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  • Christopher Haggarty-Weir

Cultural Intelligence & Leadership

Cultural intelligence can be understood as the capability to relate and work effectively across cultures. The four areas that cultural intelligence is typically defined as include: cognition, metacognition, motivational intelligence, and behavioural intelligence. This article will explore each of these areas in more depth and will discuss how each of the aforementioned areas can aid a leader in understanding culture as well as intercultural efforts. Finally, the importance of adaptive work and interdependence will be examined, especially with respect to multicultural teams.

The Four Areas of Cultural Intelligence

Cognition is the mental process of garnering knowledge and understanding via thought, experience, and our senses. Cognitive intelligence is one’s ability to navigate reasoning and problem solving, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, and to learn quickly and from experience. Cognitive intelligence has been shown to be a great predictor in decision making for leaders, especially in the context of understanding culture and intercultural efforts (Gooden, et al., 2017). This is because cognitively intelligent people are able to quickly give thought to and assess shared understandings between cultures and use this to their advantage (Earley & Mosakowski, 2004).

First introduced by John Flavell - the founding scholar of the field (Saylor 2012, chapter 4) - the concept of Metacognition can be thought of as “thinking about thinking”. As described in Saylor (n.d.), ‘culturally intelligent leaders can use metacognition to help themselves and to train themselves to think through their thinking’. This can lead to better approaches to trying to understand other cultures, and resolve more complicated intercultural matters, by giving consideration to your own ways - and potential pitfalls - of thinking about issues and the impact your innate biases may have on them (Lyons & Kashima, 2001).

Motivational intelligence ‘is the individual’s ability to show interest and direct efforts in understanding the cultural differences in order to operate effectively in a given situation’ (Gooden, et al., 2017). It should be quite obvious that a leader with high motivation, within the context of cultural intelligence, will be best equipped to understand and act appropriately on cultural differences. The tenacity and drive that comes with a good motivational intelligence will also serve to equip the leader with the energy required to professionally deal with intercultural issues as they arise (Gooden, et al., 2017).

Behavioral cultural intelligence is an important trait for leaders to acquire, as it enhances social interactions in addition to focusing the individual on how to best modify their behavior to adapt to cultural differences that arise (Gooden, et al., 2017). Further, as made clear in Gooden et al., (2017) studies have shown that those with high behavioral cultural intelligence behave appropriately in intercultural settings. Another study by Duff, Tahbaz and Chan (2012) demonstrated a positive relationship with task performance among those with high behavioural cultural intelligence.

How a Leader Can Reframe Their Thinking When Dealing With Multicultural Staff

When entering into any employee situation, a skilled leader needs to pre-emptively take into account their strengths and weaknesses with respect to cultural intelligence (Earley & Mosakowski, 2004). The best leaders will reframe, i.e. shift, their paradigm as required when dealing with employees of other cultures, employing both a reasonable level of cultural sensitivity and overall business-focused professionalism (Saylor, 2012, chapter 8). As stated in Saylor (2012, chapter 8), ‘Leaders can create a shift in cultivating authentic relationships with different cultural groups or individuals when the questions asked are shifted from “How can this relationship help me to reach my organizational (personal) goals” to “What can I (we) learn from this relationship, and how can the learning move us towards our vision?”’.

Using Adaptive Work to Adjust a Leader’s Thinking.

'Adaptive work requires a change in values, beliefs, or behavior' (Saylor, 2012, chapter 8). The methods a leader can utilize to adjust their thinking within the context of adaptive work includes:

· Reflection and reviewing how one’s own personal values impact their cultural relations.

· Actively understand and articulate the values that drive their specific behaviours.

· Assess any dissonance that may arise between their beliefs and reality.

How Leaders Can Demonstrate Interdependence Within Diverse Cultures

Few people like being micromanaged and the best leaders seldom use any micromanagement (the exception may be for the initial instance of training in a technical environment, but they should quickly move away from this). When dealing with diverse cultures it can be even more important for a leader to avoid micromanagement due to the increased time input that would likely be required. As mentioned in Saylor (2012, chapter 8), ‘to begin to see interdependence, culturally intelligent leaders need to be clear about their purpose in working with cultural groups, people, and processes’. Therefore, there is an importance for the development of interdependence, where potential junior leaders amongst the multicultural teams should be identified and trained in management in order to effectively co-lead the teams. These individuals should be given a great deal of autonomy to manage their teams effectively, with updates to the senior leader made at specified intervals.

Leadership Success and the Importance of Being Culturally Conscious

Often, leaders view collectivism and individualism as mutually exclusive and opposing management styles. Collectivism refers to the practice of prioritizing the group over the constituent individuals, whereas individualism is the converse. Good leaders will identify that collectivism and individualism need not be at odds with one-another, but may in fact be complimentary and situational (Salyor, 2012, chapter 8). To appreciate this, cultural consciousness should be developed in order to progress our understanding of culture and the fact that different cultures and individuals will tend to prefer either a more collectivist ideal or a more individualistic view. For instance, the Japanese work culture promotes an effacing sense of the individual, whereas the American work cultures promote individual growth. Having this cultural consciousness will help pre-empt and successfully navigate possible conflict that can arise from an individualist employee being involved with a collectivist project, and vice-versa. Thus, both paradigms can coexist based on context.


I'd like to give my thanks to Aditya Rudrapatna, who helped with the preparation of this blog piece.


Duff, A., Tahbaz, A., & Chan, C. (2012) The Interactive Effect of Cultural Intelligence and Openness on Task Performance. Research & Practice in Human Resource Management, Vol. 20, Iss. 1, pp. 1 – 17.

Earley, P.C., & Mosakowski, E. (2004). Cultural Intelligence. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Gooden, D.J., Creque, C.A., & Chin-Loy, C. (2017). The Impact Of Metacognitive, Cognitive And Motivational Cultural Intelligence On Behavioral Cultural Intelligence. International Business & Economics Research Journal, Vol. 16, Iss. 3, pp. 223 – 230.

Lyons, A., & Kashima, Y. (2001). The Reproduction of Culture: Communication Processes Tend to Maintain Cultural Stereotypes. Social Cognition, Vol. 19, Toward a Paradigm Shift, pp. 372 – 394.

Saylor. (2012). Leading With Cultural Intelligence. Retrieved from