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Increase Cultural Intelligence in the Workplace

In today's diverse work environment, cultural intelligence plays a crucial role in fostering inclusive and effective teams. Understanding and appreciating the cultural nuances that lead to different work styles, preferences and values, can improve collaboration, trust-building, and overall organizational success. 


Loren Rosario-Maldonado has dedicated over 25 years to leadership coaching, change management, and cultural intelligence. She spoke with me about the key concepts from her latest book, Becoming the Change: The Power of Cultural Intelligence, to provide managers with actionable insights that will enhance their cultural intelligence skills.


Culture Goes Beyond National Origin


Like many people, I held the misconception that culture is predominantly tied to national origin or ethnicity. However, Loren explained that culture is a complex and multifaceted concept that goes beyond these narrow definitions. Culture is not limited to heritage or ancestry; it encompasses the shared beliefs, values, norms, traditions, customs, and assumptions that shape the way we perceive the world and interact with others. These come from our geography, ethnicity, religion, profession, familial experience, and so much more. 


The Many Dimensions of Cultural Nuance


When we think about diversity in the workplace, we tend to fixate on the visible aspects while neglecting the invisible ones. Yet, culture has a profound influence on our thoughts, not only our clothing and food choices, making it a powerful often unseen force.  It's crucial to acknowledge and appreciate these less obvious influences that shape our interactions and behaviors because it’s these nuances that can lead to frustration and conflict when misinterpreted.


Loren identified multiple dimensions that cultures approach differently. Here she walks us through a few of them.


Time Perception

One aspect of cultural intelligence is understanding different perceptions of time. Some cultures view time as a linear progression, while others consider it more abstractly. For example, the phrase “time is money” is thoroughly embraced by some cultures, emphasizing productivity, efficiency, and making the most of the time available. Other cultures value time as an opportunity to be in the moment, experiencing life to its fullest. 


We can all relate to Loren’s experience of meetings where some people are highly attuned to staying on time with the agenda while others embrace a rolling, emergent conversion.  


Personal Privacy

Respecting personal privacy is crucial in the workplace, but what constitutes relationship building vs prying isn’t so clear cut. Managers must navigate the delicate balance between building meaningful connections and honoring individual privacy preferences which differs for each person. Understanding their cultural values can give insight into where that line falls.


Building Trust

Relatedly, Loren pointed out that for some cultures, trust is built on personal connection. The more you know someone, the more you trust them. This differs from cultures where trust is gained through demonstrated actions. In these cultures, personal relationships are secondary to a person’s track record of achievements. 

It takes cultural intelligence to notice when being more open about your own life will help foster trust or when your attempts at personal connection with someone more reserved are actually unhelpful. 


Emotional Expression

Cultural intelligence also involves accurately interpreting emotional expressions. Different cultural perceptions mean it’s easy to misinterpret nonverbal cues leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. Loren shared an example of a colleague who was speaking energetically, waving his arms as his tone rises. Loren interpreted this expression as anger as she remained neutral in tone, attempting to pragmatically explain the situation. At the end of the conversation, she checked in with him, only to discover that he wasn’t upset at all. It was only her cultural lens that perceived his behavior as angry. 


By cultivating curiosity and seeking clarification, managers can bridge the gap of emotional expression. When we ask rather than interpret, we foster empathy and avoid unnecessary conflicts.


Growing Your Cultural Intelligence


It is impossible to know with certainty every cultural nuance. And even if we were cultural experts, each person’s cultural preferences are a unique amalgamation of their life experience.  Instead of trying to memorize the cultural norms, managers should approach conversations with curiosity, putting aside their own preferences, assumptions and judgements. This allows us to foster a deeper connection and appreciation for one another. 


In order to do this, Loren says we must first acknowledge that it's natural to feel uncomfortable in these conversations. Embrace and honor that discomfort as the first step towards growth. Stretching beyond our comfort zones can be uneasy, especially in the workplace where we've been conditioned to prioritize comfort. However, let's remember that even simple acts like speaking up about what works for you or asking about someone else can create positive change. 


As a manager, developing cultural intelligence is crucial for creating an inclusive and successful work environment. By embracing cultural nuances, respecting individual preferences, and fostering empathy, managers can enhance collaboration, trust-building, and overall team performance. Just remember, cultural intelligence is a continuous learning journey that we are all on together.


Listen to the entire episode  HERE to learn more about conflict management.


Keep up with Loren Rosario-Maldonado


- Follow her on LinkedIn here


- Learn more about cultural intelligence here


- Get a copy of Loren’s book Becoming The Change here


Guest Bonus: Win a Copy of Becoming The Change


Two Members can win a copy of “Becoming the Change: The Power of Cultural Intelligence” by Loren Rosario-Maldonado. A compelling guide that unlocks the secrets to thriving in our increasingly globalized society, this book is a treasure trove of insights for anyone eager to navigate diverse cultural landscapes with ease and empathy


To enter the drawing for this guest bonus and to get many other member benefits, become a member of The Modern Manager Podcast+ Community.


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The Modern Manager is a leadership podcast for rockstar managers who want to create a working environment where people thrive, and great work gets done.


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