You don’t need to travel internationally to encounter people of different cultures. They occur in everyday life, or at the workplace, in interactions with fellow employees, clients or customers.
Typically, we experience differences with behavioral norms or values, such as the way we address others, how we dress, what we eat, holidays we observe or how we deal with conflict. But these differences could just be unique to individuals. They are “cultural” when they are common among a group that has shared experiences. Understanding when interpersonal differences are culturally guided (and not merely idiosyncratic) is one of the first attributes needed to show “cultural intelligence”—or more simply, “CQ.”
CQ’s relevance emerged in this country when U.S. companies began venturing into the global market and encountering difficulty. A good example was firms giving too much ground in negotiating with potential foreign partners due to misreading their counterparts’ more deliberate process of doing business.
A low CQ factor also triggered U.S. marketing blunders in other countries. In Africa, for instance, Gerber’s first go at selling baby food went down with a thud. With its trademark sketch of a smiling baby on its food jars, the company was unaware product packaging around the continent typically displays what’s inside to avoid language and literacy barriers.
According to professors P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article, it is essential for individuals to approach CQ from three aspects — head, body and heart.
Head — Be aware that behaviors and preferences are influenced by culture to prevent negative reactions to differences.
Body — Make sure your behaviors match or mimic those around you.
Heart — You have to have the desire to improve your cross-cultural skills. Seek out opportunities to interact with others who are different than you, even if you’ve committed culture gaffes in the past.
In today’s workplace, employees hail from diverse backgrounds and bring their differences to the office. Employees most likely to create and sustain positive relationships are those that understand the “head,” “body” and “heart” of high CQ. These employees are sensitive to cultural differences, interact appropriately with people of different cultures and are agile enough to analyze and adapt to new cultures that they encounter.
Research on CQ is in its relative infancy, but results are already showing that workplace harmony and desirable work outcomes — including top team performance — are more likely when employees have more CQ. The good news is that CQ can be trained, and therefore also strengthened.
The best CQ-training programs are those that recognize CQ for what it is — multi-faceted and a skill that takes repeated practice accompanied by commitment to continually understanding the greater cultural context from which all of us come.
With 300,000-plus businesses of various sizes operating amidst a wide variety of ethnic groups, metropolitan Washington perhaps is indicative of why high-CQ workers are more and more valued, even for positions that don’t involve international travel.
Debra L. Shapiro is the Clarice Smith Professor of Management for the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is an expert in negotiation, mediation and dispute-resolution strategies.