Cultural Intelligence: A New Competency for the Global Workplace

Cultural Intelligence: A New Competency for the Global Workplace

by Felicity Menzies

The workplace has changed. Diversity is the new normal. Demographics, migration, and economic changes have altered the social context of work. Leading organisations are intentionally increasing workforce and stakeholder diversity to drive innovation and growth in new markets.

Today’s workers, across a broad range of accountability levels, job roles, organisation size, and industry, in home markets and across borders, interact daily with individuals from backgrounds vastly different than their own. That reality requires a new workplace competency; the ability to manage multiple sources of cultural diversity at once.

Diversity competence for a globalised workplace

Cultural Intelligence is the set of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to recognise, understand, reflect on, and adapt to cultural differences. Individuals with high Cultural Intelligence display four main competencies:

CQ Drive is the willingness to work with others from diverse backgrounds. It includes an ability to overcome explicit or unconscious bias and the capacity to persist in challenging intercultural settings—even when the individual feels confused, frustrated, or burnt out.

CQ Knowledge is the understanding of culture and cultural differences. That involves more than awareness of variations in language, customs, and appearance. Core cultural differences like values, assumptions, and beliefs are often invisible but cause the most problems—and are frequently overlooked.

CQ Strategy is the ability to flex mentally. With high CQ Strategy, individuals are not confined to a single worldview. They are open to new or integrative ideas.

CQ Action is the ability to flex verbal and non-verbal behaviour. CQ Action decreases the risk of miscommunication and helps an individual respond to diverse others in a manner that conveys respect and builds trust and rapport.

The Cultural Intelligence difference

Cultural Intelligence has important advantages over other approaches to diversity competence:


Evidence-based management refers to managerial decision-making and organisational practices based on scientific evidence. Evidence-based management improves organisational outcomes, but despite decades of research, business has made limited use of scientific evidence.

Cultural Intelligence narrows the gap between management research and practice. Over 100 peer-reviewed studies on Cultural Intelligence have been published in academic journals since its conceptualisation in 2003. Dedicated independent research teams across the globe continue to add to this body of literature. This work supports the validity of Cultural Intelligence as a proven model for diversity competence.


Cultural Intelligence is not a personality trait, nor is it something you are born with. Cultural Intelligence is developed through education, training, and experience. This malleability offers organisations an opportunity to create an enviable competitive advantage—a capacity for innovation and agility—to drive sustainable global growth.


Cultural Intelligence extends prior models of intercultural competence. Earlier approaches focused on understanding cultural differences or superficial changes in behaviour. The four-competency model of Cultural Intelligence includes higher-level thinking skills needed for intercultural problem solving as well as an individual’s interest and persistence in diverse settings, including the competencies needed to overcome explicit or unconscious bias.


Traditional cultural training relied on lists of country-specific do’s and don’ts with the goal of preparing expatriates for success in a single, dominant national culture. But this approach is inefficient and limited.

Context-specific cultural training does not align with the cultural complexities facing today’s employees. Both domestically and internationally, workers interact with individuals across varied cultural backgrounds and it impossible to prepare in advance for every intercultural encounter.

In addition, individuals can no longer be packaged into neat homogenous cultural groups. Global migration, education, work, and travel influence cultural identities in unpredictable ways over the course of a person’s life.

This complexity needs a new competency: today’s employees and leaders must be able to manage an infinite possibility of cultural identities.

Cultural Intelligence is not the capability for effectiveness in a particular culture. The Cultural Intelligence model is a unifying approach that helps a person manage any cultural setting, transcending national borders and cultural stereotypes. The four competencies of Cultural Intelligence are generic skills that can be applied to manage any form of cultural diversity—national, gender, generational, ethnic, health status, sexual orientation, or other subculture.


The ability to learn is a better indicator of future performance than competencies measured at a specific point in time. In today’s turbulent business environment, the ability to learn has particular relevance.

We cannot predict who our colleagues, employees, leaders, customers, and suppliers will be tomorrow, nor how they will feel or behave over time. Culture is always changing. Relying on outdated generalisations may lead to confusion or failure.

As market conditions and technology change at unprecedented rates, organisations and employees need to be able to adapt. Cultural Intelligence equips individuals with the ability to learn and adapt in real time to unpredictable change.


