Five questions culturally intelligent leaders ask themselves everyday

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Mar 20 2023 by David Livermore Print This Article

Global leadership is not about geography. It's about having the dynamic agility to lead anyone, anywhere. Many leaders understand this because it's their daily reality. But the question I'm repeatedly asked is, What does it mean to lead with cultural intelligence in the day-to-day?. That's the right question. While cultural intelligence (CQ) needs to inform big picture issues like branding, hiring, and strategy work, where CQ really comes to life is in the everyday practices of a leader.

Here are five reflection questions global leaders can ask themselves daily to integrate CQ with their very full schedules:

How will I adjust my leadership style based on the people I'm meeting today?

Management consultants repeatedly dole out advice about how leaders should handle difficult conversations, establish trust, or negotiate with suppliers. We're often told, "lead with your gut." But as I've said before, most of this advice is overly simplistic and assumes there's one right way to lead everyone.

For example, a four day work week may be ideal for some industries and contexts and disastrous for another. Empowering people to make their own decisions works great when leading individualists who thrive on autonomy and empowerment. But what do you do when you have a high performing team member who prefers a leader who is very directive and involved in their work?

A growing amount of research points to the critical importance of "CQ Strategy" for leadership effectiveness. CQ Strategy is the ability to be aware and plan for diverse situations. This includes planning in light of the anticipated background/s of the individuals with whom we will engage in any given week.

Before a day of back-to-back meetings, I usually write down a few notes to prepare for each meeting, some of which include discussion topics but also reminders to myself about how to adapt my approach in light of who is in the meeting.

What diverse perspectives am I missing for decisions I need to make?

During the tyranny of the urgent, many leaders default to the mirror image fallacy - assuming others want what we want. If asked, most of us would acknowledge that we lead many different kinds of people. But under stress and time pressure, we start to make decisions on autopilot and go with what "feels right", which is often code for, here's the decision I would want if this was me.

One of the things we discovered in our research on organizational CQ is that effective global leaders deliberately solicit perspectives from employees and customers who are unlike them. This may include the Amazon technique of adding an empty chair to senior-level meetings to represent individuals not in the room. But it also means proactively talking to a diversity of individuals to gain their perspectives. Gaining diverse input usually requires a more stealth approach than asking, "What do you think?", especially when you have more power than those you're asking. Instead, ask questions like, "How do you think people from X market would react to this?" Or "What are we missing?"

What's going on externally that I need to address?

The last three years have shown us that what goes on globally impacts most organizationsóeven a local restaurant has to figure the impact of avian flu on an unexpected egg shortage. There are many ways that culturally intelligent leaders need to proactively pay attention to what's going on externally, including the implications of mass staff reductions in the tech industry, a looming recession, a war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, or an imminent storm. But culturally intelligent leaders also think about if and how to address the tragedies and controversies that surround us nonstop.

Do you make a statement about reproductive rights? Do you talk about a political outcome? Do you say something about the latest shooting? Tyre Nichols, the man murdered by Memphis police officers, worked for FedEx. When FedEx's Chief People Officer released this statement, many said it was off pitch. People across the world described the video of Tyre's murder as "horrific and traumatizing"; FedEx described it as "deeply troubling." It's critical to tap the expertise of employee resource groups, DEI leaders, and peers from a diversity of backgrounds to help discern if, when, and what to say in these moments.

No matter what we say, there will be critics. But we want to ensure that we've read the room and communicated authentically from the heart in a way that is congruent with the values of ourselves and our organizations.

How does my position influence the data I'm receiving?

I sometimes ask executives, "Will anyone tell you your joke isn't funny?" Culturally intelligent leaders pay particular attention to the way their position and perceived status may limit the data that ever gets to them. Some personalities and cultures will never tell the boss their joke is dumb much less say that their idea is incomplete. Others will be quick to voice a dissident perspective and as a result, may have a disproportionate level of influence on the leader's thinking.

In addition, none of your team members want to look incompetent or unproductive. They may be withholding information and relevant updates for fear it puts them in a bad light. Create a psychologically save environment where failure is okay and transparency is rewarded so that everyone is working with the most complete information. A culturally intelligent leader doesn't assume they have the full picture. They keep looking for ways to get additional insights.

What does "clarity" look like for the communications I'm reviewing or putting out today?

The more diverse the people you lead, the more you have to adjust the way you communicate. Clear, dynamic, visionary communication is something people everywhere want from their leaders. But culturally intelligent leaders stop to consider how to adapt what and how they communicate to diverse, distributed groups.

The definition of clear, dynamic, visionary communication varies widely depending on who you're leading. For a follower who is risk averse, clarity often means providing a high level of detail and demonstrating how you've considered the potential risks. Others are annoyed with too many details and find a big picture overview much more helpful. Review your communication before releasing it and read it through the lens of both extremes - the "TLDR" vs. "too brief" preferences. Design your communication so that different team members can get the level of detail they need.

The ability to work effectively in today's diverse, digital world is critical for leaders to be successful. Cultural intelligence predicts leader's trustworthiness, sales, decision-making, and myriad other outcomes. But it also provides leaders with the GPS for going through the busyness of everyday by providing prompts for reflection to ensure we stay ahead of the curve and create inclusive, innovative organizations that thrive.

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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.