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  • Writer's pictureElena Rossi


Updated: Feb 18, 2020

A long time has passed since the establishment of the notion of Intelligence Quotient or IQ. Coined in early 1900, by a German professor called William Stern, IQ was for over half a century the only measurement tool for individual's intelligence. It turns out that the ability to score high in the IQ test is highly influenced by culture and academic instruction. Scientists realised it cannot be solely used as the only indicator to judge someone’s cognitive abilities.


In 1983 an American developmental psychologist Howard Gardener introduced the idea of 'multiple intelligences' based on the two main humans’ activities: the relation with our ‘self-being’ and the relation with ‘the others’. Interpersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people and the intrapersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand oneself, to appreciate one's feelings, fears and motivations.

By late 1980s, the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others had come to be considered as important – and sometimes more - than IQ and labelled under the term of Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

This new concept quickly gained popularity, as if able to encapsulate a deeper meaning in our evolutionary journey. In business, as well as in society at large, it became a valued element connected to progress and innovation. The very nature of being a human means we are operating within societies and therefore, the way we interact with each other is an indicator of how positive and thriving a specific environment, country, company can be.


Of late, another concept has come to the mix: Cultural Intelligence or CQ.

In our globalised society, one of the most positive aspects is the possibility of connecting with people from different cultures at the speed of a 'click'. Before internet-technology, I remember as a young girl, being fascinated by far-away places. I was intrigued to learn about the broad variety of different types of people, about the different costumes and languages. Despite we all shared the same planet, it felt we were worlds apart.

Today, diversity and multi-culturalism are a reality in most societies however, I wonder: how well are we equipped to understand and live alongside people from different cultures? And how are we really celebrating diversity against the uniformities promoted by the globalised economy?

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is comparable to emotional intelligence (EQ), in the sense that it triggers the same deep emotional human connections. However CQ goes beyond that, it helps us to grasp what makes us human and, at the same time, what makes each of us different from one another, teasing out a person’s and group’s behaviour, social norms and constructs.


The first time I have heard about CQ it was when I met Dara Connolly, CEO of Common Purpose (CP) Ireland.

He explained how, their programs bring together professionals from all industries to become better leaders within their organisations and communities, through a shared understanding of societal constructs. The captivating CP Founder, Julia Middleton, explains that CQ is “how good you are with people that are completely different to you”. She goes on elucidating the concepts of ‘core’ and ‘flex’, as the starting points of the learning journey.

Our ‘core’ is essentially the combination of the attributes that make us who we are, our values, identity and behaviours. It is important to reflect on these aspects, as they define us deeply and, generally-speaking, are the ones we find the hardest to change.

Our ‘flex’ attributes are the aspects of ourselves we are open to adapt to circumstances.

CQ happens when we are able to understand the relationship between ‘core’ and ‘flex’ within ourselves and other people. In the CQ Paradox, the other elements coming into play are: the natural interest in other people, the determination about yourself, the stamina for the endless journey and to stand-up for cultural intolerance.


I have been concerned with CQ since I have emigrated from my home country, Italy.

When I first arrived in Ireland, I had very little mastering of the English language, so I had to make concerted efforts to understand my foster-country traditions. It wasn’t only a question of language of course: the way the Irish socialised, their social norms and especially the approach to conflict-resolution, were all aspects dramatically different from my Italian upbringing.

Today, reflecting on the reasons why I find myself happily integrated in the Irish society, I find they resonate with those described in the CQ Paradox: I have a strong interest in the people I come across, I care to connect with my community in a positive way, I have built the stamina to overcome setbacks and I became broadminded towards diversity. I went through the process of understanding what ‘my core’ values are and at the same time, I have learned to compromise with ‘my flex’, to appreciate the cultural variances coming my way. This 'conscious learning' has resulted in a wonderful journey of personal growth and I feel I became a better person, as a result of it.

In my professional career, I have mainly worked for corporations, a world characterised by multiculturalism. My global teams have always been spread across countries and I have been exposed to different cultures and nationalities, on a daily basis. In fact, I consider this one of the most enjoyable aspects of working for multinationals, and I picked up some great friendships on the way.

Companies too have their own inside-cultures, which are often very distinctive. Anyone joining a new company spends the first few weeks deciphering corporate dynamics and unless the new recruit finds a good mentor to help navigating through the corporate web, this can prove more challenging than expected. Interestingly, a HBR article on this subject-matter points out that “those who fully embody the habits and norms of their native culture may be the most alien when they enter a culture not their own".

I found the HBR description of this phenomenon particularly interesting, as I have witnessed it multiple times. The lack of cultural awareness, particularly in the context of dealing with colleagues using different languages and idioms, highlighted the inability of some people to change behaviours and adapt to those culturally different. These people felt challenged in a deep, visceral way and naturally gravitated towards those more similar to them. I guess their native cultural norms constituted part of their 'core' aspects, and they perceived to be socially threaten, almost at an unconscious level.

I have completed two Common Purpose programs and I have been amazed at how, a series of experiential exercises, thinking groups, exposure to a variety of companies and leaders can teach so much. These programs truly empower anyone open to it, providing the invaluable opportunity to develop new understandings of themselves and how to positively effect others.


These are some of the key components I have learned about cultural intelligence:

1. Active Listening.

This might sound an obvious one when dealing with other people, but the listening process is not only made of sounds but body-language too.

Observing how people communicate can provide plenty of clues regarding their beliefs and cultural traditions that can be very different from ours.

2. Tolerance.

Being open to different perspectives can be tricky especially in a working environment. Allowing others to express themselves, the way they feel most comfortable, it can be extremely insightful, especially if we are inserting ourselves in a foreign reality.

3. Humour.

Humour should be used with caution as it is something rather culturally-subjective, however, a smile or a laugh in the appropriate moment can release tension, defuse situations and lighten the spirits.

4. Patience.

When we face difficult situations or perhaps things go at a slower/faster pace that we are not accustomed to, it is easy to lose patience and to say/do things 'out of the heat' of the moment. Taking a break or simply allowing the course of action to happen can bring a new appreciation of the people and cultures we encounter.

5. Integrity.

Our 'core' is made out of a learning-system we have developed throughout our life.

Expressing our 'core' values in a respectful way can provide a measure for people

of different cultures to connect in a deep way, to understand why things are important for us and in the case of disagreement, to create healthy boundaries.

6. Curiosity.

Always keep a curious mind and never take things for granted. Some call this the 'beginner's mind'.This will foster a positive attitude that will come across in every situation.

Dealing with others will become a truly enjoyable journey of discovery which will provide a

learning opportunity for personal and professional growth.

If interested to learn more about some of the topics mentioned in this blog check:

Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Goleman's book: Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ

● “Cultural Intelligence” - Julia Middleton, Founder and CEO, Common Purpose

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