Why cultural intelligence is a key workplace skill

A person presents to an unseen audience with her two index fingers pointing upwards with a PowerPoint slide in the background with the headings CQ Action and CQ stratgey
Martha Ramroop: ” Cultural intelligence is the difference between success and failure”

Cultural intelligence can be learned, and training for managers is now part of our Emerging Talent Programme. MARSHA RAMROOP explains why developing CQ is crucial in this multicultural world.

Future of London provides training for line managers on our Emerging Talent Programme to help them develop the key workplace skill of cultural intelligence. The programme offers work placements to people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Host organisations say their managers learn a lot about equality and diversity by taking part in the programme. We now equip managers on the programme with “cultural intelligence” tools to help them manage in an inclusive way.

“Cultural intelligence is the capability to work and relate effectively across the differences we find in social and workplace situations,” says Marsha Ramroop. She is founder of CQ training firm, Unheard Voice, which specialises in the built environment sector.

“There have been more than two decades of research into the difference between those who succeed in today’s multicultural world and those that fail. The difference between success and failure is cultural intelligence.”

Marsha Ramroop on the importance of CQ in the built environment sector

Beyond unconscious bias training

Many of us will have done unconscious bias training, which is an established – if controversial – approach to tackling discrimination at work. So how does the concept of cultural intelligence differ?

Put simply, unconscious bias is an innate human characteristic we all possess and cannot prevent. Developing cultural intelligence is a strategy for individuals to manage and mitigate these inherent biases.

Every day, our brains process millions of unconscious decisions shaped by these biases. Most of them are benign, but some decisions and resulting behaviours are not. They can result in discrimination in the workplace.

Common types of bias found in the workplace

  • Affinity bias – tendency to be attracted to people like us
  • Confirmation bias – looking for information that supports pre-existing views
  • Conformity bias – letting views of others from an “in-group” change our mind
  • Performance bias – overestimating abilities of people from high-status groups, and underestimate performance of people from low-status groups

Source: Cultural Intelligence Center training materials

Marsha delivers the training to managers of host organisations providing placements on the Emerging Talent Programme. She explains that we can develop cultural intelligence to help us manage our biases. This reduces the chances of them having a negative impact on others.

After the workshop, Tristan Dewhurst, Development Manager at London Borough of Lambeth, said:

“I know about unconscious bias and we have our own policies, strategies and training around equalities and diversity. However, I think it’s helpful to go further than simply acknowledging problems by asking what practical measures can be taken. One reflection I will take from this training is the management of meetings to provide a space for everyone to speak and for all voices to be heard. ”

Developing inclusive workplace cultures

In the workplace, biases can create a workplace culture that does not feel inclusive. This can lead to discrimination on the basis of legally protected characteristics, including race, gender and disability.

Biases can negatively affect business decisions such hiring and promoting people without putting prevention strategies in place. The CQ training highlights these effects by exploring scenarios that show how unconscious biases can play out in the workplace.

Recruits to the Emerging Talent Programme often say that have not encountered blatant discrimination. But they do talk about “micro-aggressions” and feel there are more barriers to success because they do not have contacts in the sector. Once do get a foot in the door, some ETP recruits say they feel unable to “be themselves” in workplaces that do not feel inclusive.

The third cohort started in April 2024. For the first time we are providing training to line managers to provide them with strategies for managing biases. We see cultural intelligence as a key workplace skill.

“It’s provided an essential framework for how managers and all colleagues can reflect on their own awareness of their own biases and behaviours. We need to really think about all the things that influence how we interact with people on a daily basis,” said Cat Mullan, Head of People at We Made That at our first CQ training day.

“But having that awareness is simply not enough. We’ve got to go beyond that, we’ve got to equip ourselves with the knowledge and challenge our ideas.”

Check your assumptions

In the first workshop delivered by Unheard Voice, Marsha set out strategies for developing cultural intelligence to reduce workplace unfairness. She encourages people to be aware of cultural differences and consciously check their assumptions.

“There is a difference between impact and intention,” Marsha points out. “Just because we didn’t intend something does not mean it can’t have a massive impact on someone else. People talk about micro-aggressions, but they don’t feel micro when you are on the receiving end.”

Participants in the workshop gave examples of unfair treatment and colleagues acting in ways that revealed their biases during the training session. They included male colleagues being assumed to be more senior and people of colour being called on last to speak, if at all.

“My biggest takeaway from the session would be around the biases you experience within meetings,” said Akilah Walton, Group Customer Experience Manager – Central at Places for People.

“I would probably notice them before. But this training session has given me more confidence to challenge people and be an ally for my colleagues by, in a nice way, calling people out. We want everyone to feel respected and included.”

Marsha Ramroop’s top 10 tips for developing cultural intelligence

  • Start with cultural intelligence: Find out about it through culuralq.com and my upcoming book Building Inclusion, available for pre-order now
  • Ask yourself, who are my friends? Apart from family contacts, who are the top 25 people you interact with the most. See if there are any gaps in the demographics, from levels of profession, to age, class and other characteristics. Ask yourself why there may be any gaps, and seek to address them.
  • Lean into your discomfort: you can feel fearful when addressing these issues, but it can be paralysing if you don’t confront it, and change won’t be possible unless you do.
  • Listen and believe: People don’t randomly call-out when they feel discriminated against. I. A’s too difficult to do so, and so issues are raised in the hope they’ll be addressed. So hear what they have to say and don’t make excuses for other people’s behaviours.
  • Prepare for being wrong: We all make mistakes. Acknowledge it, listen to the impact, learn from it, reflect on the learning, and resolve to move forward differently.
  • Grace under pressure: The feedback you receive may make you defensive, try not to be and receive it as a moment of tough learning, that can shape you positively for the future.
  • Know you’re biased: To be human is to be biased, and some biases are unhelpful. Create procedures to mitigate it.
  • Rebel ideas: Is there a group you find profoundly alien to your way of thinking? What can you learn about them that might encourage you to understand why they think and act the way they do? You may not agree with them, but find out what you can still appreciate through demystifying.
  • “Assuming makes an…” We all make assumptions, but pause and think, ‘what might also be happening here?’, ‘what do I need to check?’ Ask others their opinion, so you don’t make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ or ‘me’.
  • Just 10 top tips? To become habitually inclusive requires practice, and then maintenance once you become more proficient in your behaviours. Improve your motivation, knowledge, strategy and action, and you become more effective in all your relationships in life and work.

More about cultural intelligence

Thanks to Places for People for hosting the first CQ workshop for ETP managers. To find out more about the Emerging Talent Programme and Future of London’s other initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion in the built environment sector contact etp@futureoflondon.org.uk.