Cultural intelligence goes deeper than just ‘how to get along’ – it’s vital to success in the global marketplace
By Fatima Durrani Khan
The post-pandemic travel industry is faced with the need to bridge gaps on many levels – in supply chains, in sustainability practices, in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at home, and now, as international business rebounds, in the gap between different peoples, nationalities and cultures. How does this diversity – in thought, lifestyle, belief systems and even business practices – act in our favor? How do we, in a globalized economy, take heed of these differences and leverage them for maximum impact?
Corporate travel managers have been wrestling with environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues for some time. However, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief the immense impact that cultural backdrops have upon human interaction. In other words, when we fail to educate business travelers about the culture of the country they’re traveling to, or even the culture of their colleagues who hail from diverse areas around the planet, we fundamentally miss the opportunity to build deeper relationships. And yet it is these relationships upon which business and industry, commerce and trade, profit and loss – all stand.
Appreciating a teammate’s cultural background doesn’t just set the stage for trust within a department. It is an integral part of travel risk mitigation and employee risk management policy. It shapes the corporation’s global image, and, of course, defines the company’s care for its people. The importance of cultural intelligence (CI) comes at the critical intersection of reducing risks, duty of care, and building successful business relationships in different (and sometimes difficult) markets.
The Missing Piece Cultural intelligence training is important for employees who may be anxious about traveling after a prolonged period of disconnection during the pandemic. It is also well-suited for organizations with a geographically diverse workforce and customer base. While the content can vary, it can also be apropos for incoming foreign hires too, to help them adapt to the local business culture they’ll be operating in.
Decreasing the potential for misunderstandings is an important part of building solid business relationships, whether it’s online exchanges or face to face meetings in a foreign country. Cultural miscues are often a prime culprit in sub-par relationships. Regrettably, although these cultural misunderstandings can be easily avoided, most companies don’t allocate the dollars to provide cultural intelligence training.
While organizations may already provide travelers with security briefings and information on cultural norms for the destination, these are often too simplistic to address the nuances of cross-cultural exchange. Bullet points on communication patterns, dress code, women or LGBTQ specific rules, etiquette, presentation styles, and social interactions are definitely helpful – but don’t dive deep enough.
“Business travelers without cultural awareness can impede their progress by unknowingly creating impediments,” says Will Tate, partner with GoldSpring Consulting. “This can lead to a shallow collaboration, progressing to misunderstandings, all the way to a complete lack of engagement. While mutual goals are agreed upon at the outset, cultural missteps can derail the best intentions,” Tate cautions.
“Often, it’s viewed at surface level – what type of gestures should be used or not, the meaning of certain words or phrases, laws to consider,” explains Katie Virtue, client solutions lead at Festive Road. “While important, there are other ways to conduct culture training that can show more value to the business. Some organizations connect employees internally from different countries, especially if they will be traveling to that destination. We are creating culture guides, starting with top destinations that travelers go to, and asking local employees to add information and input. This is a project comprised of a team from HR, DE&I, Risk and Travel to ensure all viewpoints are captured, including discussions with travelers to understand the needs.”
What’s Your Cultural IQ? Cultural sensitivity is a learned skill, and those who thrive in multi-cultural teams are often highly emotionally intelligent and empathetic. In fact, according to Forbes, empathy is the most important leadership skill.
Using empathy as a gateway in CI trainings, travelers can uncover their unconscious biases, which are “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.” Clearing these biases is a particularly useful practice when it comes to understanding how to function in diverse teams. From Dr. Brené Brown’s implicit bias trainings to the hiring of country-specific culture coaches, companies are looking to add value by delivering an array of CI exercises. “It’s important to teach business travelers the value of understanding different cultures, because it helps them to be more empathetic,” says Virtue. “Business travel gives us a wonderful opportunity to learn about others, connect with people who are different from us and expand our views and thinking. Companies should recognize that they have this social influence by supporting their employees with the right information and prep when going traveling.”
According to John Nicholls, global head of sustainability and ESG at Corporate Travel Management, “As a global travel business, CTM employees are required to complete training on subjects relating to diversity and inclusion, equal opportunity and becoming a diversity, equity and inclusion ally and agent for change. For travel managers, communicating information to employees and providing business travelers with the tools they need to understand key cultural differences, travel requirements, and potential localized risks will be important to achieving maximum outcomes for business travelers and the company’s travel investment.”
