Four Skills You Need to Build Cultural Intelligence

February 23, 2016

Are you looking to bring cultural intelligence to the forefront of your organization? David Livermore is a frequent adviser and speaker to government agencies, Fortune 500s, and charitable organizations around the world. This is an adaptation from his latest book, Driven by Difference.

How do you ensure that diversity leads to innovation and improved solutions rather than gridlock and inferior results? How should you address this when there’s already a significant level of diversity fatigue on the part of many in the workforce? Diverse teams can come up with far more innovative solutions than homogeneous teams, but it’s not automatic. The key lies in minimizing the interpersonal conflict from diverse groups and maximizing the informational diversity that exists in the varied perspectives and values. This is what gave birth to our work in cultural intelligence at the Cultural Intelligence Center. We encountered leaders who had extensive understanding about different cultures but still couldn’t effectively develop a plan for leading a culturally diverse team. We observed teams that were aware of their internal biases but still couldn’t work together productively. And we saw organizations that successfully hired a more diverse population but found themselves stuck in gridlock. Cultural intelligence (CQ) addresses these shortcomings by providing a more sophisticated approach for working across cultures.

Our research on cultural intelligence finds that the culturally intelligent have developed skills in four capabilities. The four capabilities are:

  1. CQ Drive (Motivation): Having the interest, confidence, and drive to adapt cross-culturally
  1. CQ Knowledge (Cognition): Understanding intercultural norms and differences
  1. CQ Strategy (Meta-cognition): Making sense of culturally diverse experiences and planning accordingly
  1. CQ Action (Behavioral): Changing verbal and nonverbal actions appropriately when interacting cross-culturally

A growing body of evidence supports that organizations that learn how to effectively obtain the ideas and input of a diverse workforce outpace those solely operating from a monolithic perspective. Google’s internal employment survey found that teams that were both diverse and inclusive were also the best at innovation. Sara Ellison, an economics researcher from MIT, conducted a study that demonstrated the improved business results that can come from teams with greater gender balance. The teams that had both genders equally represented and equipped participants to intentionally utilize the gender differences came up with more creative solutions than teams dominated by one gender.

One professional service firm saw its revenue increase by 41 percent when it developed a plan to form teams with equal numbers of men and women and equipped them to utilize the value of their different perspectives. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, says, “One of the secret sauces for Alibaba’s success is that we have a lot of women.” Women hold 47 percent of all jobs at Alibaba and 33 percent of all senior positions—a stark contrast to what typically happens in tech firms.

Women bring new knowledge, skills, and networks to the table and take fewer unnecessary risks. But the key lies in whether their female perspectives are effectively utilized with cultural intelligence.

Even following a wider diversity of people on Twitter has been proven to yield more innovative ideas than only following people who are similar to you. Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, combines its commitment to cultural intelligence with utilizing multicultural employee resource groups to provide market research for launching new brands. The cultural perspectives offered by the staff provide a built-in resource that offers better findings than traditional market research and for virtually no cost. The research indicates that when a culturally intelligent team has at least one member who comes from the same cultural background as a targeted end user, the entire team better understands that user. In fact, one study found that a team with a member who shares a client’s ethnicity is 152 percent more likely to understand that client than a team without someone from that background. And because cultural intelligence is a multiplying force, the more cultural diversity and the higher the CQ among the team members, the greater the innovative potential. Novartis estimates that it has saved millions of dollars by using its built-in diversity while simultaneously using its culturally intelligent, multicultural teams to provide innovative solutions that improve and save people’s lives.

The greater the diversity on your team, the more likely you can uncover potential problems and come up with creative solutions. True, it’s a process that comes more slowly, and it’s often much more difficult. When everyone sees things the same, there’s an ease with which people can relate, work, and openly share their thoughts. Most teams find it more enjoyable, and it’s more efficient in the short run. But that’s a shortsighted view. When diverse teams draw upon their differences with cultural intelligence, it leads to better results. And with time, it’s far more rewarding because you get to see the world in much more colorful ways.


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Is your team performing at the optimal level? Connect better with others by utilizing the benefits of cultural intelligence. Build your communication acumen with these AMA seminars and resources.

About The Author

David Livermore is the president at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Mich., and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Prior to leading the Cultural Intelligence Center, Livermore spent 20 years in leadership positions with a variety of non-profit organizations around the world and taught in universities. In addition to Driven by Difference, Livermore has authored several other books, including Leading with Cultural Intelligence (named a business best-seller by The Washington Post), Serving with Eyes Wide Open, and Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to Engage our Multicultural World.

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