How to recruit for Cultural Intelligence

How to recruit for Cultural Intelligence

cultural intelligence
  • Introduction

What is cultural intelligence and how does it affect teams?

  • How to develop the traits needed for cultural intelligence

A deep dive into identified traits of high cultural intelligence

  • The four pillars of agile recruitment

The 4 identified pillars that allow you to become agile in your approach to any situation involving different cultures.

  • The recruitment process

Learn about which questions to apply to the recruitment process to help you recruit for cultural intelligence

  • How to nurture cultural intelligence in the workforce

Culturally dysfunctional teams can have a negative impact on productivity, motivation, retention of staff, morale, recruitment and company collaboration. Cultural Intelligence goes beyond the discussions and actions around inclusive recruitment and sits within the realms of inclusive working environments. Once recruited, everyone in the business needs to feel a sense of belonging and respect. We are not just talking about cross country/racial cultural differences either, but also between offices and sometimes even teams.

The extensive research projects into this area all reveal that having a diverse workforce is not enough to create positive outcomes, you also need an inclusive culture and the two go hand in hand. Add into this cultural agility, which is the ability to understand multiple local contexts and work within them to obtain consistent results and you have a potent mix of skill sets and traits that can help your business thrive.

What traits do you need to be culturally agile?

Culturally intelligent people possess honed cultural metacognition, that is to say they are aware of different cultures, plan to actively learn about and understand them and understand, have knowledge of and control over their own thought processes relating to culture and the impact this has. A team that has this ability requires nurturing and developing however. Research into this area shows that people who have high levels of cultural intelligence are very good at cultural perspective taking or considering how another’s cultural background shaped their behaviour in a given context.

02.  How to develop the traits needed for cultural intelligence

Starting with Cultural Knowledge: this is composed of the “what” (the culture is) and the “how” (the process by which the culture manifests) so for example understanding when people express disagreements with each other would be useful knowledge and how to give feedback to colleagues from different backgrounds. Development of knowledge is best when accompanied by mindfulness around the process – what is unique about a culture, why is it unique, and thinking about when and how you could utilize this knowledge in the future.

Developing cross-cultural skills is the next important element in developing cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence requires a broad spectrum of skills such as:

Relational skills; whether you enjoy talking and interacting with people from other cultures will determine your relational levels.

Being able to tolerate uncertainty. Are you able to tolerate uncertainties and unexpected changes during an intercultural exchange?

Being able to adapt your behaviour to the required cultural norms

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in their shoes

Perceptual acuity: how good you are at reading another person’s feelings and subtle meanings during intercultural interactions.

Experiential learning is the best way to hone these types of skills. Working within the country of origin is a really helpful way to develop a deep understanding of the culture. However most often this is not possible and also multicultural teams span many different cultures and it would be hard to work in each country just to gain this knowledge!

Instead, Cultural Metacognition can be developed through mental exercises. Some examples of these would be analysing situations and observing others when you are interacting with them. Check to see if your message has landed as you wanted and if not use your observations to inform your next move.
After successful (and unsuccessful) cultural interactions reflect on what went well or not. Have a think about whether there were any words or behaviours you misunderstood or didn’t know how to interpret.

Cultural Intelligence within recruitment

03.  The 4 pillars of agile intelligence

According to the Cultural Intelligence Centre most cultural competence programs focus on teaching information about different cultures (think Millennials v’s Boomers for example) or Chinese culture v Scandinavian etc. However they have pinpointed 4 capabilities that if developed would allow you to work effectively and relate well to people from different backgrounds regardless of context.

DRIVE: the curiosity and motivation needed to work well with others.
KNOWLEDGE: Understanding the kinds of differences that describe one group v’s the next without resorting to stereotyping specific cultures.
STRATEGY: How to plan effectively in light of different cultures
ACTION: Then ability to adapt behaviour when the situation requires it

Unpacking the terminology:

DRIVE: This is where a person’s intrinsic motivators affect outcomes. It is the assumption that you are more likely to be effective at working and relating with others who are different to you if you want to be. Levels of drive can be affected by prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. Unconscious bias is inherent in everyone, however with training it is possible to raise awareness and with a little effort you can overcome unconscious bias.

KNOWLEDGE: If you scratch beneath the surface there is a lot more involved than being aware of the variations in language, customs and appearance. Core cultural differences are hidden and involve understanding values, beliefs and assumptions. These hidden elements represent 90% of cultural identity.

Understanding values is key to gaining real insight into cultures. One example could be where there is a cultural emphasis on success. In cultures where this is prevalent everything is affected from economic systems like capitalism to how children are raised, behaviours like assertiveness and ambition and hero worshipping based on those that have accumulated a lot of wealth.


Having a strategy in place to help foster cultural intelligence either personally or within a team might look something like this:  Starting with training or reading about CQ first, being aware of the different backgrounds within the team structure (including a real understanding of your own culture) and also observing cross team differences in working patterns or styles. Providing different ways for people to demonstrate skillsets (see below for information on how innovation may show up for example across different cultural settings). In the example below regarding innovation, perhaps allowing for team members to work holistically over a period of time rather than relying on brainstorming sessions where the individual is honoured for their ideas. Reflect on interactions regularly, how are you reacting to others, are your messages landing as you would like (if not why not)?


