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Cultural intelligence: think of it like Couch to 5K

Marsha Ramroop

After learning about CQ Drive, Knowledge and Strategy, we’ve reached part 4 in our series – how putting cultural intelligence into action is like becoming physically fit

Become inclusion fit and plan.
Become inclusion fit and plan. Credit: Henry Causeland

Now, we’ve reached CQ Action, the fourth and final instalment.

In the first three articles I outlined each of the other CQ capabilities – CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge and CQ Strategy.

A reminder, that in CQ – Cultural Intelligence – Q stands for quotient, as it’s a measure as well as a skill; the capability to work and relate effectively with people who are different from you. When applied properly, it forces us to consciously challenge ourselves, the perspectives we’re taking and the systems we’re succumbing to.

The research question behind this academically robust and peer-reviewed tool was: ‘What’s the difference between those that succeed in today’s globalised, multicultural world and those that fail?’ Essentially, what is the difference between success and failure when working with those who are different from you? This question was asked in nearly 100 countries with nearly 100,000 participants, and the four capabilities were the outcome.

Becoming inclusion fit

I like to compare becoming inclusion fit with developing physical fitness and learning to do Couch to 5k. First, you have to want to switch off the latest binge-watch on Netflix and get up off the couch… do you want to do the exercise? Do you have the Drive? Then, to run safely, what do you need to know? What are the steps you need to take to get going on the journey to a 5k run? What kind of footwear and clothing is appropriate, what diet would assist and what routes can you take? Do you have the Knowledge? Then you have to plan it in. Maybe a 2k fast walk on Monday, some gym work on Tuesday, a break on Weds before pushing it up to a 1k jog on Thursday. You have to monitor your own body, how it’s reacting to what you’re doing and check what you think you know about running. Have you put in place a Strategy? Finally, you have to actually do the exercise. You want to do it, you’ve thought about it, you’ve planned effectively… but the only way you’ll actually get fitter is by doing it. You need to take Action.

So, once you’re motivated, have the knowledge, have checked that knowledge and yourself, you move to the doing piece.

Take action

CQ Action is the extent to which you can act appropriately in situations with those who are from different backgrounds. This includes your ability to be flexible in verbal and nonverbal behaviours when adapting to diversity. CQ Action means you can modify the manner and content of your communications to adapt in different cultural norms.

CQ Action brings together CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, and CQ Strategy.

People with high CQ Action skills possess a broad dexterity and repertoire of verbal behaviours, nonverbal behaviours and speech which they can apply in an encounter with those different from them. They know when to adapt and when not to adapt. This moves them beyond motivation, understanding and strategy to actually engaging with a diversity of people and in relationships with those different from them.

It involves implementing the social etiquette and appropriate behaviour to suit an inclusive context. People with high CQ Action skills do this without giving it much thought. Adaptation means to be comfortable with nonverbal behaviour such as gestures and facial expressions. Language, tone, pronunciation and inflection are changed to match the cultural context. Words are used in a variety of ways to accomplish goals in the appropriate contexts.

Verbal behaviour

A sub-category of CQ Action is verbal behaviour. This includes tone, vocal inflection, accentuation, emphasis, pronunciation and your behaviour in the use of language itself.

High CQ Action: Verbal means you adjust the way you communicate in a situation with those different to you. For example, if you, as an architect, are having a conversation or making a presentation to school leavers, you are likely to avoid architecture specific language or acronyms. The reason is that these are often not clear to a person who does not share the nomenclature of the profession.

Non-verbal behaviour

A person with high CQ action: Non-verbal behaviour is comfortable adapting their non-verbal behaviour. This means they are natural in using culturally appropriate non-verbal communications such as gestures, eye contact and facial expressions.

The first step to improve your CQ action: Non-verbal ability is to become more aware of non-­verbal behaviours. You then learn to imitate or avoid them when  needed. This is the same as developing a repertoire of non-verbal social skills. Notice the degree of separation or personal physical space that others take when conversing, especially in a world with Covid-19, and what form of greeting they prefer. Avoiding a handshake or even an elbow tap needn’t be taken personally.

Developing your CQ Knowledge and using the internet to discover what is not acceptable in some cultures or countries, but checking that with CQ Strategy, means the CQ Action is more likely to be appropriate.

Modifying speech

Modifying the manner and the content of your communications in diverse and multicultural settings is CQ action: speech acts. This is your ability to alter your communication to effectively achieve a cross-cultural goal in various cultural settings.

High CQ action: speech acts means you have a variety of ways to use words to effectively and appropriately bridge diversities. Low CQ action: speech acts means you do not change the overall ways you communicate, regardless of the cultural context.

A great way to develop CQ speech acts is to spend time with a diversity of people, especially working in a variety of teams or groups. Surround yourself with others who help you think differently and see situations from a range of perspectives. It is difficult to know how to utilise diverse speech acts unless you see situations through the eyes of people different from you. But with the help of peers of various backgrounds, we can learn and develop high CQ action : speech acts.

Again, we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. This requires us to pay attention and reflect on what we learned from that.

Coming back to the analogy of physical fitness, the ability to improve and maintain your fitness depends on your ability to put in the effort regularly. At no point can you slow down or stop and assume you’ll maintain your abilities and fitness. You have to keep it up, continuously listening to and responding to the feedback your body, and other people, are giving you. If 5k is your ultimate goal, well that’s fine. But we know 10k, half marathons and full marathons bring great personal reward, so does improving and honing your inclusion fitness.

Catch up with the first, second and third articles of this series introducing cultural intelligence

Marsha Ramroop is RIBA director of inclusion and former BBC journalist. She hosted RIBA Radio, a 28-hour audio journey through some of the actions to consider when building up your CQ capabilities. Subtitled videos are available on the RIBA YouTube Channel, RIBA Radio Playlist.


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