How to grow your business with cultural intelligence (CQ)

Published on February 15th, 2021

Do you work with a colleague, client or supplier from a different cultural background to your own?

You may think that cultural awareness is something that only expatriates and multinationals need to think about, but there are at least half a dozen ways in which becoming more culturally intelligent (more CQ) can help you to grow your business.

First of all, let’s clarify what cultural intelligence is. I see it as a combination of emotional intelligence and cultural knowledge and no doubt being more culturally intelligent gives you a real advantage when it comes to working with people from other cultures, whether you are wanting to communicate, negotiate, buy or sell, lead or follow.

Cultural intelligence boosts product innovation & problem solving

For a start, better cultural intelligence boosts product innovation, because manufacturers realize that they can expand their service lines to appeal to other markets. Nestle’s Kit Kat was only ever a layered wafer biscuit covered in milk chocolate until someone thought to appeal to the Japanese people’s liking for unusual flavors.  Many years later, there are over 200 varieties of Kit Kat on sale in Japan, in flavors as diverse as Blueberry, Bubblegum and Banana. Seagram’s Gin now makes a blend flavored with Ginseng for the very lucrative Chinese market and Ernst & Young has a range of audit and consulting services to help clients manage their risk in countries where potential exposure to corruption and fraud is high.

As well as product development, better cultural intelligence also boosts problem-solving and specifically, finding a culturally sensitive solution. We all know that two heads are better than one, but two very different heads are much better than two heads of the same variety. (see Juliet Bourke’s great book on this subject, Which Two Heads are Better than One?) Having a diverse perspective on things enables you to offer a greater array of solutions to a wider audience.  As suppliers we often come up with a solution that would work for us, but what if your clients’ world is different to yours?

I tell a story in my book of a culturally inappropriate solution, devised by an American PR guru who thought he could get some great publicity for his client by giving free ice cream to the children’s hospital.  The trouble was, while in America that might have been a nice good-news story, in China it’s considered very unhealthy to give cold food to sick children, so his client would not have gotten the kind of publicity he wanted at all.  Similarly, a Dutch business consultant I know of advised his Bangladeshi client to fire his very inept CFO.  Sounds reasonable, right? Except that the CFO was the nephew of the CEO and in Bangladesh, there is frequently an obligation to provide for other members of the family.  The CEO was, if you like, ‘culturally unable’ to fire his nephew – but he did fire the Dutch consultant!

How can better cultural intelligence improve your client relationships?

For a start, people like to do business with people they LIKE and whom they feel comfortable with, so knowing how to make a good first impression and build rapport will get you off on the right foot. It may be met with embarrassed laughter when you offer your hand and your client bows, but do either of you want to be the odd one out? How would that make you or him feel?

It’s worth remembering too that people develop business relationships in different ways.  In ‘Anglo’ countries, good relationships follow from the delivery of good service.  In many Asian countries, however, a good relationship has to be established before you can be trusted with any of their business. And business is not always done around the meeting table, but often around the dining table, where knowledge of dining etiquette can make or break your relationship.

Using cultural intelligence to boost employee engagement

Low levels of employee engagement and a talent shortage seem to be the two key concerns of CEOs today and research proves that better cultural intelligence can help in both of these areas.

There is a Persian proverb that states “If you are leading and nobody is following, you are just taking a walk” and this is exactly what is happening in offices all over the world. Cultural differences mean different expectations of how a boss behaves, how employees should be motivated and rewarded, how a client must be treated, how many hours must be spent at the office every day and even who pays for the cakes when it’s YOUR birthday! Going about things the ’wrong way’ will only be tolerated for so long, before tempers fray.  But imagine turning up to work every day and recognizing that you weren’t getting the results you hoped for or didn’t have the friendship of your colleagues – but you didn’t know why or what to do about it?

You can see how understanding your employees’ needs in situations like that can not only help them to be more productive more quickly but also helps to build your reputation as a company that looks after its people – and that is a company whom people want to work for.  Diversity & Inclusion are the words on everyone’s lips now, but while we see increasing diversity, there is not nearly as much inclusion and frankly, one without the other is of limited benefit.

To really be able to profit and grow from a diversity of perspectives, companies have to not just tolerate diversity but go out of their way to WELCOME it.  They have to accept that people have not only different strengths and abilities, but different operating systems too, depending on their cultural backgrounds.  Perhaps think of it this way; many cars look just the same, but under the bonnet, some run on diesel and some run on petrol.  Both great cars, both great fuels, but try putting diesel into your petrol car and you have a very expensive repair on your hands…

Do cultural differences impact the productivity of teams and potentially the global success of your organisation? Our intercultural training tool is used by 75% of Fortune 500 companies to develop cultural awareness. It is imperative that diverse organisations support an inclusive company culture where cultural intelligence and cultural sensitivity are strategic priorities. Contact us for more information on how we can support your organisation to overcome cultural differences and turn diversity into your competitive advantage.


Patti McCarthy is an expatriate & life coach who helps migrants and expatriates not just survive the experience but actively enjoy it.

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