Due to an exponential increase in globalization and international interdependence, the turn of the 21st century has ignited a new interest in cultural intelligence and global mindset. More specifically, modern researchers have become progressively interested in how these abilities are connected to success—in whatever way success may be defined—in a workplace environment. However, due to their ambiguity and relatively recent emergence in the field, these terms have been difficult to explicitly define. A popular misconception is that cultural intelligence only refers to the proper manners and social customs of a population. In reality, this idea is much more complex and extends beyond being polite. One of the most common definitions of cultural intelligence (CQ) was proposed by researchers Soon Ang and Christopher Earley in 2003. They define cultural intelligence as “the capability of an individual to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural diversity.” Global mindset, however, relates to “the ability to influence those people who are different from you, whether that difference is cultural, social, institutional, or political,” as defined by industrial and organizational psychologist, Joy McGovern. Simply put, cultural intelligence describes the ability an individual might possess in terms of recognizing and interpreting cultural differences and customs while global mindset describes the individual’s ability to apply that knowledge to culturally diverse situations for positive and efficient change. Combined, these two factors have been proven to predict an individual’s level of effectiveness in a global market.
As previously stated, cultural intelligence is an idea that has only just become popularized due to the emergence of a rapidly growing globalized economy in the 21st century. Thus, all existing research relating to the subject is relatively new and underdeveloped. Some of the earliest research on CQ dates only as far back as 1969, and even then, the idea was highly criticized and dismissed. It was not until the contributions of one researcher in particular, Soon Ang, that the importance of cultural intelligence made its way into modern psychology and the workplace. She currently serves as the head of the Division of Strategy, Management, and Organization at the Nanyang Business School in Singapore. She has co-authored two pioneering books on cultural intelligence and co-edited the Handbook of Cultural Intelligence. Her ideas on cultural intelligence have been described as the most well-researched, explicit, and comprehensive. Because of this, she has won many prestigious awards throughout her career such as the Nanyang Research and Innovation Award in 2007.
Cultural intelligence is measured across four dimensions: metacognitive, cognitive, motivational, and behavioral. Metacognitive CQ refers to one’s ability to constantly question and reflect on their knowledge of cultural assumptions before, during, and after international interactions. People with high levels of metacognitive cultural intelligence are able to simultaneously be aware of their current cultural context and adjust their assumptions and their behaviors accordingly. It allows them to reflect on previous experiences and appropriately plan and strategize for new cultural situations. Cognitive CQ, on the other hand, simply reflects one’s surface-level familiarity of the various customs and norms in different cultural contexts. This is still, however, a critical component of cultural intelligence because it highlights the individual’s ability to understand the thoughts and behaviors of different cultures. Motivational CQ indicates someone’s ability to consciously devote time and energy into learning and appropriately functioning in different cultural societies; it reflects the actual drive of the individual. Finally, behavioral CQ simply refers to an individual’s ability to properly exhibit appropriate verbal and nonverbal cues when interacting with people from different cultures.
Using these four dimensions, researchers Soon Ang, Lin Van Dyne, and Christine Koh initiated a series of studies in 2007 to develop a self-report scale called the Cultural Intelligence Scale (CQS) to measure CQ and predict workplace performance. Starting with an original 53 statements, they were able to create a first draft of the scale containing 40 statements, 10 for each dimension of cultural intelligence. After running a study with an original sample of 576 undergraduate students studying in Singapore, they were able to narrow the scale down to only 20 items (four statements reflecting metacognitive CQ, six reflecting cognitive CQ, five reflecting motivational CQ, and five reflecting behavioral CQ). Satisfied with the final product, the researchers then ran four more studies to validate and cross-validate the CQS. In the second study, the scale was given to a smaller and separate population from that of study 1, with the sample being 447 undergraduate students studying in Singapore. This study was simply conducted to reinforce the strength of the four-factor model of the CQS. Next, researchers took a subset of the students in study 2 and gave them the same test 4 months later. The evidence of this study supported test-retest reliability of the CQS, and it showed the temporal stability of cultural intelligence. In study 4, the researchers wanted to assess the validity of the CQS across countries. The test was given to a population of undergraduate students (N=337) in the Midwestern United States. Due to the invariance of the responses in this particular population and in the previous populations, the researchers concluded that the test could be used to make generalizations about populations across countries. Lastly, researchers created a study to cross-validate the CQS across methods. Thus, in study 5, an “observer version” of the scale was created. The self-report version was given to a population of 147 managers participating in an executive MBA program in the United States. Simultaneously, participants completed a peer-report version of the scale.
Analysis of these results affirmed consistency and validity in cultural intelligence across self and peer ratings. Following these studies, Ang and her associates performed another set of tests that aimed to define the relationship between levels of cultural intelligence and performance outcomes. They found that higher levels of CQ are positively associated with various aspects of workplace performance. For example, individuals with higher cultural intelligence levels exhibited more strategic decision making skills across cultures. They demonstrated higher task performance and were proven to be more effective in persuasion and negotiation. It is these exact qualities that allow culturally intelligent individuals to be more successful in globalized workplaces. Because of this, many multinational companies today have placed a much stronger emphasis on the importance of cultural intelligence and global mindset in their employees. After a thorough analysis of various studies, it is evident that there exists a strong positive relationship between cultural intelligence and international leadership potential. However, this is where the global mindset becomes particularly important. One can be culturally intelligent and still lack the ability to effectively apply this knowledge in the workplace. It is this global outlook that allows companies to not only expand, but to also integrate more smoothly into the international economy. Just as it is important for leaders to be culturally apt in various situations, it is equally as important for businesses to understand how to diversify their brand and foster positive consumer relations with global markets.
