Cultural Intelligence is Key to Business Success

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The business landscape is changing, and so must business owners and managers. It’s no longer enough to just have a high intelligence quotient (IQ) or emotional intelligence (EQ). To be a good manager, you need cultural intelligence (CQ) as well.

IQ and EQ measure an individual’s general intelligence and ability to empathise with others, respectively. Those with a high IQ are seen to have “book smarts”, while people with a high EQ are often seen to possess “street smarts”.

IQ levels rely on your ability to process information, think rationally and retain knowledge. Your EQ level, on the other hand, is based on your ability to relate to others, identify and understand different emotions, and use emotions to effectively communicate.

CQ, meanwhile, refers to one’s ability to comprehend and adapt to different cultures. This is a particularly useful skill to have, especially in the ever-changing world of business.

In multicultural Malaysia, there is one practice that cuts across different ethnicities: the “open house”. Whether you’re Indian, Chinese, Malay, or of a different or mixed ethnicity, you have definitely hosted or attended at least one open house. This is a great example of CQ in practice, and shows how Malaysians might just be leaders in the joy of cultural engagement.

Open houses are a great way to develop a fundamental understanding of different cultural celebrations. For example, attending an open house during Hari Raya Aidilfitri teaches us the importance of being active in a community. Similarly, we grow a deeper appreciation for our elders after joining in on Chinese New Year festivities. No matter the occasion, open houses instil values in each of us and a shared idea of coming together to understand another culture with empathy.

Sunway University Online recognises the importance of CQ. This is reflected in our online Master of Business Administration programme, particularly in the subject People and Organisations. This core subject teaches students the skills they need to develop and enhance their CQ.

What is Cultural Intelligence (CQ)?

CQ refers to an individual’s ability to interact successfully with people from different cultures. It’s all about developing a deeper understanding of other cultural values, beliefs and motivations, and applying this knowledge when communicating with them.

Unlike IQ and EQ, CQ cannot be measured or tested in a typical assessment. Instead, it is derived from one’s experience and worldviews. Simply put, your CQ improves when you meet and interact with people from different cultures.

Why is CQ Important?

We live in a culturally diverse world, and with the improvements in technology, in particular, it has become easier to interact with people from all walks of life. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes opens your eyes to new perspectives and encourages you to seek out different worldviews.

The business world is also increasingly globalised, as brands and enterprises look to target markets and do business beyond their own borders. As the mix of companies and countries evolves, it’s pivotal to implement policies that train managers and workers to operate effectively and empathetically in this era of globalisation.

Working towards bettering your CQ will allow you to build meaningful relationships with people and improve your overall quality of life. But crucially for those with big business aspirations, it’s also a necessary skill to have if you want to get ahead in the business game.

A middle aged female and male discussing business whilst using a computer

How is CQ Relevant in Business?

Every successful business owes its dues to the dedicated team behind the scenes. But, a team is only as good as its leader. The characteristics of business managers go beyond those that possess exquisite business intelligence (BI) and other business skills.

Today, great managers are people who have both BI and CQ. They place importance on diversity, acceptance, inclusion, equity and empathy at the workplace. These are traits that every business – and employee – wants in a manager because they promote a healthy work culture, which, in return, increases productivity and attracts valuable talent in the modern world of business.

This is particularly true in the Malaysian context because most businesses in the country have employees of various cultures. Having a manager who understands how cultural values influence working styles will be a tremendous benefit, especially in terms of communication in business.

It’s safe to say that business managers need to work on upskilling their CQ if they want to lead a triumphant team in this day and age.

What Can I Do to Improve My CQ?

If you want to become a global leader, you need to master the ability to efficiently manage and communicate with people from different backgrounds. To develop and improve cross-cultural relationships, you need to:

1. Know your history

It’s important to understand your heritage before you dive into learning about a new culture. Knowing how your own culture has shaped your values and perspectives will help deepen your understanding of other cultures.

There are two important elements of CQ: core and flex. Core CQ refers to values that we consider as constant, and don’t desire to ever change. For example, an aversion to smashing fruit on someone’s head as a way to pray for good health and success.

Flex CQ reflects values that we are happy to adjust to suit different cultures. For instance, we wouldn’t normally call our elders by name, but it is something that we can adapt to in a different culture.

Bear in mind that each generation experiences different cultural phenomena. This is where our core and flex CQ comes into play. So, take note of the differences and similarities when observing the generational gap. It’ll be a truly eye-opening experience.

2. Satisfy your curiosity

When you get the opportunity to work with someone from another culture, always ask open-ended questions like “What festivals do you celebrate?” and “How are schools different from here?”. These questions might be simple, but they give you a great insight into how cultural values come into play. It’s also best to steer clear of questions that potentially relate to sensitive matters, and be understanding that such questions may change in different cultures.

Take Malaysians, for instance. The eldest child often comes back after working abroad to look after their parents. This may be the norm here, but is it the same elsewhere? Remember, always ask the right questions, and you’ll be amazed at how much your CQ improves.

3. Be open-minded

Awareness and acceptance is a mindset you must have, especially when working with people of other cultures. All of us react differently to situations, and how we react boils down to the values we were raised on.

Growing up in Malaysia means that you were constantly surrounded by people of different ethnicities. This taught us to be mindful of cultural differences, like taking off our shoes when entering someone’s house or preparing halal food for our Muslim friends or family. Indirectly, we became more open-minded to the idea that every family practises different values. Being aware of this is a tremendous help in cultivating our CQ.

A middle aged male businessman using a smartphone in an office building

Become a Modern Leader

The business world comes with countless challenges and opportunities that can make or break your career. Ultimately, this makes having CQ even more important. Building a good relationship with your employees by understanding their culture is a forward-looking management style today.

Our online Master of Business Administration programme can help you become a modern leader in the business world by equipping you with the managerial and people skills that are just as important as having a keen business acumen.

Step out of your comfort zone. Schedule a call today!