Cultural Intelligence – Keys to Working with Diversity


Since I was a child, I have pursued “cultural intelligence.”  No, I didn’t call it that at the time, but that is when I began developing an appreciation and affection for cultural and linguistic differences.

58260025Later, as an ESL instructor, I came to recognize and appreciate measures of individual difference – personality, learning styles, talents and abilities.

These observations and experiences brought me to a point where I operate with an unusual tension:

  • The more I meet people from around the world, the more I realize we are all really the same – same hopes, fears, dreams, and needs.
  • The more I work with individuals, the more I realize we are unique; I see each individual as a culture of one – there are no two people who are identical on all points (even identical twins will have differing personalities or interests!).

Most of my adult life has been learning to operate within this tension.

In today’s globalized and interconnected world, we are often in the position of working with people who seem to have little in common with us.  

IMG_0899Cultural differences abound, even between people who come from the same country and speak the same language!  Today, living in the Washington, DC, area, I see cultural differences all the time: East Coast vs. West Coast, public sector vs. private sector, Democrats vs. Republicans.

In fact, the longer I observe cultural differences, the more I have begun to see each person as “a culture of one”!

If we are all so very different from each other, how can we possibly work together?

I believe the most effective leaders today demonstrate the ability to read cultural differences and navigate those differences to bring successful outcomes for all involved.

I believe the Apostle Paul figured this out.  In First Corinthians 9:19-23, he describes his approach:

… I am free of obligations to all people. And, even though no one (except Jesus) owns me, I have become a slave by my own free will to everyone in hopes that I would gather more believers. When around Jews, I emphasize my Jewishness in order to win them over. When around those who live strictly under the law, I live by its regulations—even though I have a different perspective on the law now—in order to win them over. In the same way, I’ve made a life outside the law to gather those who live outside the law (although I personally abide by and live under the Anointed One’s law). I’ve been broken, lost, depressed, oppressed, and weak that I might find favor and gain the weak. I’m flexible, adaptable, and able to do and be whatever is needed for all kinds of people so that in the end I can use every means at my disposal to offer them salvation. I do it all for the gospel and for the hope that I may participate with everyone who is blessed by the proclamation of the good news. (The Voice version)

This level of dedication to reaching people where they are is not an easy thing to attain!

  • It requires not only knowledge but also maturity and character development.
  • It demands selflessness and a focus on others.
  • It engages emotional intelligence and interpersonal wisdom.

For the past several years, I’ve been working to develop my cultural intelligence for the sake of my students and clients, enabling me to work with diverse groups to achieve individual and group goals.  I have learned some hard lessons, but I’ve also gained invaluable knowledge about effective intercultural leadership.