From IQ to CQ: Why Cultural Intelligence is Critical


By Lee-Anne Ragan


We’ve all heard of social and emotional intelligence and their combined importance in the workplace.  What you may not have heard of is cultural intelligence, a relatively new concept which refers to a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity”.[1] 


With today’s level of globalization it is simply impossible to be an expert on all cultures, so take a deep breath, relax and remove the responsibility for being an expert from your shoulders. 


Instead focus on you and your organization’s cultural intelligence.  Look to a mindset that takes culture into account continuously. 


Being mindful is key to cultural intelligence, but where to start? Chuck out your laundry list.


Photo credit: MackaySavage

Keep the laundry on the line where it belongs: moving beyond the laundry list



In days past we used to refer to a laundry list of items in order to interact with other cultures.  While this may have been easy (shake hands like this, don’t use this hand gesture etc.) it was just that, too easy.  It didn’t capture the depth, breadth and complexity of cultural interactions.


Don’t get me wrong, it’s always helpful to have some local cultural knowledge but what’s more important is to have a holistic, encompassing view of culture and cultural intelligence.


Example of a laundry list: years ago when I was working in Canada’s Arctic, where our coldest day was -72 degrees Celsius, it was comical in hindsight when I was trying to communicate with the elders.  Thinking I was not getting any answers to my questions I tried less direct eye contact, speaking more slowly as we were speaking English, which wasn’t their first language and a myriad of other techniques


Example of cultural intelligence: I like to think that my curiosity and willingness to learn kept me with an open mind whereupon I finally learned that in the local community raising your eyebrows means yes and squinching your nose means no.  The elders had been answering me all along, I just hadn’t been paying attention.

Photo credit: Josh Bowie Photography

Examine your understanding of culture; look at your lenses



Being mindful includes a broad understanding of culture.  Most people, when asked to give a cross-cultural example, default to examples of race or ethnicity. 


The trouble with this is that it’s not only limiting but it’s debatable whether race is even part of culture (culture being learned and race being a physical characteristic). 


Rather culture is the collective programming of the mind that divides us into groups.  It is the interpretive lens through which we view the world.  Our culture controls what comes onto our radar easily, naturally and comfortably and what we don’t notice or see.  Our cultural lenses are pervasive and almost impossible to take off.



Expect complexity and enjoy it


There are those among us (myself included) that like the notion of B always following A, or 3 always following 2.  I am a list maker and organized is one of the top five words that most of my colleague and friends would use to describe me.  That’s all good, however (big caveat here), with cultural intelligence it’s best to have a complex view of the world.   Things don’t always make sense, many questions go unanswered and things frequently don’t move ahead in a straight line.


If you have the expectation ahead of time that things will be complex (and murky, confusing and mind bending sometimes) you’ll be ahead.  If you can appreciate and even come to enjoy that complexity all the better.  That’s cultural mindfulness at work.


Lee-Anne Ragan, MEd, BSW, ITC, is President and Director of Training with Rock.Paper.Scissors Inc. (RPS), Vancouver’s award winning corporate training and entertainment company.  RPS is where great minds come to play.  See for more information.


[1] Ang, Van Dyne, & Koh, 2005; Earley & Ang, 2003; Earley & Mosakowski, 2005.


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