How Cultural Intelligence Can Improve Your Performance

Use Cultural Intelligence to Understand and React to Your Work Environment

If you practice cultural intelligence, you can succeed with any people in any work environment.
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Cultural intelligence is all about understanding different cultures and making accommodations and adjustments so that your business can succeed no matter the environment or standard practices. There are times when you need to bow to the needs of other cultures and times when you absolutely should not.

For example, if you schedule a meeting at 10 am in Switzerland, you better show up ready to go no later than 9:55 am. But, if you schedule a meeting in Bulgaria, you can relax a bit—it’s unlikely anyone will be there until at least 10:15 am. You can imagine the chaos that ensues when you try to bring these two cultures together—you have a culture clash for sure.

Cultural Intelligence Within the Company

When you think of different cultures, you often think about different languages and different countries, but everyone can speak the same language and even be citizens of the same country, and yet, there are cultural differences that occur within your company.

Finance wants everything laid out with graphs, numbers, and spreadsheets. If you try to present to them without this information, they’ll tune you out. Marketing wants information displayed in the way that catches the eye and appeals to the end client. The CEO wants the overview, the goals, and the progress. She's not interested in hearing the small details.

Having cultural intelligence means that you understand these differences and you tailor your remarks and requests towards the needs of the group you are targeting.

You will find other cultural differences within your company. Department A is always at work early and they also leave early, while Department B has loud group lunches. Department C gets together at a local tavern every Friday at 4 pm.

When you consider these types of cultural differences, it’s not morally better to do one thing over the other—it’s just different. And understanding the difference builds your cultural intelligence and your reputation within the company. People are appreciative when you reach out to them on their terms. 

Cultural Intelligence Among Cultures

While different departments develop different cultures, your employees come from a wide variety of cultures. And remember, just because two people have the same skin color and similar accents don’t mean that they have the same culture. Cultures are unique to countries, states, cities, neighborhoods, and even families.

This means that you can’t assume that the new hire will know the cultural rules of the workplace. You may need to talk about the importance of showing up to work every day, coming in on time, and working hard all day while you’re at work.

An employee with cultural intelligence will recognize that what may look like a performance issue is actually a cultural issue. This doesn’t mean you can’t correct it, but it changes how you bring it up.

A person from a country where women are not considered equal with men may need coaching when he moves to a job in the United States. Your gut reaction may be to attack a man who treats all women as his inferiors, but you are demonstrating a lack of cultural intelligence if you choose this route. Instead, invite him in for a one on one meeting, explain that how, in the United States, and in this business, men and women are equals.

Now, of course, if he can’t change his behavior, it’s time to put him on a performance improvement plan and eventually terminate him. Your local culture and laws prevail over his country’s culture.

Cultural Intelligence Is Often Needed When Least Expected

A human resources executive from the Philadelphia area took an assignment in Poland. He and his family prepared for the huge cultural change and off they went. He learned a lot and had a great time before returning to Philly. His next assignment? North Carolina.

While he had prepared for the cultural differences in Poland, he hadn’t considered the cultural differences he’d find in North Carolina. Same country, same language, same company, but the culture was very different. Now, as the head of HR, he could have come in and demanded that they do things Philly style—very direct and quick. But he didn’t. He understood that if he wanted to succeed in his North Carolina job, he’d have to become a bit more relaxed.

If you can understand and are able to spot differences and appreciate the huge role that culture plays in how people view the world and react to challenges, coworkers, and weekend emergencies, you are demonstrating the critical part of cultural intelligence.

Just like emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence helps you to decode situations that can offer difficult challenges. Your cultural intelligence allows you to approach a difficult situation with empathy and compassion. It can also give you the encouragement to stand back and see if how “they” do it is really bad or if it’s just simply “different.”

Some actions and beliefs are bad and inappropriate. Someone who comes from a culture where all races are not considered equal does not get a pass in your workplace. Someone whose culture uses offensive language doesn’t get to swear at clients or coworkers, even if she would happily swear in front of her grandmother.

Developing cultural intelligence helps you understand the people and environment around you. It makes you a better manager and a better leader. Spend some time learning about cultures outside of your own, and you may surprise yourself with how different your worldview becomes.