Lack of cultural intelligence leaves leaders unprepared for multicultural workplaces

3 minute read
With remote working on the rise it's essential for leaders to have cultural intelligence skills. Yet only one in four senior business leaders has high cultural intelligence according to research from School for CEOs. And this means they lack the knowledge and skills to create cultural cohesion across their teams
Sian Harrington

Cultural intelligence

With the rise of location-agnostic recruiting and remote working cultural intelligence is becoming a key skill for senior business leaders. But research from executive development organisation School for CEOs finds only 24% of leaders have high levels of perceived cultural intelligence while 8% have low levels.

School for CEOs scored the cultural intelligence of 200 top-tier executives from the UK and international organisations, focusing specifically on the impact of geography and its influence in shaping a person’s culture and their perception of others. The research sought to discover how well leaders understood cultural nuance and were able to adapt their leadership style accordingly.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to interact and connect with people from different cultural backgrounds (Earley and Ang 2003). For example, colleagues from different regions may have different ways of living and working from your own.

Just over two-thirds (68%) of those surveyed had moderate cultural intelligence (CI). Those with lower CI scored highly for their curiosity and confidence in multicultural interactions but less so when it came to their knowledge about the similarities and differences between cultures. This might include knowledge of other languages, legal systems, economies and religious beliefs. They also felt that a lack of knowledge, a limited upbringing and personal biases account for their scores. As one contributor said: “I think it’s a question of upbringing. All my friends and peers growing up were people like me, and then when I went to university, I found all my friends and peers were very different.”

David Sole, managing partner of the School for CEOs and former Scottish International rugby captain, says the research reveals significant gaps in knowledge and behaviour. “Our advice to leaders is to continue to be curious, to develop their self-awareness and, particularly, to remain open to feedback in order to become more inclusive in their style and approach.”

The greater the exposure to cross-cultural environments, the greater the individual’s cultural intelligence. Of the top 10% of highest scoring leaders, 84% had a multicultural team. Leaders in teams where 50% or more of its members were of different nationalities were more culturally intelligent than leaders with less diverse teams. These leaders were curious about the cultures of their diverse colleagues and had the confidence to ask questions about cultural differences. They were eager to deepen their understanding of their new environment and teams and did so using their curiosity and inquisitiveness.

Of those who don't have teams in different geographies, 69% do not view their team as multicultural. This indicates geographical location could influence perceptions of multiculturalism.

There was a strong correlation between self-awareness and cultural intelligence. Respondents with high levels of cultural intelligence also scored highly on self-awareness. Analysis of the data revealed that the more self-aware the leader, the more likely they are to invest time and energy into deepening their understanding of multicultural environments. Additionally, they were likely to revise their assumptions and beliefs when necessary to enable them to adapt to different circumstances and situations.

Beliefs associated with cultural intelligence

What cultural intelligence looks like chart

Leaders recognise their own beliefs may influence their perceptions of others. Participants who scored highly are sensitive to how they interact with others and reflect on privilege. They also talked about adapting their behaviour when working with others from different cultural backgrounds. They believe this creates a greater sense of belonging within their teams and nurtures a welcoming environment for their colleagues. High scorers also demonstrated their curiosity and put this to good effect, for example by doing homework on new cultures that they were about to encounter. 

Lower-scoring contributors felt a lack of knowledge and personal biases could account for their scores. One example of this was confirmation bias. Some leaders were surprised when an approach that worked in one culture was unsuccessful in another seemingly similar culture.

Three ways to boost your cultural intelligence

According to Schools for CEOs leaders should concentrate on three areas to improve their cultural intelligence:

  1. Be accountable
    Showing humility can empower others to support you with constructive challenge. You should be open with your teams when you make a mistake and accept feedback in the spirit with which it is given. Be prepared to address microaggressions (intentional or unintentional), not letting them fall under the radar. Diversity should be celebrated, not accommodated.
  2. Role model inclusive behaviours
    Set an example and role model inclusive behaviours. Talk about your cultural experiences publicly. When your actions show that you understand and care about cultural nuance people will be encouraged to follow suit and be more open with you. Culturally intelligent leaders take the time to get to know the people they work with beyond surface-level interactions. Actively listen and show an interest in what your colleagues have to say. Be prepared to learn but also unlearn behaviours and adapt to the situation.
  3. Be curious
    Leaders should continue to develop self-awareness and embrace the power of curiosity, being deliberate in seeking ways to connect with people from different cultures.  Reading books or searching online may be helpful to an extent but does not fully reflect lived experiences. Check your assumptions to build trust. Seek conversations with different people in your organisation to feed your curiosity. Much can be learnt from speaking to people who may be different from you.

You can download the full report Cracking the Code of Cultural Intelligence: How to Lead Across Cultural Borders here

Published 19 April 2023
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