occurs when people make judgments about their own thought processes and those of others. Those with high CQ-Strategy know how to navigate cultural differences and can manage conflict effectively.
  • Behavior: CQ-Action is a person's capability to adapt verbal and nonverbal behavior to make it appropriate to diverse cultures. It involves having a flexible repertoire of behavioral responses that suit a variety of situations.

Why does cultural intelligence matter?

Cultural intelligence is the ability to understand and navigate different cultures. It's an important skill to have in today's globalized world, where we're increasingly likely to encounter people from other cultures in our professional lives.

There are many benefits to having strong cultural intelligence. For one, it can help you avoid misunderstandings and communication breakdowns with colleagues from other cultures and it can contribute to breaking down silos. It can also help you build stronger relationships with people from other cultures, and foster a more collaborative and productive work environment.

Cultural intelligence in business translates into better relationships with coworkers and customers, better sales performance in various markets, and better customer service around the world.

Learn how to manage language and cultural diversity in the workplace

Examples of cultural intelligence

Let's look at some examples that showcase how individuals or organizations can successfully navigate the complexities of cross-cultural interactions.

CQ in Team Management:

A project manager leading a diverse team understands that cultural differences can impact team dynamics. They employ CQ by acknowledging these differences and adapting management styles accordingly. For instance, some team members may value individual recognition, while others prefer collective achievements. The manager tailors their approach to motivate each team member effectively, fostering a cohesive and productive environment.

CQ in Business Negotiations:
In a global company, executives from different countries come together for a negotiation. A culturally intelligent approach involves each party researching the others' cultural backgrounds, communication styles, and business etiquette. For example, in some cultures, direct conflict or disagreement is avoided during discussions, while in others, it's common. Understanding and respecting these nuances can lead to more effective negotiations and stronger business relationships.

CQ in Customer Service:

In a customer service setting, a representative demonstrates high CQ by recognizing and adapting to the diverse cultural backgrounds of customers. They may encounter customers who have different expectations about communication, timeliness, or problem resolution. Understanding these cultural differences and responding in a culturally sensitive manner enhances customer satisfaction and loyalty.

CQ in Global Virtual Teams: 

In a virtual setting, team leaders and members practice cultural intelligence by being mindful of time zones, language barriers, and communication preferences. They use inclusive meeting practices and technology tools that accommodate everyone, ensuring effective collaboration and team cohesion.

These examples highlight the importance of cultural intelligence in various aspects of work and life. By understanding and adapting to cultural differences, individuals and organizations can build more effective, respectful, and collaborative relationships across cultures.

How can you increase your cultural intelligence?

Working across cultures can be challenging, but there are ways to increase your cultural intelligence. By understanding and respecting cultural differences, you can build trust and communication with people from other cultures. 

Three sources of CQ: Head, Body, Heart

An influential HBR article identified three components of developing cultural intelligence: Head, Body, and Heart. 

  • The head refers to the cognitive means that will help you develop your CQ: learning about your own and other cultures and understanding cultural diversity.
  • The body, or physical means, is about taking that knowledge and transforming it into actions. You understand that when your actions coincide with those of the other culture, it is easier to build trust and create openness. You demonstrate cultural understanding through body language, gestures, greetings, etc.
  • The heart is the motivational means that helps you develop your CQ. It is about gaining the confidence and motivation to interact with other cultures. You are not afraid to make mistakes because you know that you have good intentions and you are willing to learn from your mistakes.

10 ways to develop cultural intelligence

If you want to be successful in today's increasingly globalized world, then you need to develop your cultural intelligence. Here are some cultural intelligence strategies and tips:

1. Understand your own cultural background. Read more about your own culture and how it is usually perceived by others. 

2. Make an effort to learn about other cultures. Be curious about the customs, values, and beliefs of other cultures. Learn about them and how they differ from your own. This will help you understand and respect differences. Read books, watch films, and talk to people from different cultures to gain a better understanding of their customs and beliefs. When you travel, talk to the locals, and pay attention to their habits, behaviors, and foods.

3. Seek out opportunities to interact with people from other cultures. Whether in person or online. Travel, work, or volunteer in another country. Join a club or group that celebrates diversity. 

