How To Develop Cultural Intelligence Without Going Overseas?
In the time of COVID19, it may be a while till we’re able to travel, migrate or take trips abroad freely. Living and working within a limited space does not mean there is a lack of intercultural encounters.
Twitter threads, Facebook groups, LinkedIn updates, Instagram images and now TikTok videos exposes us to the diversity of humanity. There is a higher chance for us to connect with a Nigerian professional on LinkedIn or a Khazakstani makeup artist on TikTok or a Nepali Feminist on Twitter.
From a business perspective, companies who are remotely working are now seeing the limitless possibilities that this diverse and global market has to offer. Now more than ever before, we need Cultural Intelligence to meaningfully connect and build relationships in an increasingly diverse online world.
In essence, Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is an individual’s ability to perform effectively in diverse situations and environments. However, not all of us have the luxury of time and budget to travel abroad and learn about other cultures. So, what can we do to prepare ourselves without going overseas? Using the available tools and resources at hand, anyone can develop CQ locally and prepare for their overseas assignment. To do this, we need to take time to reflect on our goals, commit to a development plan, gain exposure, connect with a local and get quality training. While this may seem like a lot of effort to prepare for our overseas assignment, developing CQ will speed up the learning and adaptation process. Before we start, it is beneficial to understand the needs and benefits for developing CQ.
Why we need to focus on CQ?
Two significant trends had not abated in the past couple of decades, and it looks to continue to rise in the coming decades. The two major trends are the accessibility to diverse markets as well as the increasingly diverse workforce.
Leaders and modern thinkers anticipate that the global economic growth will come from emerging markets such as China, Brazil. India and Indonesia, within the next few decades.
According to Doug Flint, Chair of banking giant HSBC 
Suppose you were to go into any business forum in Europe and America and ask which country is going to be most important in the global environment in the next 25 years. In that case, I suspect that a vast majority would say China, and the second-highest number might say India.
If you then ask how much do people in Europe and America understand about the history and culture of those countries, the answer would be a negligible amount.
For organisations to expand into these diverse markets, they will need talents who understand the local market and the local customer behaviour and preferences. With the local insight and connection, organisations will be better able to customise their products and services to fit the culture and fulfil the needs of their diverse customers.
As organisations expand from country to country, region to region, the talents will be absorbed from these countries and regions to form a diverse workforce. A diverse workforce, when leveraged wisely and strategically, will be able to provide first-hand knowledge of local markets and its customers. It’s like having insider knowledge of the customer’s motivations, behaviours, needs and concerns within a cultural context that might be unfamiliar to the organisation.
Even talents seek out companies with a diverse workforce. According to the Glassdoor’s survey, 67 per cent of job seekers consider workplace diversity an essential factor when considering employment opportunities, and more than 50 per cent of current employees want their workplace to do more to increase diversity. 
Both diverse workforce and diverse markets are interlinked. Companies need their employees to adapt to local cultures, while advocating the company’s values, products and services. The employees becomes the intermediary between the concerns and needs of the customer as well as their company.
The ability to balance the needs between both the customer and the company requires Cultural Intelligence. Thus, companies that focus on Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity training may realise it is not enough. Cultural Intelligence, on the other hand, takes into consideration how individuals can adapt their mindset and behaviours.
The Three Major Benefits of Developing CQ
There are many benefits for organisations and individuals who invest their time, money and effort in developing Cultural Intelligence. Of the many benefits, we will delve into the three of the significant benefits.
Enhancing Business Performance
A diverse workforce brings tangible benefits to the organisation. As companies expand beyond their markets, a diverse and will help to navigate the cultural complexities and collaborate successfully with various stakeholders.
According to PwC’s 18th Annual Global Survey, 64 per cent of CEOs have a diversity strategy. Of the CEOs with a diversity strategy, 94 per cent cite enhance business performance as the top benefit for having a diverse workforce.  However, benefits of diversity cannot be leveraged if the workforce is not culturally intelligent.
High-quality service to culturally diverse customers
High CQ employees are better able to anticipate the needs and concerns of your diverse customers. They are also more able to respond effectively to mistakes.
According to Salesforce’s State of Connected Customer report, 76 per cent of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations.  An employee with high CQ takes the time to understand the needs of others, find practical and creative ways to solve problems and design solutions that are relevant and relatable to the customers.
Multicultural team effectiveness
Multicultural teams who have made an effort to improve their CQ saw an improvement in their communication and their performance. Multicultural teams are more effective and can offer new ideas and perspectives. Such teams are also known to be a rich resource for innovation. Research indicates that companies with higher than average diversity in the workforce had 19% higher innovation revenues.
What are some ways to improve Cultural Intelligence before going overseas?
No doubt, experience is needed to internalise and become skilled in Cultural Intelligence. Though, experience without a mental model to hang on will be unprocessed wisdom. Before embarking on your intercultural journey, we can prepare ourselves by adopting the suggested methods.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. Aristotle
As many of the world’s greatest and wisest thinkers espouse, that the path to greater insight in the deep understanding of the self. Self-reflection is looking within and being honest with yourself about a situation. Self-reflection builds greater confidence and a more profound sense of purpose. Having thought through what is most important and valid for you, you will have greater clarity on how to proceed in your personal development and in achieving your goals.
Take the time to reflect on your personal goals and motivations for developing CQ. All you need is to do is block out distractions and set a time with yourself, pen, paper or any note-taking device. Take an hour or even a day. Ask yourself the following questions. More questions may arise as your reflection goes deeper.
What do you think about this situation?
What do you feel about it?
What do you fear about this?
What do you hope to gain from this situation?
Is this the best way to go about it?
