Cultural Intelligence

Working Confidently in Different Cultures

Cultural Intelligence - Working Confidently in Different Cultures

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Understand different cultures, understand one another.

Today's workplaces are more multicultural than ever, and it's normal to work with people from many different places and backgrounds. This has opened up many new opportunities – but it's also created some challenges.

Cultural differences aren't just about nationality, ethnicity or belief. Many of us work in multigenerational organizations, alongside younger or older colleagues who have cultural references, assumptions and attitudes that are very different from our own. And cultural clashes can even emerge between departments and teams in the same organization.

All of this means that we need to be better at understanding and operating in a wide variety of cultures. That's where Cultural Intelligence, or also CQ, comes in.

In this article, we explain what Cultural Intelligence means, and explore practical ways to develop and enhance it – to ensure that you can work successfully with any group of people, and avoid making costly or embarrassing mistakes.

What Is Cultural Intelligence?

Professors Christopher Earley and Soon Ang introduced the concept of Cultural Intelligence in their 2003 book of the same name. Cultural Intelligence is also known as Cultural Quotient (CQ), which is derived from IQ. Earley and Ang defined Cultural Intelligence as the ability to adapt to new cultural settings.

People with high CQ aren't experts in every kind of culture. Instead, they have the skills to go into new environments with confidence, and to make informed judgments based on observations and evidence.

These people excel at understanding unfamiliar or ambiguous behavior. They recognize shared influences among particular groups, and this allows them to identify the impact of a particular culture.

However, they also know that cultural influences are complex and interconnected. And they're aware that while culture is significant, factors such as business roles and individual personalities can have a powerful effect on behavior, too.

For example, let's say you have a meeting with an Italian stockbroker. Does this person behave the way they do because they're Italian, because they're a stockbroker, or because they're an Italian stockbroker? Or is it because they're a millennial, or an introvert? It's likely a combination of all of these elements, so aim to avoid making assumptions or generalizations based on any single aspect.

Three Components of CQ

An influential Harvard Business Review article identified three key components of CQ, naming them Head, Body and Heart:

  1. Head is the knowledge and understanding that you need good CQ. This comes, in part, from observation and research. But you also need strategies for gathering new information – and the ability to use those strategies to recognise a culture's shared understandings. That will enable you to adapt your decision making and communication.
  2. Body means translating cultural information into visible actions. These are usually the clearest ways in which your CQ is seen by others. You show it in your gestures, your body language, and the way you carry out culturally significant tasks.
  3. Heart. To have high CQ, you need to be self-assured, not afraid to make honest mistakes, and confident enough to keep improving by tackling new cultural situations.

People with high CQ use all three of these elements to monitor and moderate their actions. Without making quick judgments, or falling back on stereotypes, they can interpret what's happening in any cultural setting and adjust their behavior accordingly.

The Advantages of Cultural Intelligence

There are many reasons why it's beneficial to develop your Cultural Intelligence.

First, it helps you to work effectively with anyone who's different from you. Whether you're working abroad, or leading a culturally diverse team at home, CQ can prevent you from making cultural faux pas that can cause upset and embarrassment, or potentially undermine a project or deal.

CQ can also give you insights into the culture of every organization you work with. The more you understand their values and expectations, the better you'll be at playing by their cultural "rules." See our articles, Handy's Four Types of Cultures and The Competing Values Framework, for more on this.

Research shows that professionals with high CQ are more successful on international assignments, as they adjust more easily to living and working within new cultural conditions.

But wherever you're based, high CQ is valuable when you need to build rapport with a new group of people, adjust to the way another department works, or operate within a cross-functional team. CQ incorporates plenty of transferable skills, too, such as self-reflection, open-mindedness, and the ability to anticipate problems.

Plus, if you use tools such as Wibbeke's Geoleadership Model, CQ can become a core element of your leadership style. Research shows that organizations that break down cultural barriers and promote mutual acceptance perform better than those that don't.

Cultural Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence is related to Emotional Intelligence (EQ), but it goes a step further.

People with high EQ pick up on people's feelings, wants and needs, and understand how their own emotions and behavior affect others. But they need additional skills if they're to understand the cultural factors at play and adapt their own behavior accordingly.

Developing your CQ allows you to be attuned to the values, beliefs and attitudes of people from different cultures, and to respond with informed empathy and real understanding. We'll see how you can do it in the next section.

Improve Your Cultural Intelligence

In his 2011 book, "The Cultural Intelligence Difference," Dr David Livermore highlights four practical aspects of CQ:

  1. CQ Drive.
  2. CQ Knowledge.
  3. CQ Strategy.
  4. CQ Action.

According to Dr Livermore, we must develop all four of these areas to boost our CQ.

