What Is Cultural Intelligence?

World map

A game-changer in a world without frontiers

Imagine this scenario. You lead a successful company based somewhere in Europe. Business is booming; people love your product and profits abound. You have amassed enough capital to contemplate new horizons. Your advisors inform you that your product has great potential in Japan. 

Excited, you task your marketing team with developing a new campaign. They’re a brilliant bunch with catchy ideas that earned your company a solid reputation. So they pump out fabulous concepts, develop the campaign, have the copy properly translated, plan media distribution and, after gathering the customary approvals, publish the campaign.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the campaign bombs. Something gets lost in translation and next thing you know, your message has offended a particular group of consumers. You end up with a major public relations crisis that threatens to damage your hard-earned reputation. Your company loses hundreds of thousands in marketing dollars and your inventory, stocked in accordance with potential sales, is gathering dust and costing you a few more hundred thousand dollars.


BMW and the United Arab Emirates’ anthem 

Quite the embarrassing theoretical situation, no? Alas, it isn’t all theory. In fact, it happened to industry giants like H&M and BMW. In 2016, BMW aired a TV commercial in the United Arab Emirates, where its vehicles were already quite popular. The ad, on the other hand, wasn’t such a hit with the public. It featured the players of the Al-Ain Football Club singing the national anthem. However, upon hearing the sound of BMW engines outside, they cut the anthem short and rush to the cars… The Emirati authorities viewed the ad as discourteous, which led to it being pulled from television. Additionally, the Vice Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and First Deputy of Al Ain Club, Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, dismissed the entirety of the Al Ain Club Investment Company’s board. 

Money and effort were wasted, jobs were lost. And over what? It appears although the marketing staff (and their leaders), although secured proper translation for the campaign, failed to grasp the particularities of their new target audiences’ culture. For BMW, this led to a poor marketing decision that proved insensitive to the implications of national pride in a different country. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid such costly blunders incurred by culturally tone-deaf campaigns.


In comes Cultural Intelligence

Developing cultural intelligence — or, as we like to call it at ACCULTURA, your “cultural muscle” — is a first giant step to circumventing costly communication breakdowns. More than raising awareness, one can learn to communicate and perform in a culturally diverse environment. 

Cross-cultural communications need not be as perilous as one may think. In fact, in today’s globalized world, it has become a critical skill and a key competitive advantage, an advantage multinationals can no longer afford to overlook.

It is now possible to measure and develop your teams’ (marketing and others) potential for adapting to other cultures. ROI of developing cultural intelligence includes enhanced performance, creativity and innovation to name but a few valuable takeaways.





So what is Cultural Intelligence?

Cultural Intelligence—a.k.a. CQ (cultural quotient)—was developed by the research of Ang Soon, Linn Van Dyne and Christopher Earley at the beginning of the new millennium (2002-2003). In Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 24, Earley defines it as a person’s capability to adapt as s/he interacts with others from different cultural regions.”

In 2004, Christopher Early and Elaine Mosakowski wrote for the Harvard Business Review: “Cultural intelligence: an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.” 

According to Business Dictionary, CQ isa measure of a person’s capacity to function effectively in a multicultural environment. Employers and organizations apply CQ as a way to foster tolerance and enhance cross-cultural interactions.

The Cultural Intelligence Center, an authority in CQ training and certification, states that cultural intelligence is a critical part of setting yourself apart in today’s globalized world of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and innovation. It’s the ability to relate and work effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds, and it goes beyond existing notions of cultural sensitivity and awareness. With cultural intelligence, you’ll know how to strategically use cultural differences to come up with more innovative solutions.”



CQ consists of 4 fundamental tenets, as described by the Cultural Intelligence Center and developed by Ang Soon and Linn Van Dyne:


CQ Drive (Motivational CQ): the level of a person’s interest, persistence, and confidence to function in culturally diverse settings.

CQ Knowledge (Cognitive CQ): the level of a person’s understanding of how cultures are similar and how they are different.

CQ Strategy (Meta-cognitive CQ): the degree to which a person plans for, remains aware during, and checks after multicultural interactions.

CQ Action (Behavioural CQ): the extent of a person’s flexibility and appropriate use of a broad repertoire of behaviours, and skills during multicultural encounters.”


Demystifying Cultural Intelligence

  • Multiculturalism. With the advent of new technologies and globalization, boundaries between people are eroding faster than ever. Thus we can witness unprecedented mixing between cultures. It’s a unique opportunity to learn from one another and grow together as a species. However, to fully benefit from it, we must master the art of coexisting in peace and understanding each other despite our differences. These differences can be a source of conflict, but we must strive to turn them into connections


  • Diversity. Whether in a personal or a professional setting, diversity provides a chance to get out of our comfort zone, to learn something new and cultivate an exchange between different people. It is both a challenge and an enabler of progress. With CQ, we can grasp how to diversify our environment and not only handle diversity but also get the best out of it. We have an unprecedented opportunity to celebrate our cultures and educate ourselves about the many wonders of the world!


  • Communication. Communication is an indispensable part of cultural intelligence. We must talk to one another and express ourselves, which becomes particularly crucial in the age of globalization. Communication is at the heart of collaboration, without which, the world as we know it today couldn’t function. Beyond just talking, even more important is listening and understanding, which are at the core of cultural intelligence.


  • Leadership. CQ plays an essential role for entrepreneurs, especially if their team involves members settled around the world. By enabling new depths of understanding one another through communication, it can turn a business into a family. Employees are even more productive when they feel welcome and at home. A company’s success directly depends on how sensitive its leadership is to its teams.


  • Emerging Markets. We are coming to realize the wealth of the world outside of Europe and North America. Emerging markets have become an indispensable force in the global market. Driven by a hunger for success and prosperity, their presence will only be getting stronger in the decades to come as they actively develop their economies. As such, it would be unwise to ignore their importance. To tap into this channel, we must learn to understand and effectively communicate with your foreign partners.


Trending among multinationals

The most prominent organizations in the world are actively integrating CQ into the core of their company cultures. Corporations like Coca-Cola have already implemented cultural intelligence as an integral part of their new business ventures. Google uses it to locate and assess the most qualified candidates around the globe. McDonald’s trains their executives for expanding business overseas following the principles of CQ. 


If the term cultural intelligence is a relatively new concept, the notion is rapidly becoming indispensable in a world that is continually broadening its horizons.



Photos by Christine Roy and Don Ross III on Unsplash



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