Communication is arguably the most important skill for People Ops professionals. You need to ask the right questions in order to build the most effective People programs. You need to communicate about those programs to your leadership team, managers, and employees. And you may need to do this across teams with very different communication styles and cultures. Cultural intelligence can help you improve communication across teams, so you can build a stronger People Ops function.

What is cultural intelligence?

According to Harvard Business Review, cultural intelligence is an “outsider's seemingly natural ability to interpret someone's unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person's compatriots would.” Cultural Intelligence Center defines it as “a globally recognized way of assessing and improving effectiveness in culturally diverse situations.”

In the workplace, this would relate to the way you communicate with diverse—and perhaps distributed—workforces. You may have offices worldwide, or some remote employees scattered across the globe. You may even have a single office location with a diverse workforce and sub-cultures across different functions. As a People Ops professional, it’s important to have—or develop—cultural intelligence, so you understand how to adapt your communications for different groups.

How can you develop cultural intelligence?

Some people have a natural ability to read other people, connect with them, and adapt to their cultures and behaviors. Others must develop this skill.

Cultural Intelligence Center argues this goes beyond cultural sensitivity and awareness. A culturally intelligent person needs to develop in four areas:

  1. CQ Drive (Motivational CQ): the level of a person’s interest, persistence, and confidence to function in culturally diverse settings.
  2. CQ Knowledge (Cognitive CQ): the level of a person’s understanding about how cultures are similar and how they are different.
  3. CQ Strategy (Meta-cognitive CQ): the degree to which a person plans for, remains aware during, and checks after multicultural interactions.
  4. CQ Action (Behavioral CQ): the extent of a person’s flexibility and appropriate use of a broad repertoire of behaviors and skills during multicultural encounters.

There are many organizations offering assessments, workshops, online courses, and other learning opportunities to develop cultural intelligence. Those found to be the most valuable to the People Ops team could later be rolled-out company-wide. Cultural intelligence is a skill that could prove valuable to help employees better communicate amongst themselves, as well as with customers and partners.

You may also tap into your own workforce to develop cultural intelligence. Attend employee resource group meetings to learn about different groups, their challenges in the workplace, and how People Ops can better support them. Slice your HR metrics to see how they vary by demographic. Speak one-on-one with your HR champions and have frank conversations about how you can improve communications with your diverse, distributed workforce. 

What can you do with improved cultural intelligence?

The most important thing you can do with improved cultural intelligence is adapt the way you communicate with people to better connect with them. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re discussing maternity leave policies with an employee. Let the employee know a short leave is not the expectation, and make sure their manager knows about this custom so they can be supportive as well. A high cultural intelligence can help you better navigate this conversation.

Cultural intelligence also helps you build more strategic people programs. In the example above, you can use your cultural intelligence to potentially advocate for different maternity leave policies for different geographic locations. Or you may choose to prioritize people programs that you believe will make a stronger impact on the organization. For instance, your sales team might thrive in a culture of recognition, but your engineering team thrives with a culture of learning. Your engineers are likely more challenging to hire and retain, so investing more in learning and development is probably a good move. Understanding these sub-cultures within your organization can lead to more strategic decisions.

Additionally, you can help managers better connect with employees. Harvard Business Review shared an example of a manager who was quite successful pushing and confronting employees to help them hit goals. Then he moved to another office where his management style was not well-received. This would be a good opportunity for People Ops to step in and moderate a discussion around how managers and employees can best work together. High cultural intelligence would allow People Ops to look at both perspectives and try to find a middle ground.

Final thoughts on cultural intelligence

Cultural intelligence isn’t always innate, but it can be learned. This is a crucial skill for People Ops professionals to better connect with a diverse, and perhaps distributed, workforce. With stronger communication comes stronger relationships, so you can continue to develop cultural intelligence and build a more strategic People Ops function.


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Cultural Intelligence: How to Improve Communication Across Teams