1. CQ Drive

Drive is the motivation to learn about and respond to a different culture. People who don't care what shapes or informs a "society" are unlikely to adapt well to it.

But when you make the effort to learn about a new culture, your mind starts to open up to new possibilities. Instead of looking difficult to deal with, differences become interesting and exciting.

To strengthen your CQ Drive, do everything you can to explore your new situation. For example:

  • Get to know people in different communities and social groups.
  • Learn a foreign language – and improve your cross-cultural communication skills in general.
  • Volunteer for projects that put you in contact with teams, organizations or groups from different cultures.


Confidence is vital to CQ, because unfamiliar scenarios can be challenging, especially at first. Build self-confidence by setting and achieving small goals initially, and by proactively putting yourself into new situations.

2. CQ Knowledge

Cultural knowledge doesn't necessarily mean that you have to know every detail of a culture. It's about knowing how that culture in general shapes people's behaviors, values, and beliefs. When you understand that, individual "rules" of behavior make much more sense.

Observe how people from different cultures interact, and pay careful attention to their body language. For example, do specific gestures and facial expressions mean different things to different people? (Listen to our Expert Interview Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands for more on this.)

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Aim to learn about the history of a culture, too. That way, you won't just learn the "rules" about clothing and food, you'll also know the reasons behind them. Our "Managing in..." series of articles has useful background information on a wide range of countries.

If you work with culturally diverse teams, use Wibbeke's Seven Dimensions of Culture to help you analyze what makes them tick. And Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions is a useful tool for understanding organizational cultures.

And remember, although some cultural expectations are subtle and nuanced, others are completely clear – and it's up to you to know them. They're usually spelled out in company policies – or in law!


In our interview podcast, Excuse Me, business etiquette expert Rosanne Thomas explains the importance of avoiding stereotyping, withholding judgment, and always being respectful. This, she says, is so that you can absorb the wealth of information a new culture has to offer. You won't just learn how someone wants to be treated, you'll also understand why.

3. CQ Strategy

When you're culturally aware, you can use what you've learned to formulate robust, culturally-sensitive strategies.

If you're accustomed to thinking about these differences and their impact, this process can soon become instinctive, and will naturally feed into your planning. Here are three ways to develop the habit:

  • Question your assumptions about why things happen in different ways in different cultures.
  • Keep a close eye on local media and entertainment. These can reveal new insights into how culture affects behavior.
  • Keep a diary of all your cultural observations, and jot down your frustrations as well as your successes. Your notes can help you to address immediate problems and keep you focused on improving your CQ in the long term.

4. CQ Action

The last element of CQ relates to how you behave and, in particular, how you react when things don't go according to plan.

If you've done some research into business etiquette in the culture you're working in, you'll be well-prepared to do and say the right things – and that won't go unnoticed.

But problems or misunderstandings may still arise, so it's helpful to be able to think on your feet, and to stay in control of your emotions.

It's also vital that you monitor your body language, ensuring it's appropriate, and that you aren't sending out signals that clash with your words.

If you genuinely don't understand why someone is doing or saying something, don't be scared to ask. If you do so respectfully, most people will appreciate the interest you're showing in their culture, and recognize your desire to do the right thing.

And if, despite all your best efforts, you think that you've said or done something wrong, don't be afraid to apologize. Learn from your mistake, and remember the right approach next time!

Terms reproduced from "The Cultural Intelligence Difference: Master the One Skill You Can't Do Without in Today's Global Economy," by David Livermore.© 2011. Reprinted with permission of AMACOM.

Key Points

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural differences. It can give you the confidence to operate successfully in a wide range of settings.

Culture doesn't just refer to nationality, ethnicity or religion. It can also apply to social groups, business organizations, and the departments, age groups and teams within them.

CQ combines head (knowledge and understanding), body (actions), and heart (confidence and commitment).

According to author Dr David Livermore, culturally intelligent people exhibit:

  1. CQ Drive: The motivation to learn about new cultures.
  2. CQ Knowledge: Understanding how cultures influence what people say and do.
  3. CQ Strategy: Having a plan to respond to cultural differences.
  4. CQ Action: Behaving in culturally-sensitive ways, including handling any difficulties that arise.

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Comments (5)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi isamkassim,

    Thank you for the positive feedback.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago isamkassim wrote
    Great information, thanks.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi DE,

    Thanks for your feedback on the article.

    Mind Tools Team
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