Cultural Intelligence 101

Written by:

Kristin Ekkens

Why you and your company’s cultural intelligence matters, and four specific steps to improve.

Have you ever felt intimidated in meetings with colleagues in different countries that you’ve only heard stereotypes about, but have no experience in? 

Have you ever thought a colleague or boss hated you because of their seriously toned, short answers? 

Have you ever worked with a manager whose management style – whether authoritarian or relaxed – was complex for you to excel in?

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) are becoming part of everyday work life. This is a beautiful thing; it’s proven that diverse teams are more successful.

However, with multiple genders and cultures working together more frequently, misunderstandings and unnecessary friction in company and team dynamics could occur if cultural intelligence training is overlooked.

Cultural Intelligence: What it is and why it’s needed

Cultural Intelligence is not just about cultural awareness. It’s not enough to be aware of differences from each other. Teams need to truly understand and learn about each other and how to adapt to work productively and positively.

To become culturally intelligent means more than understanding contrasts based on ethnicity, world location, heritage, religion, and race. It also means acknowledging our biases and comprehending ways we work differently based on personality and preferences in the work environment and management style.

For example, if you take a company culture that’s used to working in closed-door offices and remodel the space to have completely open floor plans, some (perhaps creatives or those who thrive in interaction and noise) will love it initially, but others (maybe those in analytics or coding who need quiet focus) would hate it. 

More differences could be:

  • Those who prefer linear versus non-linear thinking.
  • Cross-functional traits that differ (like accountants versus graphic designers).
  • Regional societal norms differ (like southern hospitality versus more direct easterners in the U.S.).
  • Attire norms (for example, in other countries, dressing up for work is more the norm versus wearing “athleisure wear” in the U.S.).
  • Authoritarian versus relaxed leadership styles.
  • Flat versus hierarchical organization systems. 
  • An office culture of extreme neatness versus a cluttered yet creative work environment (hello, Post-it notes!) 

To ignore those truths will stymie collaboration and growth, possibly leading to people quitting.

Cultural intelligence training is a solution that allows companies to not only embrace diversity but also create common bonds on what is humanly universal. It’s based on the same Sternberg psychological model for emotional intelligence (EQ) and picks up where EQ leaves off. 

4 ways to increase Cultural Intelligence on your team

Whether you’re a 10-person company based in the United States working fully remote or an organization with a hundred thousand employees all over the globe going to offices in person, increasing cultural intelligence within your team will foster deeper connections, bolder ideas, courageous actions, and positive collaboration.

Here are four steps to jump-start your team’s cultural intelligence:

  1. Determine your and your senior leadership’s motivation. What are you trying to accomplish together? What intrinsic and extrinsic factors are affecting motivation? 

  2. Seek an understanding of the culture and climate of your team and organization using empathy. Approach each other with genuine curiosity. Instead of categorizing people by nationality or gender, look at individuals based on their value systems. It’s incredible how people from the same culture and educational background can behave differently. What do you need to know to begin building your knowledge?

  3. Identify key influencers to create your culturally intelligent strategy. If needed, plan interactions to be thoughtful about how you’re showing up and coming across to those different from you. Be observant and clarify when needed. For example, if a woman in the U.S. says, “Mmhmm,” that does not necessarily mean they agree with you. Question how you’re interpreting, and ask respectfully what the other person meant if there is a question. What is influencing your team to be disparate or together? What could be a lever towards more cohesive collaboration?


  4. Take action by defining and communicating the scope and impact to your team. 

Adaptability is ideal – to an extent

Becoming culturally intelligent requires people to have an open mind and consider adapting behaviors to meet other people where they are for the greater good. But don’t adapt so much that you lose yourself. You don’t need to become someone else in order to thrive while working with cultures different from your own. The courage needed is to remain yourself while making room without judgmeent for different modes of thinking and operating. Ask yourself, “If I adapt to this person or this new work style, what is the advantage? What is the cost if I don’t?” 

In conclusion

Diversity exists whether we like it or not because every human is different. Even siblings raised by the same parents can be oil and water. It’s not enough to just recognize these differences. Gaining cultural intelligence will help harness the gifts that each unique person can bring.

The solution is to learn from each and create a unique company culture where everyone can see themselves and thrive. 

To grow your team’s cultural intelligence,  reach out! 

Author’s Note: Kristin Ekkens is a  Be Courageous Network Partner specializing in Inclusion, Belonging, and Cultural Intelligence. She is a solutions partner to Fortune 1000 enterprises around the world. Kristin is a TEDx speaker and is passionate about spreading the spirit of Ubuntu – I am because of you.

Co-Writer: Shannon Geher


Corporate Fragility


Most of us agree that we are really only at the tip of a massive amount of change. The 2020s will be the decade of challenge for the globe.

Corporate Fragility


Most of us agree that we are really only at the tip of a massive amount of change. The 2020s will be the decade of challenge for the globe.

Let's Get Started!

Courage my Challenge

The Bridge

Sign up to our monthly newsletter “The Bridge” and receive inspiration and practical tools to courage your future. 


0 M


Courage the Future

Crafted with 🖤 by Be Courageous Digital, San Francisco
©2017 - 2023 - All Rights Reserved.