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3 simple ways businesses can boost cultural intelligence in the workplace (and why it’s important)

Businesses understand the value of emotional intelligence. But far too many aren’t prioritizing cultural intelligence, argues diversity and inclusion strategist Stacey Gordon.

3 simple ways businesses can boost cultural intelligence in the workplace (and why it’s important)
[Photo: XiaoXiao Sun/Unsplash]

Many businesses today understand the importance of emotional intelligence. It has become a crucial job skill. Some companies have even provided courses on the topic.

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What they don’t prioritize is cultural intelligence, unless an international engagement is involved. Managers take the time to learn and acclimate to foreign cultures during a business-related field trip, yet see little reason to pay attention to the different people and cultures right under their noses.

I recently worked with doctoral students in my class to study cultural intelligence. Within our class environment, organizational psychologist Raffi Islikaplan came up with three reasons cultural training should be provided to all managers within the U.S., and why its focus is integral to the success of any organization.

1. Train employees (and managers) to put themselves in someone else’s shoes

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be someone else? When you try to see things from someone else’s perspective, you can visualize what they go through on a day-to-day basis. In a 2014 study published on the Journal of Business and Psychology, researchers looked at the impact of imagining and writing down the challenges that marginalized minorities face in an organizational setting. It turns out that this exercise can improve attitudes toward diversity and behavioral intentions toward marginalized groups in the workforce.

These effects persisted when researchers measured outcomes eight months after they conducted the experiment. This type of cultural intelligence training can significantly improve relationships between colleagues working under the same roof. When managers understand the obstacles that ethnically diverse employees face on a day-to-day basis, it becomes easier to manage and communicate with employees from different cultures.

2. Highlight the way values and cultural norms intersect

In Managing Across Cultures, Susan Schneider and Jean-Louis Barsoux focused on the concept of what’s considered normal. What I consider normal as an American raised with Dutch and Armenian traditions is undoubtedly different than what an American raised with any other background would think. When companies introduce the concept of diverse cultural norms into an organization, employees can begin to explore how and where they land on a cultural intelligence spectrum.

Companies can then introduce a spectrum of “fluid values” versus “fixed values.” These values give employees an idea of where they fall categorically in comparison to others, whether it be on the importance of timeliness, eye contact, or body language. It’s vital for companies to acknowledge that there is no “right” or “wrong” answer to avoid alienating employees whose tendencies may differ from the majority.

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3. Find ways to let employees share their stories

In 1990, Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener developed a framework to help organizations explore cultural diversity in a manner that was specific to the qualities of the employees. This framework, known as the “diversity wheel,” illustrated how different layers of an individual’s personality might influence the way others treat them at work.

But companies can’t cultivate inclusivity by relying on models alone. They need to facilitate conversations that allow employees to discuss their experiences and how those might have shaped their beliefs and values. This is the only way they can feel a sense of psychological safety–and research shows that this improves engagement and work productivity. Second, you can’t expect employees to display cultural intelligence if you don’t give them a voice to tell their stories. If you want them to empathize with other employees, you need to make them feel like they matter.

Companies like to tout their commitment to diversity and inclusion. But without cultural intelligence, they’re unlikely to make any progress. Numerous businesses boast their cultural intelligence and their diverse talent pool, but few show proof of it. A survey by Indeed.com found that 24% of employees in the United States have felt personally discriminated against at their current place of work. That’s 1 in every 4 people.

Do organizations really pride themselves on their so-called above-average cultural intelligence, or do they cross their fingers and hope that the people they hire do? Whatever the answer may be, it’s clear that corporate America has a long way to go. In the global economy, companies who learn to embrace and utilize cultural differences will be the ones who stay competitive. And those who don’t will probably find themselves left behind.


Stacey Gordon is the CEO and founder of Rework Work, a training and consulting organization centered around advancing women and professionals of color while creating unconscious inclusion in organizations.

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