By Rhonda Singer

What exactly is cultural intelligence, how to measure it, and why should career professionals care?

Having the ability to work across different cultures is essential in today’s global economy. The world is more connected, resulting in people communicating with other cultures on a daily basis. Yet do we, as career professionals, consistently adapt our approach to interact with clients in the most culturally intelligent way?

Before addressing this question, it is important to understand what is cultural intelligence, or CQ, as it is often called in the workplace. As defined in David Livermore’s book Leading with Cultural Intelligence, CQ is a person’s capability to function effectively in intercultural contexts, including different national, ethnic, organizational and generational contexts.

Who are the culturally intelligent?

David and his colleagues asked the same question this way: What’s the difference between individuals and businesses that succeed in today’s globalized, multicultural world and those that fail? Contrary to what you might think, it is not the international traveller or people with the highest IQ that excel in CQ.Instead the research illustrated that people who achieved high scores in each of the following four CQ capabilities demonstrated high cultural intelligence:

  • CQ Drive: Deriving enjoyment, gaining benefits and having confidence in experiencing other cultures.
  • CQ Knowledge: Understanding, generally, how different cultures have similarities and differences and how it affects the way people think and behave.
  • CQ Strategy: Being mindful, aware and able to plan in order to adapt when relating and working interculturally.
  • CQ Action: Appropriately changing verbal and non-verbal behaviour when required in multicultural situations.

The good news is that, unlike IQ, your CQ level is not fixed from birth. It can be developed and strengthened through awareness of your own CQ score and training, followed up by the vigilant use of the CQ capabilities.

The importance of CQ in today’s workplace, in Canada and globally

As well as being able to “fit” into a culturally diverse workplace, there have been many studies that demonstrate the connection between employees having higher CQ and improved job performance, particularly as it relates to judgment and decision-making, negotiation and cross-cultural adaptability. This makes CQ increasingly important as one of the key soft skills that employers are looking for in their employees. Subsequently, some companies incorporate CQ into their marketing strategy, others into their human resource agenda for recruiting, engaging and retaining their talent pool.

That leads us to the critical question of why is CQ important to the work of career development professionals. Stories from career professionals frequently describe client issues in some of the following ways:

  • Nods yes but does not carry through with the action plan
  • Does not make eye contact
  • Does not demonstrate initiative
  • Does not know how to do small talk or network in the Canadian workplace

It is natural to interpret a client’s behaviour through our own cultural lens. However, when observing actions from others that seem different, the most important question to ask is “I wonder why?” in order to have a meaningful conversation about your clients’ dreams, goals and current reality. When we care enough to include cultural intelligence in our practices, we demonstrate authentic respect and not just mere politeness or tolerance for differences. We transform into true professionals with the drive, knowledge, strategy and behaviour that engages multicultural clients in empowering career conversations – conversations that result in more effective outcomes.

How do we determine our own level of cultural intelligence, or that of our clients? A simple way to begin is by practicing careful observation while interacting. Keep the four distinct CQ capabilities in mind, and over time note which of that person’s capabilities are stronger or weaker. A more academic and valid method is by completing an online CQ assessment.The Cultural Intelligence Center and its colleagues developed the first academically validated assessment in this area and continued their research to include options for students, individuals or multi-raters (similar to a 360). The CQ report outlines which capabilities are strengths and which need development, and it also includes your cultural value orientations compared to norms from 10 global country clusters. Values are the glue to decision-making. Gaining insight into your own values as compared to clients or colleagues is a very helpful tool in understanding how to minimize or prevent conflict resulting from communication challenges such as lack of consensus or compliance.

Research demonstrates that professionals who see the strategic value of cultural intelligence are able to effectively influence cultural differences for competitive advantage and achieve a win-win for their clients and themselves. When CQ is integrated into practice, career professionals achieve greater client results. After all, is that not what success is all about?


Rhonda Singer, MSc, CHRDis VP, Global Talent at Global Learning. She is a Career Management Fellow and certified in CQ at the Advanced Level 2. Rhonda invites questions and conversation at