Cultural Intelligence: A New Skill to Adopt

28. april 2020

Article printed in IT ID Magazine, Lviv, Ukraine on April 28th, 2020. While the insights shared is dated back in April 2020, the principles of Cultural Intelligence (CQ) are more relevant than ever in today’s nearshoring landscape.

Halyna Shporlyuk, General Manager at Conscensia shares her vision of why being culturally educated is important as well as explains what it actually means. Halyna is Certified CQ Trainer by Living Institute, Denmark. She has 16 years of experience (7 of which are leadership roles) with and within multinational, intercultural diverse teams and customers.

The term “emotional intelligence” has already become a buzzword. I think, Cultural Intelligence or CQ is the next skill to be adopted by Ukrainian businesses, in particular, the tech one. We deal with international clients on a daily basis and to do it well we should understand what lies beyond their words or emails. And does anything lie there at all?

Understanding is the key

Understanding cultural background helps us to establish strong relationships with partners and clients. Otherwise, we allow awkward situations to happen from the very beginning of conversation. For example, Danes shake hands with everyone, regardless of their gender. I had an experience when at the first meeting with the client’s team, our developers greeted everybody except the female Project Manager. Luckily, it wasn’t her first introduction to Ukrainians, so she made a joke out of it. It is one thing when people miscommunicate on the level of social rituals.Hurting personal feelings or national values without even knowing it, is definitely more painful. Such things can affect and even spoil professional relationships in the long run.

I have been working with Danes for the last 6 years. Danish culture is built on teamwork and collaboration. It calls for a very high level of trust within the team. Getting a task description “Use common sense” is not an unusual thing. It feels strange in our culture when we refer to trust as something that must be earned. Conscensia has a special training for the newcomers where we speak about differences that might and surely will occur later. It smoothes collaboration as developers are aware that taking responsibility is expected and appreciated. Also, we communicate to the client that we’d love to have some requirements after all.

I want to highlight that while both CQ and EQ are extremely important, they’re still secondary skills. I’ve witnessed cases where developed soft skills without technical expertise turned into manipulating tools for hiding incompetence. Soft skills are the cherry on top of professional knowledge. These two are complementary but not interchangeable.

How to deal with stereotypes

The first international client I’ve ever worked with was American. Back then my cultural knowledge was based on a set of mass market stereotypes and a pinch of personal experience. It took me some time and effort to understand that cultural intelligence is not about believing that all Americans are professional go-getters and all Danes love hygge and cinnamon pastry.

Speaking about culture in such context puts limits on our openness to real cultural knowledge. Stereotypes are especially misleading in the modern world, where people migrate and travel a lot. Society has an impact on us but also we affect society. So, in some way I might have influenced my American colleagues as much as they did me.

Before I joined Conscensia, having meetings after a work day was a usual thing. In the beginning at Conscensia I couldn’t get why all meetings set at 5 pm were declined by the client. The answer is: Danes cherish work-life balance; and after years working with them I adopted that lifestyle too.

Working in delivery requires building and maintaining effective communication between developers and a client’s team. It is all about multicultural communication and awareness.

I can’t recall a specific book or training that has become my eye-opener to CQ. But my general advice when adopting CQ is to get rid of the “one-size-fits-all” approach. Saying “these guys are like this and this nation acts like that” gives wrong and narrow viewpoints. Stereotypical thinking doesn’t explain how to deal with the cultural diversity. It only points out differences which are often overestimated.

I recommend using an approach by Living Institute, Danish organization that provides businesses with solutions in cultural awareness and cross-cultural competencies. They have a very fair-minded view at CQ and develop a CQ Wheel framework – the instrument for people who are about to meet and learn new culture. It is an all-purpose tool suitable for the whole world. The wheel aims to focus on a large scale and see interconnections between the past and the present, indicate values and evaluate their impact on culture nowadays.

The framework consists of four elements:

  • CQ Drive – the drive is an inevitable part of learning. In the CQ context it calls for openness and curiosity to other cultures.
  • CQ Knowledge – “hard knowledge” and facts about culture helps to develop a communication strategy.
  • CQ Strategy – people armed with the knowledge can come up with different communication approaches.
  • CQ Action – strategy falls into smaller actions which can be applied in different situations and with different people within the culture.

I suggest a quick experiment. Try to describe Ukrainian culture if you were a foreigner who came to Lviv for the first time. What would you be excited about? What might impress you? What will be the most unusual cultural thing for you? And why?

The exercise helps to understand how routine activities might seem different through different cultural perspectives. Also it opens eyes on how other people perceive our usual attitude. For example, Paris is often associated with romance, Eiffel Tower and croissants. But what does it say about French culture, people, their behaviour and desires?

From my experience with foreigners, what they notice first in Ukraine are huge and splendid temples, gloomy strangers but extremely welcoming hosts. Let’s stop here and think about our culture. What exactly creates it? How does it affect people and their attitude? How can it be interpreted by people from other cultures?

Before starting a CQ journey it is good to start from our own culture. It gives us a ground to stay on. It helps to understand that there is a story or even a history beyond each daily ritual.

It brings us to the core principle of a culturally intelligent person – acting smart in a right context. It means to suspend initial reactions, interpret behaviour according to the context, ask questions and communicate a lot.

CQ Reading List

I’d like to suggest a list of books to read for those willing to start learning CQ. It includes short and fun books for a wider audience as well as some deeper studies.

“The Culture Map”, Erin Meyer. The book describes the impact CQ has on the business environment and is easy to read for people with engineering minds. The Culture Map wraps national diversity into a logical system by scoring differences and evaluating them.

“Cultural Dimensions”, Geert Hofstede. Handful statistics that includes Ukraine. It is rare as most studies refer to Poland or former Soviet countries in general.

“Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes”, Helen Dyrbye and “How to Live in Denmark: A Humorous Guide for Foreigners and Their Danish Friends”, Kay Xander Mellish. These are fun and short stories about Danish culture. Flavoured with healthy irony, both books are something you would laugh at during your morning coffee.

All books of Meik Wiking. The author is known as Happiness Expert. You might already know his bestsellers “The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well” and “The Little Book of Lykke: The Danish Search for the World’s Happiest People”. In 2019, he published a new book “The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments”, which has already been translated to Ukrainian.

Summing up, my advice to anyone CQ-curious would be – discover the world but stay true to yourself. In a multicultural setting, focus on the main thing. You work together to complete the project, develop business or make a decision that matters to other people. The result should not be affected by the breakfast your colleagues use to have or religion they worship. Keep in mind that politics, religion and sexuality are sensitive subjects and strongly linked to values. Avoid them as much as it is possible.

Cultural Intelligence is like a muscle. To keep it fit you should exercise. And the principles to help you exercise it effectively are simple: learn and adapt, get rid of the “one-size-fits-all” approach, and be yourself!