Why you need cultural intelligence to build an inclusive workplace

teamwork

Consider this: your tech firm has hired a product manager who hails from Southeast Asia. In meetings, she goes on and on in circles when explaining her points, or so it seems to her Canadian manager and teammates. At the espresso machine, they chat about her, wondering if she knows what she is doing. Over time, whenever she voices an opinion, it is dismissed by her fellow PMs. Her confidence, and in turn career trajectory, suffer at this firm. One could conclude it was bad hire, but is it really?

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is a longstanding player on the inclusivity block but there is little talk of it. While Canadians pride ourselves on our warm welcome extended to newcomers, there is room for improvement in our workplaces. This stems not from a place of ill intention; rather, we Canadians typically operate on cultural cruise control. And that ignorance negatively impacts our teams and our bottom line.

Cultural intelligence is the capability to interact effectively with those who come from or were raised in a culture different than your own.
 

If we apply CQ to the above situation, we realize that a misunderstanding has occurred. In Southeast Asia, hierarchy matters in workplace situations. In order to show respect to those in the room, it is expected that one speaks at great length, and in more of a circular pattern of language. In other words, being succinct is considered disrespectful. Knowing this, how could the Canadian manager and teammates adjust their behaviour in their initial interactions with their new colleague? Taking a step back, how might this bias play out when interviewing this highly skilled candidate in the first place?

CQ does not simply translate into knowing which cultures prefer spicier food than others, but encompasses a respect and understanding for differences that exist. In essence, CQ is the capability to interact effectively with those who come from or were raised in a culture different than your own. It’s a multifaceted competency that asks you to seamlessly combine three elements and make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information:

  • Cultural knowledge married with the appropriate behaviours in that culture
  • Situational awareness
  • Appropriate behavioural adaptation to meet the situation’s and person’s need
  • You may think this does not matter to you. Why should you, as a Canadian, adjust yourself for someone who’s uprooted him or herself to come here to live and work?

    Well, it does matter on a few levels.

    First, we desperately need foreign tech talent here. Forecasts keep shifting, but there is no doubting the fact that there are going to be somewhere in the range of 180,000 to 225,00 open tech roles by 2020—that’s in two years! And it is newcomers who are going to be filling these roles. In 2016, 394,000 landed immigrants landed tech roles. They were responsible for a 6.7 percent employment growth in the tech talent pool, versus a mere 0.7 percent employment growth from homegrown talent. And if we want to achieve a competitive presence on the global tech scene, these newcomers are who we need to get there.

    Trust is the bedrock of all successful teams. To achieve that success, teams need to coalesce in order to optimize their productivity. The faster they get to that stage, the faster those coveted features get built and into the market.
     

    Second, it matters to your bottom line. While specific estimates vary, it’s generally accepted that it costs approximately 1.2 to 1.5x an employee’s salary to hire an individual contributor, and that ratio does not include onboarding, administrative, and lost productivity costs; a company’s return on that investment doesn’t usually happen until 12+ months into that person’s tenure there, when he starts to make valuable contributions to the product or service. It is in your organization’s best interest to ensure that return happens as quickly as possible.

    Trust is the bedrock of all successful teams. To achieve that success, teams need to coalesce in order to optimize their productivity. The faster they get to that stage, the faster those coveted features get built and into the market.

    In the case of that product manager from Southeast Asia, her storyline could have gone down a different path. Had her manager and teammates applied CQ, they would have been aware of her behavioural preferences, and most importantly what motivated them. Recognizing these preferences playing out in different work situations, such as in a presentation, and in turn adapting their behaviour and coaching her towards adapting hers would have been the preferable path. That way, she would have felt empowered to stick around and contribute valuably to the organization’s growth and cultural fabric, rather than moving on to another gig. In short, integrating a newcomer properly onto a team helps to shorten your ROI and reduce your lost productivity costs stemming from turnover.

    Third, it’s the right thing to do. For someone who has uprooted her life to start over again in a new country, a faster return on her physical, financial, and emotional investment is also paramount. When she succeeds, our tech community succeeds and Canada in turn succeeds.

    Diversity is undoubtedly our strength. Let’s turn off our cultural cruise control and build our CQ muscle to leverage that strength in our tech community.

    Photo via Unsplash.

    Ritva Nosov

    Ritva Nosov

    Ritva Nosov is an Organizational Development professional who optimizes organizational design, talent management practices and talent development strategies to meet current and future business needs. She has extensive experience in assessment, design and development, facilitation, consulting and coaching across a range of people management areas, with a specialized focus on leadership development and cross-cultural workplace integration. She founded TalentEd Consulting to enable organizations and individuals to elevate themselves.