Culturally intelligent empathy: the ultimate leadership value-add

Published on April 1st, 2022

No one can deny that if 2022 was a movie, we’d be asking for our money back at the cinema kiosk. COVID, war and rapidly increasing economic pressure mean that it is hard to be optimistic.  

These external pressures could potentially hide a serious issue that is closer to home. Employee wellbeing, engagement and the equity debate have the potential to undermine the prospects of even the biggest organizations. The Great Resignation is a significant warning signal to organizations – regardless of whether there is any actual evidence to show that people are changing career more than previously. That we are even having that discussion implies that something is not well. There is a huge temptation that as we look at the external challenges, we neglect the most important resource that any organization has – it’s people. 


When the external noise distracts us, we take our eye off looking after our people. The most enthusiastic people stop speaking up in discussions, our best talent unexpectedly fades into the background and challenges escalate more quickly and more frequently.  

We will never completely ‘solve’ inclusion; for an organization to be inclusive and equitable, we must all pay active attention to it all the time. As soon as we become distracted, we revert to bad habits, cliques and unconscious bias. 

Hybrid working, inclusion and equity 

In Country Navigator’s recent webinar, Is Hybrid Working a Step towards Equity, Reed Kimbrough, former head of D&I at US Steel, discussed three interlinked areas that leaders need to embrace to ensure that inclusion doesn’t slip in these complex, hybrid times: culturally intelligent empathy, psychological safety and agile solutions. As work moves towards digitalization and automation, it is increasingly clear that leaders need to ensure that they reinforce the human side of work.  

Leaders must be able to put themselves in the shoes of their co-workers and teams. Work is not just a physical status – we allow our emotions to become mixed up in work and work to become mixed up in our emotions. This has a huge impact on our wellbeing and sense of belonging. That means that leaders must lead not only the technical and organizational elements of a team, but the emotional side as well. They must take a personal interest in those they are leading. Personal interest is key not only to wellbeing, but it is also central to grounding your culture in inclusion. 

Hero to zero 

Chris, Head of Procurement in a large manufacturing organization, has four direct reports and a further seven people in the department. In March 2020, the entire team started working remotely; in July 2020, the entire finance function was restructured, and Maria, one of Chris’ reports relocated to Germany to support the German procurement team. Maria was on the key talent program, and this was seen as a fantastic way to explore her potential. 

To everyone’s surprise, Maria’s work quality and output dropped significantly. Chris was in favor of bringing Maria home at once and removing her from the talent program with a note to encourage her to seek other opportunities – Arun, who had also moved to Germany was flourishing so why couldn’t Maria cope?  

Chris was unable to explain Maria’s change. He had had a good working relationship with Maria, but they had only really spoken about work issues, and he had always kept his distance. Chris considers himself a fair person but recognizes that he demands a high standard. 

Leadership oversight 

As part of the debrief with Inna, the head of finance and Chris’ boss, they identified several mitigations, that Chris had not considered. Maria was a single woman in her 50’s – extremely experienced, but was put into a team, whose average age was 32; she didn’t speak German beyond a few holiday phrases and was leading a team of native speakers. She felt isolated, lonely and unwelcome in the team. She had little in common with her colleagues and had moved from a busy city life in New York to a quiet suburb of Munich. Most importantly, it was clear that Chris had set a tone where employees were expected to bring solutions, not problems – there was no opportunity for Maria to discuss with him the emotional challenges she was facing.  

We often associate inclusion with big, dramatic diversity measures; we have come to assume that we need to deal with unconscious bias, structural inequity and passivity in order to become an inclusive organization. And it is true, that addressing these will make huge progress towards equitable and inclusive cultures.  

Individuals and inclusion 

But it can be much simpler to start. Do you actually know your employees? Are they able to talk openly with you? Can you hear and understand the unspoken emotional portion of what they say? Do you have the cultural intelligence to be able to interpret their behavior and communication to give you an insight into how you can support them? 

Inclusion starts at a basic level with each individual. When we take time to develop cultural intelligence to understand the realities of each of the people we work with, we not only make better relationships, but we also add value to the organization. 

Take two! 

Let’s reimagine Maria’s story. 

In March 2020, Chris set up weekly meetings with his direct reports. He made sure each of them felt able to talk to him about their failures and issues, as well as successes, without it being a big deal. Each time, he coached them and supported them in overcoming the challenges, lending his authority and advice where needed. When Maria was getting ready to move to Germany, he emphasized that she could call him at any time if she was struggling; he also spoke to a couple of colleagues in Germany to make sure she was welcomed and made to feel at home when she arrived.  

Maria still struggled initially when she arrived, but her weekly conversations with Chris meant she had someone to talk to them about – she was able to voice her concerns and think aloud as she problem-solved. On Chris’ suggestion, she enrolled in German lessons – the colleague Chris had spoken to started inviting her to coffee every so often and insisted that they both speak German to try and improve her language skills. 

Fast forward to March 2022, Maria is back in New York, but now has a working knowledge of German, greater confidence and is ready for greater responsibility.  

Adding value through culturally intelligent empathy 

As soon as Chris shows empathy, he can add value to the business, by creating psychologically safe space for Maria; he helps her develop her own skills and by dealing with her situation in an agile way; and he’s helped Maria engage and get a greater sense of belonging within the organization.  

We know that this approach won’t work in every situation – and that’s where cultural intelligence is such an important part of empathy and psychological safety. We need to understand the cultural drivers of the people we work with, particularly if we are in a leadership position. That will give us the lens to see situations more clearly and create a culture that acknowledge the whole identity, the cultural needs and the unique context of each person. 

In the complexity of contemporary business, leaders must put the human in the digital. Cultural intelligent leaders can build inclusive cultures, add value to their teams and bring clarity of vision to the organization. 


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

We’ve got over three decades of experience supporting over 1 million people worldwide. We’re passionate about delivering change; how can we help you?