Cultural Intelligence and Leadership
June 8, 2020
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by Dr. Christopher Haggarty-Weir, Ph.D, MBA, MRSB, MRSC


Cultural intelligence can be understood as the capability to relate and work effectively across different cultures. These different cultures can be based along geographic or ethnic cultural lines, or even different company cultures (though this is often heavily influenced by the former). The four areas that cultural intelligence is typically defined as include: cognition, metacognition, motivational intelligence, and behavioral intelligence. This piece will explore each of these areas in more depth and will discuss how each of the aforementioned areas of cultural intelligence can aid a leader in understanding culture as well as intercultural efforts. Finally, the importance of adaptive work and interdependence will be examined, especially with respect to multicultural teams.

The Four Areas of Cultural Intelligence

Cognition

is the mental process of gathering knowledge and understanding via thought, experience, and our senses. Cognitive intelligence is your ability to navigate reasoning and problem solving, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, and to learn quickly from experience. Cognitive intelligence has been shown to be a great predictor in decision making for leaders, especially in the context of understanding culture and intercultural efforts. This is because cognitively intelligent people are able to quickly give thought to and assess shared understandings between cultures and use this to their advantage.

First introduced by John Flavell — the founding scholar of the field — the concept of metacognition can be thought of as “thinking about thinking.” Culturally intelligent leaders can use metacognition to help themselves and to train themselves to think through their thinking. This can lead to better approaches to trying to understand other cultures and resolve more complicated intercultural matters by giving consideration to your own ways (and potential pitfalls) of thinking about issues and the impact your innate biases may have on them.

Motivational intelligence

is your ability to show interest and direct efforts in understanding any cultural differences in order to operate effectively in a given situation. It should be rather obvious that a leader with high motivation within the context of cultural intelligence will be best equipped to understand and act appropriately on cultural differences. This is especially important for conflict management and mitigation. The tenacity and drive that comes with a good motivational intelligence will also serve to equip the leader with the energy required to professionally deal with intercultural issues as they arise. This, of course, serves the greater good of the team/organization as a whole.

Behavioral cultural intelligence

is an important trait for leaders to acquire, as it enhances their social interactions in addition to focusing the individual on how to best modify their behavior to adapt to cultural differences on an ad hoc basis. This enables rapid mastery over the often unknown rules of conduct one can encounter when dealing with unfamiliar cultures. A study by Duff, Tahbaz, and Chan in 2012 demonstrated a positive relationship with task performance among those with high behavioral cultural intelligence. Further, leaders with high behavioral cultural intelligence are often seen in a more revered light by their peers, and are well-placed to enable a fair level of cultural harmonization in their organization.

How a Leader Can Reframe Their Thinking When Dealing With Multicultural Staff

When entering into any employee situation, a skilled leader needs to preemptively take into account their strengths and weaknesses with respect to cultural intelligence. The best leaders will reframe (i.e. shift) their paradigm as required when dealing with employees of other cultures, employing both a reasonable level of cultural sensitivity and overall business-focused professionalism. Good leaders can create a positive shift in cultivating authentic relationships with different cultural groups or individuals when the questions asked are shifted from “How can this relationship help me to reach my organizational (personal) goals” to “What can I (we) learn from this relationship, and how can the learning move us towards our vision?”.

Using Adaptive Work to Adjust a Leader’s Thinking

Adaptive work requires a leader to be malleable with respect to their values, beliefs, or behavior, in order to best address conflicts in these areas as held by others. Additionally, a culturally intelligent leader will be able to minimize the gap between the values held by others in the organization or team to help facilitate harmony. The methods a leader can utilize to adjust their thinking within the context of adaptive work includes:

  • Reflection and reviewing how one’s own personal values impacts their cultural relations.
  • Actively understand and articulate the values that drive their specific behaviors.
  • Assess any dissonance that may arise between their beliefs and reality.

How Leaders Can Demonstrate Interdependence Within Diverse Cultures

Few people like being micromanaged and the best leaders seldom use any micromanagement (the exception may be for the initial instance of training in a technical environment, but they should quickly move away from this). When dealing with diverse cultures it can be even more important for a leader to avoid micromanagement due to the increased time input that would be required. To begin to see interdependence, a culturally intelligent leader must be clear about their purpose in working with cultural groups, people, and processes. Therefore, there is an importance for the development of interdependence, where potential junior leaders amongst the multicultural teams should be identified and trained in management in order to effectively co-lead the teams. These individuals should be given a great deal of autonomy to manage their teams effectively, with updates to the senior leader made at specified intervals.

Leadership Success and the Importance of Being Culturally Conscious

Often, leaders view collectivism and individualism as mutually exclusive and opposing management styles. Collectivism refers to the practice of prioritizing the group over the constituent individuals, whereas individualism is the converse. A good leader will identify that collectivism and individualism need not be at odds with one another, but may in fact be complimentary and situational. To appreciate this, cultural consciousness should be developed in order to progress our understanding of culture and the fact that different cultures and individuals will tend to prefer either a more collectivist ideal or a more individualistic view.

For instance, it’s not uncommon for the Japanese work culture to promote an effacing sense of the individual (with a focus on the ‘greater good’ of the collective), whereas the American work culture promotes individual growth. Having this cultural consciousness will help preempt and successfully navigate possible conflict that can arise from an individualist employee being involved with a collectivist project, and vice-versa. Thus, both paradigms can coexist based on context.

Hopefully, this article has inspired you to reflect about your own cultural intelligence and where improvements can be made. This should be seen as an iterative process, and one you can and should involve others in. Remember, there is no necessary end-point to good leadership, and in a constantly changing world it is important to deem oneself as a life-long student of leadership development. This will reap rewards for you both professionally and personally.


Dr. Christopher Haggarty-Weir was the founder of Haggarty-Weir Consulting and is currently a biotechnology and healthcare consultant with ttopstart, part of the PNO Group. He completed his Bachelor’s in Biomedical Science from the University of the Sunshine Coast (Australia) where he obtained minors in chemistry and medical microbiology, then did his Master’s in Molecular Biology at the University of Queensland, carrying out biochemistry and bioinformatics research in the lab of Prof. Glenn King at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

Dr. Haggarty-Weir then took part in a unique joint Doctoral program in Molecular Parasitology and Biophysical Chemistry at the Universities of Melbourne (Faculty of Medicine and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute), and Edinburgh (School of Chemistry). His research was focused on malaria vaccine development with Prof. Alan Cowman, FRS, AC. During this time he also studied a mini-MBA program in Melbourne (focused on research commercialization), had a scholarship to attend the business and enterprise skills course in Dundee, and studied marketing and entrepreneurship at MIT.  His has been elected a Member of both the Royal Societies of Biology and Chemistry, and in early 2020 he completed his MBA in management and finance from the University of the People in conjunction with New York University (with a final project focused on Boehringer Ingelheim’s asset swap with Sanofi).