Action is to use all the information gathering, learning, self-awareness and strategies in place to be better able to adapt during different cultural interactions.

four pillars of agile intelligence
cultural intelligence

04.  The Recruitment Process

As the Centre for Cultural Intelligence says “to bring about sustained and sustainable inclusive change, you need to implement this new way of thinking and working across all four areas of the business: 1) how you attract people; 2) how you treat and progress your staff; 3) how you create the services and products of your business; and 4) how you attract and treat your users/customers/audience/members. It’s straightforward to describe, but it takes time, effort, and resources to implement. Nevertheless, this is a journey worth taking”.

When setting up a recruitment process it is important to be aware of the impact different cultural backgrounds have on an individual. Recruiters and hiring panels that are culturally intelligent will understand the nuances in a person’s responses to certain questions and how this feeds into the DNA of a business. If you don’t have this skill, talent can be overlooked. For example, when recruiters were hiring for Google they were having a harder time understanding the traits of an innovator from say the Asia Pacific v’s those from Silicon Valley. Cultural intelligence in this instance would have helped them spot the traits and how they show up in different cultures rather than trying to make one size fit all. How does this play out even further? The majority of societies favour collectivism which means people are socialised not to speak up, to blend in and work as a collective as a whole. Many western organisations however might see innovation as primarily about standing out from the crowd and to be discovered during brainstorming sessions where individual ideas are added to a whiteboard. In contrast to this, the collectivism approach may mean that individuals prefer to take their time working as a team to solve a problem or come up with new solutions – two very different approaches and if not understood, could mean individuals who could bring real value to a business are being missed.

How to hire for Cultural Intelligence

Asking questions around this topic will help determine a candidate’s level of cultural intelligence or openness to it. Some examples would be:

Have you had an informal or formal cross-cultural or diversity training?

  • What kinds of research do you do before engaging with a new client from a different region or country? (whether that be a business trip or onboarding a new client)

Tell me about a time when you worked across cultures or in a diverse team? (real world experience is a real indicator of experience – however also listen to the answer and how

  • the person adapted or describes the experience as this will tell you how adaptable and open they are)
  • Describe a time when you adapted your own behaviour to make other people feel comfortable (this will allow you to see whether the candidate is good at spotting when someone else is uncomfortable and choosing the right response for a given situation)

Your hiring Managers or Panels should be trained on cultural intelligence and have a business strategy to hand so that they spot the right talent when it shows up in its very different forms. Unconscious bias training forms part of the programme.

05.  How to nurture cultural intelligence within the workplace

Once a team is trained on cultural intelligence and unconscious bias and the leadership team are on board, change management techniques can be used to help shift cultural perceptions. For cultural change to happen, every change management initiative must include:

A common understanding and vision of change
Clear communication to sell the business case for change
Educating employees about how their work will be affected by the proposed change
Concrete plan to measure whether or not the change is achieving its desired results
Rewards that encourage individuals and groups to take ownership for their new roles and responsibilities

A Deloitte report identified 6 traits of leadership that are important for change management:

Awareness of Bias
Cultural Intelligence

And within those traits they list elements or behaviours that sit beneath each trait:

Commitment – needs personal values and belief in the business case
Highly inclusive leaders are committed to diversity and inclusion because these objectives align with their personal values and because they believe in the business case. Because time and energy are required to effect change management, having personal values around this and a strong belief in the business case for cultural intelligence (sitting within the wider Diversity and inclusion agenda) will help motivate leaders.  A strong sense of fair play was a predictor of inclusive leadership within the research findings.

John Kotter, change management researcher and expert, says, while engaging the minds of individuals through rational arguments is important, people change what they do less becausethey are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.”

To really inspire change within a business, the leadership teams needs to consistently share the business aspirations with the team and work on the how, otherwise it is just paying lip service to the cause.

Inclusive leaders need to call people out when non-inclusive behaviours are demonstrated. They need to be brave enough to challenge the behaviours that encourage homogeneity. Inclusive leaders are very self aware and understand that their organisations have unconscious bias and put policies and procedures in place to mitigate the bias that exists, such as training.

Curious leaders are forever learning and synthesising the perspectives of others. By being curious leaders will propel their business and teams forward. In contrast when leaders have fixed mindsets and/or ideas and belief systems then it limits growth and diversity of thinking, which as we know in turn stifles innovation, productivity, engagement and profitability.

Cultural Intelligence
To affect change within diversity and business wide cultural intelligence, leadership teams need to be culturally intelligent themselves. Therefore training or awareness raising initiatives should be in place to help them use their leadership traits to effectively manage change within the business.

At its core, collaboration is about individuals working together, building on each other’s ideas to produce something new or solve something complex. Inclusive leaders understand that for collaboration amongst diverse teams and individuals to work, individuals need to feel comfortable, personally valued and empowered to contribute. The flow of ideas needs to owned by the team not the leader and this sense of autonomy adds to a stronger flow of collaboration.

For information on how KDR can help you to attract the right candidates to your data, technology or Analytics teams contact us at enquiries@kdrrecruitment.com or call +44(0) 1565 651 422.

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