Cultural intelligence can help you thrive in the multicultural mix

It is an exciting part of today’s globalised economy that workplaces are increasingly international and professionals are more globally mobile.

Multinationals can have a presence in scores of different countries, while even comparatively small businesses now look far beyond domestic borders for their suppliers, employees and customers. Driven by ever-greater connectivity and technology, the world has shrunk to a size where workers are internationally transient and organisations must coordinate between teams on multiple continents.

This is certainly apparent in the UAE, where recent arrivals are likely to immediately recognise the extraordinary diversity of the population. This is a country where some estimates put immigrants at 80 per cent of the total population, a figure that seems readily believable when you think of the impressive number of different languages you are likely to hear spoken throughout an average day. For almost everybody who lives here, this is likely to be the most thriving diverse place they have settled in.

In the workplace this diversity is, of course, one of the UAE’s obvious strengths and is a large part of what many people find so attractive about working here. For leaders, the opportunity to head a team that combines the talents and experience of local and international people can be a very enticing proposition.

At the same time, no leader should assume that leadership of such a culturally diverse group will naturally flow without any kind of preparation and awareness. Different cultures have different work and life priorities, including different expectations of the organisation they work for, and a different understanding of what the organisation needs from its workers. Some cultures have alternative ideas about how to show respect, formal manners and how to interact with different people.

Cultural intelligence is a measure of how well a person is able to recognise these cultural quirks and differences, identifying the division between individual idiosyncrasy and the cultural underpinnings of a particular group. This goes beyond knowing, for example, that Emiratis will greet friends with a kiss on the nose, while some westerners will offer a stiff handshake to even their closest relative. Instead, Cultural Intelligence is more concerned with the ability to observe the holistic culture of the group and the individuals you are leading, and pausing to take the time to understand how it is likely to affect their reactions to change and different situations.

A culturally intelligent leader makes these observations without stereotyping different cultures and nationalities. They are capable of more effectively leading because they have truly understood how to get the best from their people.

This has relevance too when an organisation attempts to pursue a more cohesive corporate culture. Think, for example, of a company with established departments that have developed subcultures in which expectations of how things are done are vastly different, perhaps even contradictory. One might be process-driven, with regular deadlines and progress reviews; the other might be focused on outcomes and less concerned with the “how?” in favour of cold results.

Such differences spring from a certain amount of corporate history, personalities, or simple pragmatism. In itself, this can be no bad thing, but in the context of an organisation that needs its people to drive towards a common purpose, it can lead to whole departments being resistant to change because of the friction it causes with their specific work culture. Overcoming this requires that leaders are able to identify and understand these different cultures, so that they can then work to create a smoother gear change between different business units.

This cultural intelligence is not an innate skill. True, some leaders naturally respond well in multicultural environments, but all can benefit from focusing on developing their capacity to lead diverse teams more effectively.

Globalisation means that most organisational leaders are likely to operate internationally during their careers and, even if they remain in one place, the world is likely to come to them. Being ready to observe cultural differences and adapt your approach accordingly can pay real dividends in making sure you get the most from your workforce.

Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.

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