insight magazine

Got Cultural Intelligence?

Employees who play well together, perform well together. Which means your cultural IQ has never been so important. By Kristine Blenkhorn Rodriguez | Spring 2017


You’re in a team meeting, charged with solving a business problem that’s critical to the company. US born and bred Steve immediately puts forward some ideas. Young Alice to his right also voices an idea, but no one picks up on it. Five minutes later, Steve voices that same idea and is showered with praise for thinking on his feet. Meanwhile, the team leader is wondering why the guy from Tokyo isn’t contributing, and why the only Millennial at the table is more focused on her phone.

Similarly dysfunctional scenarios are plaguing conference rooms across the nation, says cultural sensitivity expert Tatyana Fertelmeyster of WorldWide Connect. As our workforce becomes more diverse, our cultural IQ simply isn’t keeping pace.

So what should the executive in charge of this meeting actually have done? First, he or she shouldn’t have let Alice’s bright idea go unnoticed, and instead should have echoed her contribution and asked for team feedback. Also, someone trained in cultural norms would know that the Asian team member won’t speak up until he feels he has something valuable to offer—and that he needs time to percolate on the issue at hand. Maybe an agenda before the meeting would have helped. And the Millennial? She’s wondering why the meeting is longer than 30 minutes—and isn’t there some online information that might help to speed things along?

Admittedly, these are generalizations, but the point is sharply focused: Being aware of cultural norms will help your team function at a higher level.

“Cultural sensitivity matters to business results across the firm, not just those produced by the multicultural team experiencing issues,” says Roy Y.J. Chua, associate professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Singapore Management University.

“Ambient cultural disharmony,” a phrase Chua coined while a professor at Harvard, occurs when the morale or performance of employees suffers, even when they are not directly involved in tensions stemming from cultural differences. In other words, unaddressed cultural issues create a hostile work environment.

To prove his point, Chua conducted an experiment in which participants watched six video clips of people engaging in harmonious, neutral or negative business situations. In each video, the people involved were either from the same or from different cultures.

Viewers were then asked to complete a creative thought task; those who viewed the cultural disharmony scored roughly 24-percent lower than those viewing harmonious or neutral interactions.

Japanese, Indian and German companies have been providing cultural sensitivity training and teaching employees Western business practices for decades. US companies? Not so much.

Erin Meyer, author of "The Culture Map," a book about effective communication in a multicultural business world, iterates that effective cultural sensitivity training goes far beyond etiquette; it also addresses the various ways trust is built in different cultures, and how criticism is delivered and handled.

“Workshops alone often don’t produce lasting results. Making an entire workforce culturally sensitive requires a more holistic effort,” Chua explains.

To put it another way, cultural sensitivity needs to be built into the fabric of a firm. “A key strategy is to develop an organizational culture that emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusion. This can be done by recruiting employees who value diversity; educating existing employees on the importance of cultural diversity and building cross-cultural trust; and enforcing this organizational culture through appropriate performance management systems,” says Chua. “For example, cultural sensitivity and tolerance toward diversity could be made a performance indicator for all employees, and employees and management alike should be held accountable for their actions.”

Customers are calling upon organizations to speak up on broad social and cultural issues more and more. Many executives who probably would prefer to push cultural sensitivity training down the priority list are therefore being forced to take a stand on their corporate culture.

“It’s not a soft issue. It gets to the core of your business,” says Fertelmeyster. “If your firm consistently promotes white males, while consistently losing Hispanic management candidates to other firms, that’s a trend you need to be aware of. And if you are, are you culturally aware enough to realize that some Hispanics... would never think of asking for a promotion, but instead are waiting for their superior to sponsor them and suggest it? Or perhaps you cannot understand why you lost a big client in China. But you replaced that client’s account lead without notice. In China, this is bad business. It shows a lack of value for the personal relationship. It’s trends like these that firm leaders must ultimately address.”

Take the AICPA’s 2015 Trends in the Supply of Accounting Graduates study, which showed that while women have made great strides in the accounting industry (professional staff consisted of 48-percent females), diversity of race and gender has actually declined. Caucasians accounted for 10 percent more of the workforce than in previous studies, while Asian/Pacific Islanders decreased 9 percent, and African-American professionals decreased 2 percent.

“Companies should think more broadly to see how cultural quotient and diversity can be part of their business strategy rather than viewing differences as problems,” Chua suggests. “Cultural diversity among employees can also help companies develop new business ideas.”

Turning a variety of cultural perspectives into a competitive advantage seems wise in  world that continues to become more of a melting pot. Fertelmeyster explains that, “We have to ask ourselves if we’re making investments of time, money and resources to help people understand their differences—and very specifically, differences in how they communicate, approach conflict and navigate time. The team that understands differences like these has a much greater chance to produce something outstanding.”

Leave a comment