Cultural Intelligence 101


In the beginning…

Everywhere we turn, the talk is of globalisation, glocalisation, internationalisation…And yet we are bombarded with statistics of how many global work assignments (GWAs) fail, how many mergers fall through, how many virtual teams do not achieve their objectives. Trying to make sense and thrive in this brave new interconnected world requires a comparative newcomer to the executive suite of intelligences – cultural intelligence (CQ). If you don’t know your Ken Loach from your Ken Russell, you’ll be relieved to know this is nothing to do with how high brow you are but a concept that is gaining increasing attention in business circles as our working environments become ever more diverse and interrelated.

Simply put, if we agree that intelligence refers to a person’s capacity to solve problems and adapt to diverse circumstances, then cultural intelligence is a person’s capability for successful adaptation to new cultural settings (Earley, Ang and Tan). These researchers posit cultural intelligence as the answer to the following leading questions:

  • How do individuals develop their ability to adapt effectively across different cultures?
  • Why do some individuals possess superior capacity to deal with the challenges of working in different cultures?
  • How do individuals reach full productive potential working in culturally diverse work environments in their home countries and overseas?
  • How do organisations build the capacity for effective global work assignments in different locations around the world?
  • How do organisations optimise individual and collective performance by harnessing the cultural diversity of their people across the world?

Four steps

Perhaps the best known CQ expert in the practitioner world, David Livermore has developed a four-tier model with accompanying strategies and improvement techniques.

If you think this looks remarkably like an extension of emotional intelligence, then you may well be right. Back in 2004, Earley and Mosakowski wrote in the Harvard Business Review:

“A person with high emotional intelligence grasps what makes us human and at the same time what makes each of us different from one another. A person with high cultural intelligence can somehow tease out of a person’s or group’s behavior those features that would be true of all people and all groups, those peculiar to this person or this group, and those that are neither universal nor idiosyncratic. The vast realm that lies between those two poles is culture.”

So where does this apply?

Too often, organisations will arrange off-the-shelf cross-cultural training for their employees ahead of overseas assignments or visits. Executives sit through a half-day of titbits such as “Don’t eat with your left hand” or “Don’t use their business cards to pick your nails” (aside – why does this kind of advice so often get framed in the negative?) and then board their planes to reap international success….

Is there a place for this kind of training? I believe that if there is a value, it’s an increasingly limited one, especially if you look more closely at the complex and shifting make up of our myriad identities (just think of all the different hats you wear). Does such ‘do’s and don’ts’ stereotyping really contribute to better mutual understanding and relationships? Perhaps we should underline first that you don’t need to travel for intercultural experiences – our own offices are a better place to start.

Cultures come in many shapes and sizes. The most readily identified are often the national or ethnic, but we have organisational, vocational, even team cultures. Like good diversity management, CQ is about understanding and leveraging these cultural differences.  With leadership theories increasingly focussing on the influence and relationship aspects of the role, the flexibility and ability to adapt that high cultural intelligence offers will go a long way towards maximising the potential in your own team, while giving you competitive advantage and strategic capability in relation to others.

And, as with so much else in leadership, high CQ is founded on strong self-awareness of your own behaviours and values. This is where the cultural frameworks of Hall and Hofstede and Trompenaars and the GLOBE project and all the others come into play. Understanding your own background allows you to in turn perceive, adapt and strategise. CQ is that bridge between you and the world.


  • P.C. Earley and E. Mosakowski. (Oct 2004) Cultural Intelligence. Harvard Business Review
  • P.C. Earley, S. Ang, and J-S Tan. (2006) CQ: Developing Cultural Intelligence At Work
  • D. Livermore. (2009) Leading with Cultural Intelligence
  • D. Livermore. (2011) The Cultural Intelligence Difference

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.