Culture intelligence: The language of the Borderless Workplace

As the British industrialist, Sir John Harvey-Jones, once commented, “Most of us feel that in learning to speak another language we automatically gain with it a deeper understanding of the people. Nothing could be further from the truth“.

Sir John, a noted linguist in his own right, correctly observed that the technical skill of learning a language does not automatically confer a knowledge of a country’s customs and culture.

This has been borne out in my own 30 year career in the cross-cultural training environment. Over this period of time, I have seen the focus of cultural training change significantly.

At an organisational level, the multinational model of growth and expansion during the post war years has given way to more fluid global, transnational structures aimed at driving greater efficiencies and responsiveness across global markets. In turn, the nature of cultural training has evolved from immersive, country specific briefings and basic language training targeted at the few (perceived as the way of preparing expats for success on a foreign assignment), to a more holistic set of adaptive competencies and capabilities relevant to the many.

Working in today’s cross-border virtual environments, often with limited direct authority brings a requirement for a far subtler and more nuanced set of behaviours and skills. The most effective and skilled managers I have observed, have displayed limited, if any, foreign language skills. What they have all possessed in abundance is the ability to communicate with empathy, demonstrate humility, and build trust.

Whilst this in turn raises the question of whether such skills are heaven sent or learned, all of us in the cross cultural education field must continue to seek and refine the definitions and competencies associated with Cultural Intelligence (CQ) as well as develop engaging processes, tools and content that build increased levels of awareness, understanding and adaptive skills.

Many see language skills and cultural intelligence as two sides of the same coin. In many respects, engaging in a local language and being more aware of national cultural styles is a critical step in making a good impression and building rapport. However, CQ needs to transcend the notion of national differences. Culturally intelligent individuals, teams and even organisations have an innate ability to co-create working cultures that proactively engage with differences to build innovation and value.

In fact, CQ is fast becoming a universal language in its own right in which we all need to develop fluency.


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