According to an Economist Intelligence Unit study, 90% of executives from 68 different countries estimated that cultural intelligence was one of the main leadership challenges of the coming decades. Derived from economic intelligence, cultural intelligence would be an essential professional asset in a cultural context abroad and a competitive advantage abroad… How can we develop this cultural intelligence in a professional context?

What is cultural intelligence?

The concept has been in use for about 15 years and comes straight from the United States: « cultural intelligence » would be considered one of the most coveted skills by international leaders in the 21st century (C. Carey Yang).

Beneficial both personally and professionally, cultural intelligence determines a person’s ability to use their intelligence in a foreign cultural context, and to adapt their behaviour to it – including in a professional environment. This implies (and allows!) for example to know how to distinguish an intercultural conflict from an interpersonal conflict.

However, in the reality of organizations, the denial of differences is still very strong: we would like the corporate culture to prevail over the rest, and the leadership skills offered around the world to be sufficient to homogenize the operational reality of the teams. However, it is clear that this is not enough, there are too many misunderstandings and misunderstandings and there is often no sharing of good practices.

I’ll give you 3 examples :

  • An expatriate executive began his coaching work with: « They don’t work like us here, we don’t understand each other, it’s not even worth trying… ». And was ready (before I challenged him) to wait for his next job…. 2 years later.
  • It took Dutch and French IT teams 3 years to realize that their project was not progressing (at all) because they did not speak the same language (beyond the language) and had not even agreed on the results to be achieved!
  • Finally, communication between French and Swedish teams in a large company went from very difficult to completely cut off for months, with a strong temptation on the part of management to abandon the partnership, simply because cultural misunderstandings had not been shared or clarified.

A lot of lost time, missions badly or not accomplished, due to the lack of developing the cultural intelligence of leaders and teams, which is essential today in this globalized working world.

Accept the idea of cultural differences

For the individual, teams and the organization, it is already a matter of moving from ethnocentrism (a tendency to privilege the ethnic group to which one belongs and to make it the only reference model) to ethnorelativism (acceptance that the values and beliefs of the other exist and may be different, as well as the opinions that flow from them).

According to Milton J. Bennett, author of A developmental Approach to Training for Intercultural Sensitivity, « the key to developing the sensitivity and skills needed for intercultural communication is first and foremost the way people view cultural differences. ». To this end, it has developed a conceptual tool to determine the level of adaptability of each individual to other cultures. There are the ethnocentric ones, which constitute the first three stages of denial, defence and minimization. They are followed by three other, more ethnorelativist stages: acceptance, adaptation and integration.

Clarify the differences with a team

For the company, understanding and knowing cultural differences (relationship to hierarchy, time, decision-making methods, trust, etc.) is an essential first step. Gert Hoofstede, author of Culture and Organizations: International Studies of Management & Organization, outlines 4 dimensions: hierarchical distance, the notion of individualism and communitarianism, the male/female approach and the control of uncertainty. The dimension of long-term / short-term orientation will then be added as well as that of pleasure / moderation. These 6 keys are a way to better understand a culture other than your own, especially in the professional context where this analysis can be valuable.

It is with this same desire that Professor Erin Meyer, a specialist in organizational behaviour at INSEAD, published the book The Cultural Map (in French: La carte des différences culturelles: 8 clés pour travailler à l’international) in order to put an end to many situations of intercultural misunderstanding and facilitate dialogue between international companies. 

Based on the 8 keys she proposes on a map (communication, evaluation, persuasion, leadership, decision-making, trust, disagreement, time management), Erin Meyer gives suggestions for improvement to enable managers, for example, to better collaborate and communicate with her counterpart abroad. A vision that inspired the Harvard Business Review, which chose to publish the author’s analyses on an interactive map.

Develop your cultural intelligence with 4 transversal skills

Whether working abroad or developing international relations, cultural intelligence is essential. Despite our personal dispositions, it cannot be acquired in a snap of fingers and requires the development of very specific skills, which can be mobilized regardless of the country or region with which we interact.

To develop its ability to adapt to this global and increasingly complex environment, it is essential to strengthen « transversal » skills:

  • sensitivity (openness, curiosity, listening, ability to decode signs and clarify)
  • communication (decoding each other’s modes of communication and adapting one’s own, moving from one style to another with ease)
  • commitment (ability to create a shared vision and cooperation within teams)
  • uncertainty management (knowing how to navigate in an unknown context, managing stress, agreeing not to understand everything right away)

To evaluate and develop these 4 skills that strengthen cultural intelligence, individually or in teams, we work with the IRC tool: Intercultural Readiness Check.

And to discuss this exciting topic, I suggest that you meet me at the next online Masterclass on November 19, 2019 at 5pm (in French). BOOK YOUR SEAT HERE 


Isabelle Goyon


If you want to strengthen your intercultural skills or those of your employees and develop a tailor-made action plan, contact me. I would be happy to discuss with you to identify the most appropriate device for your needs.