The culturally intelligent team

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Aug 18 2021 by David Livermore Print This Article

Over the last few years, we've talked a lot about our research that found diverse teams typically perform worse than homogeneous teams do. Why? Because it's harder to get things done on a diverse team. What makes sense to you, might not make sense to me, whether it's the purpose of a team meeting, a logical way to tackle a project, or decision-making.

Thankfully, this same body of research found there's more to the story. Diverse teams with moderate to high levels of cultural intelligence (CQ) outperform homogeneous teams on a number of outcomes: productivity, cost-savings, innovation, and the list keeps going. Cultural intelligence is what makes the difference. It provides team members the motivation, understanding, and strategies for not only tolerating but actually using their differences to get the work done.

But how does it feel when you're part of a culturally intelligent team? Here are a few recurring characteristics:

You're part of the information loop

Information is power, and whether you're privy to information from the top or given a chance to share your input on key decisions, being in the information loop plays a critical role in whether you feel included.

Culturally intelligent teams solicit each other's input, freely share insights with each other, and receive a steady flow of communication from senior leadership. You may not always agree with the information provided and there may be times when leadership isn't at liberty to share information that may jeopardize the organization or other individuals. But whenever possible, culturally intelligent teams have a healthy exchange of information. When information needs to be withheld, there's enough trust established to understand that not everything can be shared with everyone all the time.

This doesn't mean everyone needs to share information the same way. Some individuals will prefer thinking out loud in the midst of a team meeting, others will prefer to reflect independently and offer their input in writing, while others may prefer to come up with a collective response with a sub-group of the team.

Here are a few ways to improve information sharing on a diverse team:

  • Ensure each team member has an opportunity to share their ideas (this may mean asking some not to speak first).
  • Offer varied ways for team members to share information (e.g. in a group, one-on-one, written, spoken, etc.).
  • Offer the option for team members to provide input from multiple team members (e.g. one written submission reflecting the group's consensus).
  • Schedule a private conversation with individuals who are averse to direct conflict to solicit their point of view, rather than asking them in front of the entire team.
  • Clarify whether input from everyone is expected and if so, by when and how.

You have a voice in decision-making

Homogeneous teams don't need to spend a lot of time defining how to make decisions. There are some taken for granted protocols that everyone understands. Diverse teams, however, may have vastly different assumptions about how a decision should get made and who ultimately makes it.

Culturally intelligent teams have explicitly created a process for decision-making, whether that's attempting to reach consensus, voting, entrusting the team leader to use everyone's input to make the final decision, or some combination. There's no one culturally intelligent way to approach decision-making and some team members may prefer to avoid the weight of making the decision. But when you're on a culturally intelligent team, you know your perspective was considered and used in making the final decision.

Here are a few ways to improve decision-making on a diverse team:

  • Classify decisions as big bet, mid-range, or every day and develop processes for each kind of decision. Big bet decisions might be things like acquiring a new company or eliminating a line of business. Mid-range decisions might be something like switching to a new database solution or adding a new product line. And everyday decisions are the judgment calls staff make as an everyday part of their jobs.
  • Develop an explicit process to analyze a situation and generate possible solutions. Clarify who will ultimately make the decision and how implementation will be handled.

    • Ensure every individual in the organization has clarity about the following:
    • What am I authorized to decide on my own?
    • When should I solicit input before making a decision and from whom?
    • What am I not authorized to decide on my own?

  • Add an empty chair to meetings to represent a diverse customer's perspective. To what degree do we understand their perspective and how do we justify this decision in light of it?
  • Determine how the decision will be communicated and to whom? This relates back to the information sharing routines.

You're invited to happy hour

Finally, who goes out together after work? Who gets invited to a team member's wedding? Different levels of personal relationship exist on any team, but diverse teams have a harder time knowing how to handle informal socializing together. Cultural differences are hard enough at work, but they become amplified in social settings. What kind of food (or drink!) is appropriate, what do we talk about besides work, and what questions are appropriate to ask?

On a culturally intelligent team, you feel free to opt out of socializing when you don't want to participate but you know you're invited. The relationships we develop together away from the office help lubricate the work we do together all day long. Having said that, I'm still reflecting on an editorial Marsha Ramroop published with us last month where she challenged the notion that everyone wants to "belong" at work.

So this is tricky. Some teammates may have no desire to socialize together outside work, while others can't get enough of it. And as more teams work from different locations across the country or world, being invited to informal social events is going to require creativity, including virtual meet-ups that are truly social.

Culturally intelligent teams create opportunities for everyone on the team to socialize together outside work while having enough trust to allow for different kinds of relationships and preferences across the team.

Here are a few ways to improve informal socializing on a diverse team:

  • Build small amounts of interpersonal exchange in team meetings ("What's one fun thing you did this weekend?" "What's your idea of a perfect day off?")
  • Exchange ideas about the kind of informal social events each individual enjoys.
  • Create social work functions that are mindful of the backgrounds on your team (e.g. dietary preferences, holidays that are irrelevant to some team members, times that are ill-suited to parents, activities that are impossible for some individuals).
  • Have a "no shame" policy for individuals who don't have the interest or time to participate in non-work events.
  • Check out online resources that provide ideas for how to socialize on remote teams. Just remember to apply CQ to these ideas since these lists tend to be biased toward a US audience.

No two culturally intelligent teams look alike. Some might spend several hours a week working collaboratively on a project with a standing happy hour every Thursday. Others might limit meeting together to 15 minutes a week while exchanging information online and working autonomously toward a shared objective. But whatever the approach, all culturally intelligent teams have developed strategies for persevering through the increased challenges of their diversity (CQ Drive), they understand the ways their differences affect the work they do together (CQ Knowledge), they create explicit routines for using their differences to improve the work they do together (CQ Strategy), and they adapt to the team's shared practices while bringing their unique perspectives to the team (CQ Action).

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.