Cognitive intelligence is never far from success, whether you have it yourself or surround yourself with people who have it. And you can't forget the ever-popular emotional intelligence, which ensures the strong relationships and interactions that strong business is built on, and which has enjoyed the spotlight as soft skills outpace hard skills in desirability. You also should have success intelligence, which relates to the ability set and accomplish goals. But none of these types of intelligence will get you as far as cultural intelligence can, according to Phil Shawe, CEO of translation company TransPerfect.

What is cultural intelligence, anyway?

As Shawe defines it, cultural intelligence or cultural quotient (CQ) is a rating of your ability to work successfully in lots of different cultures. This includes an understanding of

  • the way people communicate with each other across cultures,
  • variations of business protocols and etiquette, and
  • legal and economical frameworks that vary from location to location.

"Those with good CQ and understand that different groups communicate in different ways, and that a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works," says Shawe. "They study and questions their own culture, as well as others they will interact with. This allows them to adapt their verbal approach, non-verbal cues and method of doing business."

Shawe adds that emotional and social intelligence both rely on empathy--the better you understand somebody, the better you can communicate with them. But CQ takes this to the next level, helping you understand emotion and social intelligence in the cultural context you're in.

As an example, Shawe points to evaluating a product name or tagline. In the United States, you'd probably expect some negative feedback from a focus group and take it into consideration if it were present. But in China, people generally shy away from giving negative feedback in groups. If you've got your CQ sense tingling, you can acknowledge this variance and pick the right research method for both target markets.

Why you need to hone your cultural intelligence as soon as possible

In a word, globalization.

"As we all live and work in an increasingly globalized world, we all share more resources, communicate across more boundaries and interact more broadly than ever before," Shawe asserts. "Without good CQ, it is easy for meaning to get lost, and in a worst-case scenario, to be misconstrued. Conversely, good CQ allows us to leave interactions satisfied that the other party understood our intent, and that we understood theirs. It keeps us from embarrassment or being offensive, but more importantly allows us to accomplish our business objectives while appreciating the richness of cultural diversity."

How to maximize your own cultural intelligence

Fortunately, increasing your CQ is largely a matter of interaction and observation--you simply have to expose yourself to people from other backgrounds and regions, and to look objectively at what they do and believe. This doesn't necessarily have to mean traveling to every country under the sun, although first-hand, in-person experience is a fantastic way to deep dive quickly. Even asking respectful questions of the new hire on your team or taking some current events, anthropology and history classes can open your eyes. And smart business professionals almost always do this type of protocol study before they travel to ensure they give the right message face-to-face.

"Find entry points into other cultures," Shawe advises. "Read, watch and question behaviors that seem similar across a culture. Seek to understand nuances, social status, language, traditions and trends."

The one pitfall to be wary of

While cultural intelligence rightfully deserves some lauding, Shawe does acknowledge one pretty rough edge.

"It can feel easier to assign a cultural reason for something, than to realize [that] it is purely an individual reaction. CQ, when misinterpreted and misused, could lead to stereotyping. It's important to carefully consider individual reasons for behavior, in addition to cultural ones."

So while it's critical to see the forest for the trees, you need to see that you've got some oaks, pine, maple and dozens of other species all thriving together in that forest. And even within one species, you're going to have differences. So when in doubt, ask the person you're interacting with what's appropriate, and hallow their experience for the uniqueness it holds. In return for these vulnerable inquiries, you'll get the information you want and need, and you'll be seen as a courteous learner worth being around, too.