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Cultural intelligence: The importance of strategy

Marsha Ramroop

After tackling your assumptions and expanding your cultural intelligence knowledge, a CQ strategy is essential for effective diversity as part 3 of this four part series explains

You need a strategy for cultural inclusion, not just a direction.
You need a strategy for cultural inclusion, not just a direction. Credit: Henry Causeland

In CQ (cultural intelligence) workshops, I often show a video called ‘Where are you FROM?’ In this amusing, and hyperbolic comedic episode, based in the US, a white, blond, blue-eyed, male jogger stops to chat to a woman jogger who is just doing her stretches. She appears to be of East Asian heritage. After a brief exchange about the weather, he asks her where she is from. She answers in her American accent with the city and state. He asks again, and she refers to where she was born.

‘I mean, before that’, he says.

‘Before I was born?’ she asks.

‘No, I mean, where are your people from?’

Exasperated, she responds. It transpires her great-grandma was from Seoul. At which points he pulls out all his stereotypes about Korea, in a well-meaning, wanting to show interest way. When he’s done, she asks him. Where are you from…?

Eventually, he admits he’s not Native American and his grandparents are from England, at which point she pulls out the most amazing list of English stereotypes that will have you crying with laughter into your laptop. Culminating in, ‘I think your people’s fish and chips are amazing’.

In my previous two articles I’ve shared the importance of having CQ drive – the motivation, the curiosity and the persistence to work with those different to you, and having CQ knowledge – thinking and learning about different values and norms, lived experiences, leadership skills and business systems, in order to be effective at working and relating with others.

But there’s a crucial next step – you must have CQ strategy. If you don’t, but you’re motivated and have some knowledge and move straight to action – without stopping to check your assumptions, plan for interactions, think about policy writing, or are not hugely self-aware or organisationally aware – you will act, you will lead, you will write policy that’s tokenistic and/or stereotypical… rather like the jogger.

CQ strategy, or meta-cognition – thinking about what we’re thinking about – requires us to reflect on diverse encounters ahead of time and after they occur. This also involves planning ahead and checking to verify your expectations and assumptions during the experience with those different to you.

After the experience with difference and diversity, we think about and reflect on it. We refine our mental maps and consider potential strategies to improve the interaction. In summary, a high CQ strategy is the degree to which you are mindful, aware, and able to plan for the experiences with those of different backgrounds.

There are three components to CQ strategy or meta-cognition. These are planning, awareness, and checking. These are the steps necessary to anticipate and plan appropriately if you wish to consider your own background and the background of others. This meta-cognition is thinking about what you are describing to yourself, perceiving how you interpret this description, and finally how you evaluate your interpretation. Some may call this reflective practice or reflection in action. It is worth noting that individuals who have a preference for gathering information using intuition generally have more practice and dexterity with meta-cognition.


Do you take the time to plan ahead and think intentionally about the best way to interact with a diversity of people? CQ planning requires you to strategise before an interaction experience.

A high CQ strategy: planning person considers the opportunities and challenges of relating and working in a situation. A person with low CQ strategy places limited value on planning ahead for intercultural or diversity experiences.

One way to practise CQ planning is to prepare ahead of time for social interactions. Is the social event informal or very formal? Will you be expected to greet others in the prescribed manner? Might the seating arrangements and placement have significance? It may not be the best idea to immediately sit down in the closest seat. In some organisational cultures, for example, a specific place at the table may be reserved for the most important person at the meeting.

A second way to plan and prepare in a strategic way is to manage your expectations. Your particular background may provide you with a mindset to frame your hopes and fears. Perhaps you are expecting this business meeting to immediately forge a new business partnership. When the meeting involves relationship building and nothing about business or partnering, you need to manage your expectations. With some people, business will only happen after the relationships are developed.

The third strategy for planning is very basic and simple. Create a checklist. Think about it. All complicated tasks require a checklist. Airline pilots, astronauts, divers, surgeons, and even chefs require a checklist. Working across a diversity of backgrounds can be disorientating. A checklist can be a lifeline.

Awareness strategy

If you have high CQ strategy: awareness, you are very alert and observant to what is happening in both yourself/organisation but also in the person/organisation that is different from you.

One of the first steps to increase your CQ awareness is to notice but not respond too quickly. Take time to make sense of what you observe. If we form a hypothesis or make a judgment prematurely, we may easily be wrong.

One of the techniques is the describe, interpret, and evaluate method. Describe to yourself what happened and be certain not to interpret or evaluate prematurely. Consider your description and be sure it is exactly what occurred. Next, consider an interpretation of what you described but do this without judging or evaluating. Once you are confident your interpretation is a good one, then and only then evaluate the situation. Using this three-step process forces you to take your time and to be aware.

Another way to increase CQ awareness is to think broadly. Allow for ambiguity. Narrow thinking leads to intolerance and judging others, especially when they are different from us. If you learn to think more broadly you become better at understanding and interpreting diversity.

Take time to focus deeply. Practice mindfulness or becoming completely aware of what is happening in your body, mind, and consciousness. This is the opposite of operating on automatic pilot. Running on automatic means I am without much awareness of what I am doing while I am doing it. This does not bode well for effective working with others.

Yet another technique to increase your CQ meta-cognition: awareness is to keep a journal – keep a note of things that have happened and how you felt about them. Journaling allows us to understand ourselves and others. It forces us to slow down and become more aware of our surroundings. Use journaling to help explore the meanings of what you observe. The practice gives you time to process interpretations, insights, and evaluations.


The third sub-dimension of CQ strategy is checking – verifying your assumptions and adjusting your mental maps when your experience differs from expectations.

Checking is the degree to which you go back to make sure your plan, assumptions, and expectations are correct considering diversity and multi-cultural influences. You are asking to see whether the plan you made is going to work in light of the particular culture.

To improve your CQ strategy: checking, you must be willing and able to change your evaluation of the situation. Reframing may require you to identify the feeling you are experiencing. Is it fear, ambiguity, confusion, embarrassment, anger, happiness, and so on. Once you label the emotion, you then can question whether it seems warranted or reasonable. It may be an opportunity to reframe.

In an earlier step, we learned to describe and only describe, then check your interpretation for accuracy, and then and only then evaluate. Describing, interpreting, and evaluating is a three-step process to use before reframing. Stopping to realise that the situation may be explained by diversity or cultural differences can help you reframe and make better decisions. Checking with others who have more cultural experience may be helpful.

If this all sounds like too much work… well it is. And you need to go back and revisit your CQ drive if you don’t feel up to it. This is, I believe, the most important piece of the puzzle. It allows you to create procedural changes to mitigate the impact of hidden bias.

And you need that before you embark on CQ action – the final capability, which I’ll discuss next time.

Catch up with the first and second articles introducing cultural intelligence

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


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