Cultural intelligence, or in other words, having a toolkit of intercultural skills, is crucial in helping us land well in a new location, lead a multicultural team or negotiate a new contract with partners from the other side of the world. Intercultural skills enable us to interpret unfamiliar situations, manage multiple perspectives and bring people separated by time, distance and values closer together.
Intercultural skills have traditionally been associated with expatriate managers and international business leaders, but they are also vital for everyone working in unfamiliar contexts and collaborating with a diverse range of partners. Business travel may have drastically reduced this year, but many of us are expected to work in new ways, with fewer resources. Working at a distance can mean we are coping with feelings of isolation and disconnection and we’re not always mindful of the challenges facing our teams and partners.
The self-awareness to know how you come across, the ability to think and behave appropriately and the skills to communicate effectively in a wide range of contexts are vital attributes for leading through these uncertain times. Here are some of the components of cultural intelligence that are required for working through challenging times.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back when times are tough – to be able to draw on the resources and strategies that will support you through stressful times. Experiencing culture shock when moving to a new country but also working in new and unfamiliar ways, leading a new team you’ve never met or having to juggle personal and professional priorities are all situations that require the resilience to manage our emotions, stay positive and focus on what’s important.
Being curious helps to deepen our knowledge of the world and learn how to get things done. Curiosity also helps us to appreciate and empathise with people from diverse backgrounds. We can learn from other perspectives, but we can also learn more about ourselves if we question our own feelings and motivations. Taking the time to explore the why as well as the what can enable us to become better relationship-builders, problem-solvers and decision-makers.
Listening actively requires us to pay full attention to what’s being said but also to focus on what is not said, to ‘read the air’ as they say in Japan. By listening actively, we avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication, but we also build rapport and demonstrate that we value the speaker and their ideas.
Perhaps one of the hardest and most needed intercultural skills is the ability to suspend judgement and avoid stereotyping. We often evaluate behaviours and opinions that are different to our own through the lens of our cultural and personal values and we can be quick to judge difference as ‘rude’ or ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. We can also be quick to evaluate a situation based on previous experience or incomplete knowledge. I might make the assumption that my new colleague is late to the meeting because that is typical behaviour in their culture. I then assume that they are unreliable without knowing that they have a family emergency and are late because their child needed to be taken to hospital. Working virtually, we lose many of the contextual clues that help us to understand the bigger picture.
Tolerance of uncertainty
Working in unfamiliar settings we find that things are not what we are used to. The norms or ‘unwritten rules’ are hard to interpret, meetings run differently and it feels impossible to get to know our colleagues. We need to learn how to navigate the uncertainty of different systems and processes and how to negotiate meaning when communication is more challenging than usual. And sometimes we just need to be with the discomfort of ambiguity. Many of us have a natural tendency to resist change and feel uncomfortable with ambiguity but learning to flex our behaviours and make pragmatic decisions is invaluable during uncertain times.
The good news is that these are skills that can be practised and developed over time and through coaching and training. Intercultural skills are like a set of muscles that grow stronger with exercise and that support each other according to the situation.