However, cultural intelligence trainings is not where cultural literacy ends – it is where it begins. Following the trainings, “it is important that travelers are encouraged or know they have further opportunity to discuss with a manager or the travel team in private, should they have any further concerns,” notes Tonya Hempstead, VP diversity and inclusion at American Express Global Business Travel.
“At Amex GBT, a few measures we have taken to develop our internal growth and intelligence include expanding a new internal ecosystem of inclusion groups, channeling a diverse mix of colleagues to act as a sounding board for leadership. When launching our Global Unconscious Bias Education, we did so in multiple languages, so all of our global team were able to access the training. We also expanded our program of country ambassadors to provide more emphasis and visibility for DE&I initiatives across our company.”
CI: A Leadership Virtue Possessing cultural intelligence can be a competitive advantage, resulting in increased innovation, adaptability, access to new markets and retention of better talent. “People who have developed high cultural intelligence interact more effectively with those outside their own cultures and build strong business relationships. This leads to a positive impact on commercial performance and is why cultural intelligence education should be considered a business priority,” Hempstead explains.
On the flip side, making an assumption that you know what drives someone's decision-making process – and thus holding one-size-fits-all workshops and drills – teeters dangerously on the precipice of arrogance. Not only that, but a lack of cultural sensitivity can contribute to “weak market share, low or negative return on investment, missed opportunities, and reputational damage, as well as legal challenges, productivity losses, expatriate failure, and the premature termination of contracts, joint ventures and partnerships,” according to Sydney-based consultancy Include-Empower.com.
There are two ways to make cultural intelligence training a top business priority, according to Tate: “Insert it in employee reviews and tie it to management compensation. These will ensure these initiatives progress and are valued by the organization. GoldSpring has seen many clients recently incorporate cultural alignment and DE&I into their sourcing process – a very welcome change,” he says.
“Our clients have realized some very important benefits,” Tate continues. “First, this elevates the entire dialogue as it is not formalized into the process, creating more space for listening and discussing the impact on the potential buyer/seller relationship. Next, it heightens the profile for both buyers and sellers within their respective organizations to move forward. Lastly, it fosters closer alignment. One recommendation is to survey your organization including cultural intelligence, specifically when leaders are located in one country and leading many others.”
But what if your company hasn’t caught onto the CI movement yet? Then make it your responsibility to learn, advises Greeley Koch, managing director at 490 Consulting. “I can recall on my first overseas business trip, it was really up to me to research the cultural norms. I took this on myself because I wanted to be successful.”
Think Safe, Think Local One of the additional benefits of increasing employees’ cultural IQ is that it helps them stay safe while traveling. This tops the list when it comes to duty of care. “We believe it is essential for travelers to learn about all aspects of their trip for two key reasons,” states Chris Weedon, VP global sales and services at travel management company GlobalStar. “First, when traveling abroad for their company, in essence, they act as ‘ambassadors’ for both their company and country. As such, polite, professional conduct is non-negotiable and expected from their employers. Secondly, travelers’ own security must be considered; clear guidelines relating to behavior that can be disrespectful, misconstrued or even illegal must be laid out and enforced,” he warns.
“We integrate cultural intelligence into risk management policy through our global network of partners,” Weeden continues. “We take great pride in publishing guides to help travelers understand how to conduct business in different countries. We also work with our clients to ensure their travelers are compliant with respective Bribery and Corruption Acts. It is important that every traveler understands the local requirements surrounding the giving and receiving of gifts, and ensures these important acts are approved by their own internal compliance teams. Helping our clients with this topic is a critical part of our account management values.”
However putting theory into practice can be challenging. “There isn't a gold standard or a benchmark for a ‘best-in-class’ DE&I program,” notes Hansini Sharma, corporate travel practice lead at Acquis Consulting Group. “Understanding why DE&I is important and integrating that into your business DNA takes time, education, conversations that can be uncomfortable, and a commitment to change and grow,” she says.
“Cultural intelligence is seen as a soft skill,” says GlobalStar’s Weeden. “Often it is simply implied that as adults, we don’t need specific training. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we have a high level of cultural awareness, we are able to understand what motivates or drives other people.”
While the topic of cultural literacy continues to evolve in the world of corporate travel, there is no doubt that integrating a diversity of thoughts and cultures into one’s worldview opens up a host of new possibilities. “The importance of understanding the people you are surrounded by and choose to spend your time with is critical beyond a professional context,” Sharma says.
“This provides travelers the opportunity to broaden their education through learning about different cultures other than their own, and the distinct applications of those cultures to their personal and professional lives, and the opportunity to expand their views on the world and subsequently, their views on business strategy – ultimately leading to better business outcomes.”