Cultural Intelligence can be reliably assessed at individual or group level.

Individual assessment provides employees with an evaluation of their Cultural Intelligence capabilities. This information is useful for setting development goals and tailoring coaching or training. Cultural Intelligence assessment is also helpful for selection and promotion decisions and for use in performance appraisals.

Group assessments highlight a workgroup’s collective intercultural strengths and weaknesses. This information is particularly valuable for multicultural teams.

Personal growth

Cultural Intelligence improves business performance and supports career advancement—but Cultural Intelligence also leads to tremendous personal growth. Individuals with high Cultural Intelligence are respectful and tolerant of differences, are less judgemental, and are more inclusive of others. They are open to new perspectives, ideas and relationships.

Release from the confines of a single worldview opens up new possibilities and enriches one’s life—both professionally and personally.

Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., Koh, C., Ng, K. Y., Templer, K. J., Tay, C., & Chandrasekar, N. A. (2007). Cultural intelligence: Its measurement and effects on cultural judgment and decision making, cultural adaptation and task performance. Management and Organization Review, 3(3), 335-371.
Ang, S., & Van Dyne, L. (2008). Conceptualization of cultural intelligence: Definition, distinctiveness, and nomological network. In S. Ang & L. Van Dyne (Eds.) Handbook of cultural intelligence: Theory, measurement, and applications (pp. 3-15). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., & Rockstuhl, T. (in press). Cultural intelligence: Origins, conceptualization, evolution, and methodological diversity. In M. Gelfand, C. Y. Chiu, & Y. Y. Hong (Eds.), Advances in Culture and Psychology (Vol. 5). New York: Oxford University Press.
Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., & Tan, M. L. (2011). Cultural intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.), Cambridge handbook on intelligence (pp. 582-602). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Earley, C. P., & Mosakowski, E. (2004). Cultural intelligence. Harvard Business Review, 82(10), 139-146.
Earley, C. P., & Peterson, R. S. (2004). The elusive cultural chameleon: Cultural intelligence as a new approach to intercultural training for the global manager. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 3(1), 100-115.
Gelfand, M. J., Imai, L., & Fehr, R. (2008). Thinking intelligently about cultural intelligence. In S. Ang & L. Van Dyne (Eds.), Handbook of cultural intelligence: Theory, measurement, and applications (pp. 375-388). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Leung, K., Ang, S., & Tan, M. L. (2014). Intercultural competence. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavoir, 1(1), 489-519.
Matsumoto, D., & Hwang, H. C. (2013). Assessing cross-cultural competence: A review of available tests. Journal of Cross-cultural psychology, 44(6), 849-873.
Mezirow, J. (1981). A critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult education quarterly, 32(1), 3-24.
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Fransciso, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education, 1997(74), 5-12.
Ng, K.-Y., & Earley, P. C. (2006). Culture + intelligence: Old constructs, new frontiers. Group & Organization Management, 31(1), 4-19.
Ng, K.-Y., Van Dyne, L., & Ang, S. (2009). Developing global leaders: The role of international experience and cultural intelligence. Advances in Global Leadership, 5, 225-250.
Ng, K.-Y., Van Dyne, L., & Ang, S. (2009). From experience to experiential learning: Cultural intelligence as a learning capability for global leader development. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 8(4), 511-526.
Ng, K.-Y., Van Dyne, L., & Ang, S. (2012). Cultural intelligence: A review, reflections, and recommendations for future research. In A. M. Ryan, F. T. L. Leong, & F. Oswald (Eds.), Conducting Multinational Research Projects in Organizational Psychology. (pp. 29-58). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rousseau, D. M. (2006). Is there such a thing as “evidence-based management”? Academy of Management Review, 31(2), 256-269.
Rousseau, D. M., & McCarthy, S. (2007). Educating managers from an evidence-based perspective. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 6(1), 84-101.
Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., & Koh, C. (2008). Development and validation of the CQS. In S. Ang & L. Van Dyne (Eds.), Handbook of Cultural Intelligence: Theory, Measurement and Applications (pp. 16-38). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., Ng, K. Y., Rockstuhl, T., Tan, M. L., & Koh, C. (2012). Sub-dimensions of the four factor model of cultural intelligence: Expanding the conceptualization and measurement of cultural intelligence. Social and personality psychology compass, 6(4), 295-313.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.