Smith: Cultural intelligence makes the world - and workplace - go round

As multinational corporations increasingly invest in emerging economies, it is critical companies have a strategy to build organizational cultural intelligence, writes Latraviette Smith.

July 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation – which in Title VII prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin – sparked an era of diversity training within US corporations that has assumed various iterations over the years.

Initially, in an effort to avoid EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) lawsuits, companies focused primarily on compliance-related training – or the legal rationale. That evolved to training based on recognizing and respecting differences – or the relationship rationale. Over the last decade, both diversity training and marketing have widely made the shift from the "right thing to do" to the "smart thing to do" – or the business rationale. 

Now, as the globalization of business and the PR industry continues to gain momentum across the world, another type of diversity training is necessary to complement the business rationale and understand how diversity outside of US borders impacts business within our borders – and vice versa. That is cultural intelligence. 

PR teams from every part of the world are coming together more frequently on program execution, new business opportunities, and growing capabilities. However, diversity training in the PR industry has not historically been a priority – despite the importance of inclusive workplaces and diversity competence for business growth, recruitment, and retention.

Having led global communications for a large PR firm and global diversity and inclusion for a large corporation, I can attest that the same behaviors that drive success in one’s home country can be detrimental in others. Nothing can be taken for granted across cultures. As multinational corporations increasingly invest in emerging economies, it is critical that companies have a strategy to build organizational cultural intelligence to help them effectively handle culturally based conflicts.  

A few years ago, I read Geert Hofstede’s book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind – Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival. It defines culture as consisting of "the unwritten rules of the social game" and as a learned "collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others." Thus, it is critical for leaders to ensure their teams receive cultural competence training to help them understand the gaps between their own cultures and others, as well to anticipate areas of potential conflict. When cultural sensitivity and intelligence are lacking, consequences include an inability to forge lasting partnerships and relationships, grow market share, close deals, and retain top talent and customers. 

Because culture is learned, corporations and agencies can implement training programs that teach new behaviors enabling employees to produce a culturally appropriate response when interacting cross-culturally – within or outside the US. This cultural acumen can be gained through a phased program of awareness, knowledge, and skills.

As a first step, companies can increase employees’ cultural intelligence by implementing organizational training focused on awareness, which allows employees to recognize where they sit on the cultural continuum versus their counterparts. This level of self-awareness is vital for the cultural dexterity that leaders, managers, and other employees need to effectively move between various cultures and make their communications and problem-solving skills culturally appropriate.

Enhanced culture-specific knowledge should follow the baseline awareness. In business environments, we tend to gravitate to the visible part of a culture – or anything that can be perceived with the five senses. However, the most important aspects of culture – opinions, viewpoints, attitudes, philosophies, values, and convictions – are unseen. Specific training is necessary to understand some of these underlying values that may drive behavior. Numerous corporations have used online training modules and group facilitation to help provide these insights.

Lastly, the acquisition of enriched communication skills completes the training. World-views and ways of conducting business and communicating shift depending on one’s cultural programming. So this final phase should be interactive, allowing employees to improve via in-culture simulation exercises and real-time coaching and feedback.

There is no universal solution for all diversity challenges that arise in the course of conducting business domestically or internationally. However, although the rules are unwritten, like culture, they can certainly be learned.

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency, corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at

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