Cultural intelligence has become so increasingly essential to businesses that companies such as Coca-Cola trains all of the participants in their high potential leader program in cultural intelligence. David Livermore, a social scientist specializing in the topic of cultural intelligence, claims that “Fortune 500 companies expect their greatest revenue streams over the next decade to come from emerging markets.” In his book Leading With Cultural Intelligence, Livermore highlights the difference in managerial styles in Germany and in Saudi Arabia and how a misunderstanding of these styles can have drastic consequences in workplace efficiency. He explains that in Germany, a leadership that is collective and involves others in the decision making process is essential. In Saudi Arabia, however, this same style is viewed as a weakness. The Saudis favored a more authoritative leadership style as they believed it demonstrated clarity and strength. Clearly, the ability to recognize the differences, understand their impact, and perform in these culturally diverse settings are critical for many modern-day global executives. By training employees in cultural intelligence and by cultivating this international mindset, companies are ensuring progressive success in a variety of competitive diverse markets.
Although companies today are looking for more globally minded and culturally intelligent employees, Antje Wessel, global head of diversity and inclusion at Bayer AG, argues that “…it may not come naturally to be inclusive. I think a person’s skills will increase the more they are exposed to the concept of diversity.”
Many studies have concluded that an individual’s cultural intelligence is malleable over time. However, researchers debate about the extent of that malleability. For example, a study conducted by Wilson and Stewart in 2009 found that individuals working on international service projects for the first time showed the greatest development in their CQ. This research suggests that as an individual’s international experience increases, their cultural intelligence will also increase but in smaller increments. With this being said, CQ is inherently a product of nurture as one’s level of cultural intelligence is highly related to the level of international experience one has received. It is also critical to note that one’s cultural intelligence can vary from culture to culture. For example, an individual’s level of cultural intelligence while working in Spain is independent to their level of cultural intelligence while working in the United Arab Emirates. This is due to the fact that CQ, again, refers to the individual’s ability to recognize the different cultural customs and patterns in any given context. Thus, someone who is able to properly recognize and interpret cultural customs in one country may not be able to do so as well in a completely different setting. On that premise, it is also worth noting that researchers found that the importance of cultural intelligence varies across situations. For example, cultural intelligence becomes more imperative in unfamiliar cultural settings, or “strong situations.” The necessity to recognize and interpret cultural cues increases when one does not know what is culturally or socially expected of them. Despite this compelling evidence suggesting that the traits CQ and global mindset are purely related to nurture, there is one interesting nuance to this argument.
Researchers Soon Ang, Linn Van Dyne, and Christine Koh found that the personality trait openness from the Big Five Personality Model was related to all four dimensions of CQ. Many researchers have conducted studies on this exact hypothesis such as M.C. Moody in 2007. This study found that there is a strong positive correlation between openness to experience and cultural intelligence. So much so that researchers believe that the presence of this personality trait can be used to predict cultural intelligence. Similarly, in a study conducted in 2008 in New Zealand, three researchers (Oolders, Chemyshenko, and Stark) investigated the relationship between the six sub facets of openness (intellectual efficiency, ingenuity, curiosity, aesthetics, tolerance, and depth) and CQ. They found that all facets significantly relate positively to cultural intelligence. This correlation suggests that although cultural intelligence may not be a product of genetic composition, there is perhaps an underlying requirement one must already possess in order to efficiently increase their cultural intelligence. In this case, perhaps cultural intelligence simply acts a mediator in the relationship between openness and positive performance in an international and globalized workplace. While an abundance of research devoted to the topic does exist, there are still many questions regarding cultural intelligence that remain unanswered. For example, although researchers have proven the CQS to be consistently valid across countries, the variance of general levels of cultural intelligence across global populations still remains unclear. This is to say that researchers are still unsure about whether undergraduate students from Italy are generally more or less culturally intelligent from those in Japan. Similarly, little research exists on the presence of cultural intelligence from a young age. This contributes to the lack of evidence supporting the possibility that cultural intelligence is a product of genetics rather than environment.
Is the younger generation of today more culturally intelligent, or have academic and business institutions simply put a stronger emphasis on the importance of cultural intelligence only in recent years? Are women generally more intelligent than men? The literature provides little explanation in regard to these questions. Perhaps to answer them, more generalized studies need to be conducted that focus less on the workplace outcome of cultural intelligence and more on how cultural intelligence varies across populations. By giving the CQS to a diverse sample of both women and men of varying ages within a single population, researchers will perhaps then be able to generate more concrete comparisons across these various moderators. Despite the immaturity of the research, it is evident that many experts in the field agree that cultural intelligence has great value to both individuals and companies who aim to succeed in today’s modern global economy. To remain competitive, companies must be willing to assimilate across borders and must do so effectively.
Fortunately, cultural intelligence and a global mindset are traits that can be developed and strengthened over time. As Livermore illustrated with his comparison of Germany and Saudi Arabia, executives who hope to perform well in a variety of cultures must be flexible; they must possess the ability to quickly adapt to different cultural workplace customs. In addition to this, however, individuals must also be able to reflect on previous cultural experiences and apply the knowledge to new interactions as well.
Cultural intelligence has become a compelling idea to many companies across a multitude of industries. Corporations such as McDonald’s, Facebook, and Southwest Airlines have all prioritized this trait in their environment. By understanding the implications and effects of metacognitive, cognitive, motivational, and behavioral cultural intelligence, businesses are better able to cultivate programs and policies that foster global expansion and success