5 Reasons Why Cultural Intelligence Matters

There is a story about a father and son who were involved in a car accident. The father died, but the son was taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor saw the boy and said, “I cannot operate on this boy.”

The nurse asks, “Why not, doc?”

The doctor replied, “Because he is my son.”

How could that be possible?

What’s your answer?

And there is this story of a lady named Sandra, who attended a Montessori conference in Kansas City with the teachers from her sons’ school. She kept noticing this small-framed Filipina carrying a baby-changing tote around. She wondered if the Filipina was part of the hotel’s cleaning staff. She was utterly dumbfounded when she found out that the Filipina was the main speaker for the conference, a world expert on the Montessori method of education in public schools! Aua!

Did you answer mum to the first story?

Do you often fall into racial and gender stereotyping?

Cultural diversity in the workplace is one good thing that came out of this pandemic that swept the world in 2020. 

The job space has undoubtedly expanded and exploded since the 2020 global pandemic. People from all parts of the world can get jobs from across continents, without having to leave their homes.

Admittedly, agile global corporations who have been embracing diverse cultures before the coronavirus disruption have made small steps towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Only now, with the pandemic disruption, the steps had to be fast-tracked. 

Nimble corporations quickly pivoted to embrace these new paths of hiring. And to handle consequent increased cultural diversity, corporations started coaching sessions to ease people in through cultural adjustments, conduct cross-cultural competence training and formed Diversity and Inclusion teams and programs. Because, honestly, it is more than just a time-zone difference.  

What is Cultural Intelligence (CQ)?

The term Cultural Intelligence, abbreviated CQ (Cultural Quotient), was coined from the research done by Professors Christopher Early (Professor of Organization Behavior at the London Business School) and Soon Ang (Distinguished University Professor, Nanyang Business School). They define the term as an outsider’s natural ability to interpret and respond to unfamiliar cultural signals in an appropriate manner. 

A leader with a high cultural quotient can come into a new cultural setting, work and live side by side with people of diverse cultural backgrounds, and adapt their behaviours and actions with ease and understanding. 

Early and Ang recognised three components of CQ: the head, the heart, and the body.

What are the three components of cultural intelligence?

  1. Head is the knowledge and the ability to know new information about a culture.
  2. Heart is a person’s motivation to learn and understand a new culture.
  3. Body is a person’s capability and skill to adapt to a new culture. 

A highly culturally intelligent person will use all three components to interact with people of diverse cultures. They dismiss all forms of judgement and stereotyping but rather observe, understand and adapt to what is happening.

Why does cultural intelligence matter?

  1. Cultural intelligence stamps out the obstacles to cordial collaboration among peers and colleagues of diverse cultures. You develop camaraderie and meaningful relationships that can transcend the work environment. And relationships are crucial in any successful engagement.
  2. As global leaders are exposed to different cultural orientations and styles, cultural intelligence allows them to keep an open mind about what may or may not work. They know that the head office way is not always the best way. So they open up and adapt differing systems and styles to arrive at what can work best in a particular market or environment. 
  3. Genuine interest in other people always gains trust. When a leader immerses himself in the culture of his peers, colleagues, or host country, maybe starting with adapting popular mannerisms, local expressions, or gestures, he endears himself to the others. One needs to be authentic, though. Any false display of intention will always reveal itself in the long run. 
  4. Consequent to immersing oneself in another culture, a person develops compassion and understanding of cultural dynamics. A high CQ leader will not carelessly attribute behaviour or attitude to cultural background. They eliminate preconceived cultural stereotypes and make conclusions based on facts, observation, and new information.
  5. Working with a good cultural mix can be challenging to any leader, but a high CQ leader knows how to treat his team so that each member will feel respected and genuinely valued. The high CQ leader promotes a sense of belongingness and that everyone has a voice. He seeks everyone’s perspective.

How to improve your cultural intelligence?

The studies on Cultural Intelligence done by Early and Ang in 2003 were later fully developed by Dr. David Livermore and published in his book, Leading with Cultural Intelligence. In his book, he highlights four aspects of CQ:

  1. CQ Drive is the motivation to learn about new and different cultures.

    A practical application of this is to learn a foreign language.

    Participate in community activities that will expose you to people of different cultural backgrounds. This exposure will test your adroitness in adjusting to unknown situations.
  2. CQ Knowledge is the understanding of a culture’s behaviour, values, and beliefs.

    It is always safe to learn things from books. You will get to know general facts about a culture. But it is more insightful to learn from the people themselves. They will reveal idiosyncrasies you will never learn in books. Get “street-smart” so to speak. 
  3. CQ Strategy is planning with considerations and sensitivities on cultural differences.

    A practical application is finding out how and why different cultures look at certain situations. For example, why generally, Asians base rewards on seniority while Westerners are performance-based? 
  4. CQ Action is how you react when things don’t happen based on plans. How do you resolve a situation in culturally sensitive ways?

When an IT project gets delayed, do you immediately conclude it is because your IT head is from a culture that is known to be relaxed and laid back? 

Hold off any judgements and assumptions. One general rule to follow, if there is anything you do not understand, respectfully ask. A show of interest to understand will demonstrate empathy. 


There is power in diversity if we learn to leverage each other’s cultural differences.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” 

At the end of the day, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. 

I hope you enjoyed this article. 

I am Roel Schaart and I am a Master Certified Coach. 

My experience and in-depth expertise, gained and expanded in more than 20 years in international leadership, makes me acutely aware of the many challenges that executives are facing today. My goal is to show what changes can be made and how they lead to optimum results.

Do you want to create a borderless culture within your organisation?