4. Try to become more aware of your own cultural biases and assumptions. Take a CQ assessment and reflect on your own thoughts and behaviors.

5. Be open-minded. Thinking that our way of doing things is “normal” and “the correct way” is an all-too-common mistake. To be successful in cross-cultural interactions, you need to be open-minded and willing to accept that there are different ways of doing things. Don't try to force your own culture on others – instead, learn about their culture and try to see things from their perspective.

6. Be flexible. One of the most important aspects of cultural intelligence is flexibility. Things will often not go as planned in cross-cultural interactions, so you need to be able to adapt and adjust your behavior accordingly.

7. Be patient. Don't expect others to immediately understand your culture or point of view. Allow time for learning and adjustment.

8. Communicate effectively. Good communication is essential for successful cross-cultural interactions. Learn how to effectively communicate across cultures. Make sure you are clear and concise in your communication and be aware of potential language barriers. 

9. Focus on building relationships. Building relationships is key to success in cross-cultural interactions. Get to know people from other cultures, and show them that you are interested in their culture and way of life. Always adopt a curious approach, never a judgemental one. When you build genuine relationships with people from other cultures, they will likely be more forgiving of any faux pas.

10. Learn a new language. When you learn a new language, you discover multiple correct ways of expressing the same idea. Speaking other languages rewires your brain and helps you understand other cultures and other ways of thinking.

By increasing your cultural intelligence, you'll be better equipped to work across cultures and build strong relationships with people from all backgrounds.

CQ in action! Working across cultures framework

Now that you know what CQ is all about and how to increase it, let's see what being culturally intelligent looks like in action. Feel free to use this framework when you approach an unfamiliar situation.

The first step is to look inward. Run a mindset checklist and make sure you are approaching the situation with the right mentality. Then, look outward. To make sense of unfamiliar situations, you may have to ask questions. We’ll look at some quick tips to do so in cross-cultural interactions. 

Mindset checklist

The first step is to look inward. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Check assumptions and biases: What do I assume to be true/false about this person? How could these assumptions influence me?
  • Be present: Which ‘me’ will I bring to this encounter? What attitude and energy will help me learn, build, and achieve things with this person, group, or culture?
  • Prepare for ambiguity: Am I ready to handle ‘gray’ right now? How will I ask for clarification?

Cultural Intelligence CQ mindset

What’s most important - remember that human beings are complex. Our minds tend to put people in boxes as it helps us make sense of reality. But keep in mind that we all belong to multiple categories (or boxes) and have a wide range of characteristics. Individuals do not (and should not) represent their entire culture or country. 

Instead, approach unfamiliar situations with an open mind and curiosity. Read and learn about other cultures but forget about stereotypes. Even if there might be some truth behind some stereotypes, remember that they are oversimplified and fixed ideas about a particular group of people and it can be dangerous to rely on them.

Asking the right questions

Once you’ve completed your mindset checklist, you are ready to look outward and ask questions. We talked about asking better questions in a previous episode, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Ask open-ended questions: instead of “Will the slides be ready tomorrow?” try “When do you think the slides will be ready?”
  • Use generally, usually, typically: generalize and de-personalize questions to avoid putting people on the spot. For example, “How do people in your local team usually like to collaborate?”
  • Ask follow-up questions: keep digging with follow-up questions like, “What led to this decision?” or “What would you like to see happen?”

Cultural Intelligence CQ asking questions


Cultural intelligence (CQ) is more than just a beneficial skill; it's a critical asset in our interconnected, globalized world. Those who cultivate and harness this intelligence are not only equipped to bridge cultural divides but also to enrich their personal and professional lives. With cultural intelligence, we can build deeper, more meaningful relationships with individuals from diverse backgrounds, enhancing collaboration and fostering a productive, inclusive environment.

Whether it's through self-awareness, empathy, adaptability, or effective communication, each step towards increasing our CQ is a step towards a more understanding and cooperative world. The journey towards cultural intelligence is ongoing, filled with continuous learning and growth. By embracing this journey, we open ourselves up to a world of opportunities, experiences, and connections that transcend cultural boundaries.

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