The beauty of the cultural diversity of Canada can also make interactions in the workplace tricky.
I remember the first day I landed in Canada as a permanent resident. Nothing prepared me for the blast of cold Edmonton air as I got off the plane, but I still felt like I was home, even though I was born and raised in the tropics. As I looked around me, I realized that there was so much diversity in the people, and so I didn’t feel out of place. When I started working a few months later, the workplace mirrored the diversity I saw in my everyday life.
The typical Canadian workplace includes people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and experiences. This means that the way each person sends out, processes and receives verbal and non-verbal communication is influenced by a variety of factors including culture. In today’s culturally diverse workplace, learning to make sense of different perspectives with intercultural skills and inclusive attitudes is essential.
Cultural intelligence (CQ) is often regarded as the evolution from the notions of intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ). To thrive in the workplace, we need all three. I dare say in the face of the current pandemic and changing times, we need AQ as well – adaptability quotient. This article focuses on cultural intelligence, particularly with reference to the Canadian workplace.
What is cultural intelligence?
There are different opinions of the origin of the term cultural intelligence, but one of the early prominent mentions of it can be traced back to CQ: Developing Cultural Intelligence at Work, a book by Professors Christopher Earley and Soon Ang. Their work focused on CQ as the ability to adapt to new cultural settings. Since then, there have been adaptations and even more knowledge and advocacy for cultural intelligence, but the crux of the matter remains the same – personal adjustment and adaptability to work effectively in culturally diverse settings.
“In today’s culturally diverse workplace, learning to make sense of different perspectives with intercultural skills and inclusive attitudes is essential.”
Why does CQ matter?
In simple terms, look around you – is everybody like everybody in every way? Developing cultural intelligence skills creates a competitive edge in a workplace by improving teamwork, communication and general performance. If people are the most important asset to an organization, then equipping them to feel safe and thrive in the workplace is essential. Driving cultural intelligence in the workplace has also been known to promote staff productivity.
There are many facets to building cultural intelligence competence, some of which are listed below:
- Creating awareness: Understanding the need to develop CQ is a good foundation to start. Organizations should help co-workers and clients learn what it is and how to be deliberate about improving their cultural intelligence. Having awareness can be a precursor to understanding context, and context gives clarity.
In one of the first places I worked, my coworkers were friendly and vibrant and I never felt like I was the odd one out, but I realized that they did not have an awareness of cultural intelligence. The good thing though was that they asked me questions – questions about my home country, my food and my clothing accessories. I could tell they asked out a genuine desire to learn about my culture, and I gladly spoke about the uniqueness of where I am from. I also asked questions of them; the workplace culture was different from what I was used to, and I knew that if I wanted to be a good team member, I had to be open to learning.
- Adaptability: Once you know what CQ is, you have to be open to unlearning and then re-learning. A critical self-appraisal of one’s cultural intelligence tends to expose bias, especially unconscious bias. We are all biased, and that’s tough to accept, but it’s a good place to start unlearning by letting go of stereotypes and long-held notions about people, places and cultures. An initial unlearning creates room for new learning, translating cultural information into visible actions. Personally, I have had to learn to suspend judgment in my interactions with people, be honest with myself about my unconscious bias and be flexible about how to get things done.
- Develop strategy and take action: As you become culturally aware, you can start to create culturally sensitive strategies as an individual and within a team. Don’t be afraid to question your assumptions and be observant of cultural nuances. Most people will be more comfortable with you asking questions, than you interacting with them based off your assumptions. If problems arise, be careful to stay in control of your emotions and be conscious of your non-verbal communication. The hallmark of a good strategy is flexibility, understanding that the goal post will move every now and then, and that cultural intelligence is not a destination but a journey – one which requires a deliberate effort to do better every day.
Cultural intelligence and diversity and inclusion
CQ is the bridge to building an effective diversity and inclusion strategy – it starts with CQ. A diverse and inclusive workplace is fuelled by culturally intelligent staff and leaders. An understanding of difference in thoughts, opinions, race and culture, and how all these differences can be leveraged and harmonized. Inclusive and diverse workplaces are essential to addressing pertinent business issues, including attracting and retaining top talent, increasing brand reputation and recognition, increasing innovation and ultimately generating higher returns.
Cultural intelligence is a must-have in today’s workplace, starting from the top down. The benefits cannot be overemphasized. While there is no defined “arrival point” with CQ, the journey must begin and continue to evolve to improve workplace dynamics and everything else that flows from it.
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