Demand for cultural intelligence in leaders is real

What is cultural intelligence in the workplace?

Cultural intelligence can be defined as our ability to work effectively with people from different backgrounds.  However it’s more than that, it’s the ability to consciously and specifically recognize cultural differences in a person’s behavior.   It’s recognizing patterns that can be attributed to cultural norms and making the distinction between what may be an unconscious bias of behavior based on where they are from, versus assigning intention or even ‘attitude’ to that behavior.

Why do you need it?

Having a diverse, multi-cultural workforce is an asset that can enhance resilience and flexibility allowing today’s companies to be successful.  Yet when individuals from different cultures to the rest of their team aren’t understood, it can lead to miscommunication, poor collaboration and fractured teams. 

As a leader it is our responsibility to promote and sustain the culture of the organization we belong to.  It is also our responsibility to understand situations where individuals are finding it difficult to fit into this culture.  This can manifest as personality clashes between employees, under-performing teams, behavioral issues among others, and if not understood, can be wrongly attributed to a lack of willingness to confirm or an ‘attitude problem’.

By understanding how an individual’s culture may be shaping their behavior, we can avoid misinterpreting that person and the value and intention they bring to their role and the team.

How to get it

What steps you can take tomorrow to strengthen your multi-cultural team?

Be informed.

Understand that people who have grown up in different cultures and learned their trade in a different country may have unconscious expectations and boundaries that are having a huge influence on their behavior. Take steps to understand the culture they are coming from.

  • Ask the person about their experience in your team/ company/ country. What do they find surprising/ different/ difficult/ confusing/ inspiring?
  • Talk to people who have worked where this person comes from or with people from the same culture and discover the differences they have noticed. 
  • Do your research. Use the resources at your disposal to understand the workplace and societal norms of where this person has come from.

Encourage understanding and celebrate the different cultures within teams.

This could be as involved as having a ‘themed’ day of the country where the person was from, or as simple as asking a question in a team meeting such as ‘how does management and the way companies operate here differ from where you have come from?’

Highlight patterns of behavior

By highlighting the pattern of behavior that you have identified as being possibly culturally informed with the person in question, you help bring what may be an unconscious behavior to their conscious mind.  This is the first step in this person being able to take accountability and responsibility for changing their behavior.

Use the 3 ‘whys’.

When someone behaves in a certain way, it is human nature to interpret their behavior based on what we would be intending or thinking if we were to behave in the same way.  This is not always accurate.  In this situation, our colleague Michael Grinder recommends coming up with 3 possible reasons for that behavior.

 Example:  An employee does not tell you how bad things really are when asked. 

The reasons for this could be:

Why 1. He/she doesn’t actually know.

Why 2.  He/she doesn’t know how you will react to bad news so doesn’t feel psycho-socially ‘safe’ enough to tell you how it really is.

Why 3.  He/she comes from a culture where it is considered disrespectful to give a manager negative feedback.  It is considered a criticism of them in their role.

It is then up to you to take steps/ ask questions to figure out which of  these or indeed, if  these are correct.

In culturally diverse teams, jumping to ‘Why 1’ and only having that as your understanding of their behavior can create a lot of issues.

Pay attention and be curious.

Understanding the way your team members respond to situations emotionally, socially, behaviorally and with their thinking is a key aspect to leading a high performing team.  By paying attention to team members, you’ll be able to notice patterns of behavior which is the first step to understanding and improving interactions and communication. 

Separate the behavior from the person.

Understand that these can be two different entities and that the person firstly may not be aware of that pattern of behavior, and secondly may not have immediate control over or knowledge of, why they behave the way they do.  With that in mind…

Be sensitive and supportive when behavior change is required.

With the knowledge that people may not know why they do what they do, what is driving this behavior and that it can be hard to change, setting up a supportive plan to help them change their behavior is more effective than immediately jumping to disciplinary action, whenever possible. 

Culturally diverse teams are both a reality of the modern workplace and an asset.  By being aware of the potential challenges their bring for yourself as the leader of the team, for the individual themselves and their team members, you will be able to bring out the best in all of them.

Cathy Taylor

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