Commit to your development plan
As you consider your goals, strengths, areas of improvements, resources and so on, you may start to put together a plan. A plan will help keep track of your progress in developing a skill. Taking the time to create a plan will help you to think deeply about the various factors that contribute to your skills development. In creating your development plan, you might consider
the amount of dedicated time per week
the ideal time of day and location for your learning
your preferred learning style, which could be self-paced, classroom or virtual workshops
a realistic budget for your development
the method or metrics to track progress of skills development
a trustable and reliable social support to seek guidance, feedback, play devil’s advocate or become your sounding board
Once you have drafted a plan, commit to it. Be sure to inform your trusted social support, which could be an accountability buddy or your credible colleague or a supportive mentor, of your plan so that they can keep you on track.
Watch movies. Listen to music. Read books.
Technology has advanced as such that access to the world’s knowledge and entertainment is only at the tip of our fingers. Within a few clicks, we can watch the latest films of the country of our destination. Press play and we can listen to the rhythm and melodies unfamiliar to us. Browsing through ebook stores, or even your national library and you’ll have access to travel guide books, historical books, popular literature in multiple translations.
While we may not fully understand the meaning and context behind the movies, music and books we’ve acquired, it can provide us with a sense and cues on what is valued in a particular culture. For example, the song Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles, the climactic scene of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral and the quirky book called The Cloud Spotter’s Guide by the Cloud Appreciation Society indicates the importance of the weather in British society.
Go to your local library, physical or digital. Search for music and movie streaming platforms. Take a few minutes to enjoy and make a note of questions that may arise. These questions will meaningfully shed light with the following method.
Life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Oscar Wilde.
Connect with a local
As technology has given us access to knowledge and entertainment in our fingertips, certain things cannot be explained by mere words, images or videos. The rich history, political dynamics, economic trends and many other factors are interlinked and influence the local culture, which cannot be understood if you are not in the culture to experience it.
For example, upon the tragic death of George Floyd in the USA, #blacklivesmatter sparked a global movement. Millions of people protest on the streets daily to demand for change, greater equality and justice for police brutality against minority groups. However, if you are a leader with the need to speak up about the movement, it is best to seek the guidance from someone who is involved. By doing so, you will take into consideration the context, emotions as well as be better able to craft an impactful message that speaks to your targeted audience.
You might wonder, where can I find such connections? The internet has given us humanity’s wealth of knowledge, and it too has given us access to a wealth of online communities or networking groups of various topics, concerns and based across the world. Seek out these groups or organisations. Start conversations with them.
Learn the language
The 21st century is the golden age for learning languages. There is a plethora of virtual schools, apps, videos, podcasts, communities and language buddies that can support your language acquisition, even if no one in your community speaks the language. While we can learn about another culture without knowing their language, learning the language will help you understand the untranslatable nuances and quirks of the culture.
TED Translator released a fun video of ’12 untranslatable words’. My favourite word from this video is the Japanese word shinrinyoku, which means bathing in the forest.
Get diverse exposure locally
Take in the sights. According to the International Organisation for Migration, an average of 2 to 3 per cent of the global population migrate to other countries. In 2019, it was estimated there are 272 million international migrants or 3.5 per cent of the world’s population. The majority of international migrants move countries due to work, family or studies. 
While this may not seem like a large number, cosmopolitans and urban areas have become increasingly diverse. Most major cities will have cultural microcosm. For example, cities such as Vancouver, London, San Francisco, and even Singapore has a Chinatown, the cultural centre for migrants from China. Or Little India in Dubai, Paris or Kuala Lumpur, an enclave of people with South Asian origins.
Spare an afternoon to wander about these cultural spaces, dine-in their local restaurants. Shop in their markets. Take in the sights, smells and sounds. The exposure to diverse cultures locally helps you to become familiar with the unfamiliar, comfortable with the uncomfortable and eventually develop your CQ to better respond to diverse situations in the future.
Get quality training
Quality training helps to fill knowledge gaps, provide meaningful feedback and a safe space to practice new skills. Where the internet is unable to provide the relevant knowledge, training programs may help to answer pertinent questions and expand your thinking to consider different perspectives.
When in search of quality training, first, we need to be clear on our objectives. We can do this by answering the questions
What is my desired outcome?
Why is this important?
How will this training help me?
For example, you have a goal to become more adaptable in working with diverse stakeholders. This goal is important to you because you will be preparing for a cross-functional role where you will engage with stakeholders located across the world. While searching for programs, have a look at the outcomes and objectives and ask does it match your goals?
Bear in mind, if we’re unable to access knowledge or experiences of our target culture, the exposure to diversity itself can greatly help sharpen our cultural intelligence. Seeking out diverse experiences can help us to move beyond our comfort zone, allowing us to feel comfortable with discomfort and in low-risk situations.
Go Away, COVID19!
No one knows when the COVID19 vaccine will be ready. Even when it is ready for distribution, scientists cannot guarantee the effectiveness of the vaccine. All this means is that we have to sit tight before we can move freely again. Till then, take this opportunity to develop your Cultural Intelligence, make meaningful connections, expand your business and explore the world virtually.
- Economist Intelligence Unit. CEO Briefing, 14.
- Recruiting a Diverse Workforce | Glassdoor for Employers. (2014, November 17). US | Glassdoor for Employers.
- 18th Annual Global CEO Survey. (2014). PWC. https://www.pwc.rs/en/publications/assets/cee-ceo-summary2015.pdf
- What Are Customer Expectations (and How Have They Changed)? (n.d.). Salesforce.Com. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.salesforce.com/research/customer-expectations/
- Lorenzo, R., & Reeves, M. (2018, January 30). How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance. Harvard Business Review.
- World Migration Report 2020. (2020). International Organisation for Migration. https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/wmr_2020.pdf
Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates thriving and engaging workplaces.
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