Cultural Intelligence – the new frontier in the diversity debate?

Cultural Intelligence – the new frontier in the diversity debate?
October 13, 2016 Kieran Moore

With less than four weeks to go until the US Election there is a lot, and I mean a lot, of discussion about gender and about diversity.  In fact, if I were to ask anyone closely observing the presidential race from afar, I am certain we would agree the two topics which have received the most attention in the debate are women and the role of minorities (and their place) in the American society.  Everyone from people with disabilities, Mexicans, the Chinese, Muslims, and women have been discussed and, in some cases, maligned and vilified as part of what can only be described as a grubby campaign.  So, with this as the backdrop, I listened with a great deal of interest to Mai Chen this week, at the Women World Changers Event in Sydney.

Mai Chen is a New Zealand constitutional and administrative law expert, Managing Partner of Chen Palmer Public and Employment Law Specialists, Professor (adjunct) at the University of Auckland School of Law, Director of BNZ and bestselling author. She is Chair of New Zealand Asian Leaders and the Superdiversity Centre for Law, Policy and Business.  And for the purposes of this blog, and the thrust of her presentation, Mai Chen is also a Taiwanese woman.

Mai was raised, in a traditional Chinese way, on the North Island of New Zealand. She was educated in NZ and is married to a Scottish man.  She believes that a true understanding of diversity by those in management means that they develop CI or CQ; a cultural intelligence or cultural quotient.

So, at a conference about Women World Changers, Mai stated the obvious.  In Australia today, and to be honest at most conferences where diversity is discussed, why are we still only talking about gender diversity when 28% of Australians were not born in Australia and 47% of Australians are first or second generation Australians?

Surely, diversity is broader than the subject of men vs women, and yet why is this still the one thing that ends up being discussed?

According to Mai, CQ (as it is defined by Julia Middleton, author of a new book by that name) and one of our speakers) is different from IQ, and is the ability to lead people from cultures other than your own. She believes that the key issue is how to move the cultural intelligence lines in institutions, companies and societies and on boards to maximise the benefits of diversity or, as Middleton says, to give leaders crossing borders a competitive edge.

Mai argued that CQ is a skill that will only become more important as increasing numbers of Australians are born overseas and, “as we push for great diversity in our teams.”

The literature shows that greater diversity around the management and board table gets you better answers, and drives innovation and the bottom line profitability and productivity of an organisation.

And while it was great to hear about male champions of change and all the work that great organisations are doing to celebrate and realise the potential of women, it was encouraging to hear from Mai that diversity (in all its forms) has disrupted us and will continue to do so.

She challenged all business leaders to make sure all of our organisations are culturally capable and truly diverse.

“Companies will need to know how to manage people not born here, speaking multiple languages and having different cultural networks,” she said.  She believes that CQ or CI requires an understanding of your own culture, of what is core to you and of where there is “flex”, which she says is the capacity to accommodate difference. It also requires an understanding of the “knots” in your core values which are based not on judgement, but pre-judgement and bias.

It also requires an understanding of the core and “flex” of those different from you, who you are trying to lead or work with.

So when we, as a nation or as a working Australian, look at ourselves in the mirror and staring back at us we see hundreds of different colours, cultures, languages, ages, different sexual preferences, and socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds – how do we respond?  If we can answer that, then we really are talking about embracing and understanding diversity… all its forms.