What Singaporeans need to know about Cultural Intelligence

Singapore Business Review
Published: 15 May 14
By Ronald Lee, Managing Director, PrimeStaff Management Services

In our parents’ generation, boosting our intelligence quotient (IQ) by way of higher and higher paper qualifications was a key determinant of workplace success.

As society evolved, the value of possessing high emotional intelligence (EQ) began taking precedence in the climb up the corporate ladder, and especially in leadership positions.

These days, however, the game has changed.

The term ‘global workforce’ has become a common fixture in modern lexicon, as workers criss-cross oceans seeking employment opportunities like never before.

In Singapore, there were around 1.3 million foreigners in the labour force in 2013, according to statistics from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Diverse nationalities working together side by side has indeed become a familiar sight not just in MNCs but in SMEs too these days.

To be sure, this trend is not exclusive to Singapore but one that is growing with unprecedented force in the international marketplace.

Just as diversity in the form of foreign talent will help our tiny island nation to continue to prosper in the decades to come, our own Singaporean human capital exports are seeking to broaden their horizons and experience the different working cultures abroad.

Workers should not only get used to this new norm. The wise ones should aim to cultivate cultural intelligence, as this is set to become an attribute that will be highly sought after in the global economy of the future.
The Case for Cultural Diversity

In essence, cultural intelligence, or CQ, refers to a person’s ability to function effectively in situations characterised by cultural diversity. This applies when interacting with people from different countries and different backgrounds while on home turf or overseas.

Having a high CQ means that you understand, and use to your advantage, the knowledge of how and why you should (or shouldn’t) behave around people of different cultures.

This brings to mind a fairly recent Yahoo article that illustrated 10 hand gestures that may be totally innocuous in one culture but may be downright offensive in another.

For example, using a curled index finger to beckon someone may be a common occurrence in the west but in our local context and in Japan, that motion signifies death. Your Filipino colleagues won’t appreciate it either, as that gesture is used for summoning dogs and thus considered very rude.

So you can just imagine how a workplace comprised of multiple nationalities can be a potential breeding ground for much confusion and misunderstanding.

That’s the thing about CQ – it is incredibly difficult to master, as there are so many nuances to both verbal and non-verbal communication across various cultures. Not only are we required to have a heightened sense of awareness of these differences, but we also have to know how to apply them effectively in real-life situations.

David Livermore, author of The Cultural Intelligence Difference, notes that people with high CQ have a natural ability to cope with unfamiliar environment and settings. Such individuals may not necessarily know the finer details of every culture, but they understand and possess the crucial skills needed to be both effective and polite in all situations.

At the same time, high CQ individuals are proactive – and fittingly, this is where both IQ and EQ also play a part.

Say you have a meeting with a Japanese businessman next week. The CQ-driven individual would find a way to gain knowledge about Japanese culture in a business context.

What should one do or not do in such a situation? Does the decorum differ between individuals of different gender? Are there any taboo things that you should take note of and be sure to avoid?

During the meeting, the CQ-driven individual would be socially aware of the present situation and adapt as such.

You may recall the 2009 incident in which US President Barack Obama greeted Japanese emperor Akihito with a simultaneous handshake and a near 90-degree bow, which caused unhappiness on both sides of the Atlantic, according to news reports at the time.

While the Japanese were impressed and appreciative of the cultural sensitivity displayed by the president, they felt that it was improper, as bows are not meant to accompany physical contact in their culture.

The Americans, however, were aghast to the point of accusing the president of “grovelling” to a foreign leader. How could their president – the “Leader of the Free World” – bow down so deeply to the Japanese emperor?

Their reaction was emblematic of a culture steeped in a belief that the American president should not defer to royalty as it made him appear weak and submissive in the photos seen the world over.

But to the rest of the world, President Obama’s gesture illustrated a respect for culture and tradition. It signalled his high degree of CQ and perhaps it is time for the American public to shift their mindsets and catch up with their progressive president as the world continues to become increasingly globalised and interconnected.
The Global Employee

The ability to understand all these cultural differences in attitudes and behaviours will empower the global employee to react appropriately in a given situation, and adjust to the needs of the environment. It also lays a solid foundation for great working relationships with colleagues of different cultural backgrounds.

Simply put, when people get along better, there is more cohesiveness in the team and this can lead to higher productivity. CQ can thus have a positive impact on your company’s bottomline, too.

Take the real-life case study of Han’s, for example, which was featured as one of MOM’s business case studies for stellar employment practices.

In 2006, the F&B chain of bakeries, restaurants, and cafés hired people from 10 different countries, with vastly different backgrounds, with the objective of creating a highly diversified workplace.

Through effective workplace management, as well as the nurturing of cultural intelligence, Han’s saw a 40 percent growth in productivity over three years, as reported in a media interview in 2011.

Now how do you go about boosting the CQ levels amongst your workforce? For starters, when hiring, employers should begin to look for individuals who are naturally predisposed to CQ.

Incorporate CQ metrics into your assessment of potential hires or at the very least, evaluate individuals based on their openness to adapt to, and thrive in, an increasingly culturally diverse workplace. Staff training programmes, of course, can help do the rest.

As individuals, we also need to take the initiative to develop our own cultural intelligence. Good employers will seek out workers with high CQ, so it would be wise to position yourself favourably and enjoy a competitive advantage over your peers.

The world is changing. Don’t get left behind.

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