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As the workplace transforms owing to innovations brought about by new technology and the acceleration of digital transformation, strengthening human relations has become critical if we are to succeed. To achieve this, we must take a step back and reintroduce cultural intelligence (CQ) to foster harmonious workplaces that will help cultivate the inclusion of women in leadership positions .

Businesses value performance and are driven by targets and results because that is how organisations become profitable and sustainable. Therefore there might be impatience and even resistance to incorporating cultural intelligence. Leaders need to see CQ as a strategic imperative that enables us to work better together, more productively and harmoniously. It helps us to be more inclusive and creates a sense of acceptance for people. 

CQ is not new, nor is it unique to South Africa. It has been around for decades and became urgent when the world was globalising, particularly when large multinationals were moving staff across geographies with leaders from the global North often imposing their hegemonic ideologies in the new territories, leading to conflict.

Sadly, CQ is not sufficiently in use; we recently saw Ryan Air concluding that proficiency in Afrikaans determined that a person was indeed of South African descent. The airline neglected that the country has 11 official languages, and there was clearly no research on the country’s dark history with the language. 

While we celebrate our nation’s rich diversity, we need to correct the falsehood that Eurocentric culture is more acceptable in the workplace and expect other cultures to assimilate to a culture that has been deemed superior. 

When our cultural diversity is embraced in a harmonious environment, we feel a sense of belonging, and everyone becomes an insider despite their differences. 

Lack of cultural intelligence can get in the way of a team’s performance and result in disengagement. It can hurt, demotivate and strain relationships when colleagues feel disrespected, undervalued, dismissed and unimportant.

These feelings can negatively impact creativity, innovation, and productivity. 

We don’t expect managers to spend long hours in harmonious sessions still, we expect them to understand the importance of culture in business. Teams can develop through simple practices that are informed by curiosity, asking the right questions and purposefully noting the cultural uniqueness of members and bringing those into everyday engagements. 

Mindfulness is the capacity to pay attention to cues in cross-cultural situations. For example when you propose an idea during a meeting and the other person keeps silent. In some cultural traditions, silence could mean consent. However, in others it simply means that the person is reflecting and probably requires more information before discussing the idea further. In such a scenario it is important to be au fait with cultural nuances because we make decisions based on knowledge, awareness, and mindfulness. 


We see the world as we are and not as it is. Our view of the world has been ingrained in us through how we have been socialised at home, in school, in our communities, by our history and the media. Together, these factors make us ethnocentric and influence our personal views. 

Cultural intelligence requires you to be curious and to never assume you are wasting time or have nothing to contribute. You cannot know someone’s culture or their way of being when you don’t spend time with them and expose yourself to them and their way of life, such as how they conduct funeral rites and rituals.

Take a polarising issue like polygamy. Someone who grew up in a community where polygamy was practiced probably accepts and sees value in it. However, if you were raised differently, the first instinct might be to reject, criticise and undermine polygamy. Yet, a response steeped in cultural intelligence would be to listen to a different perspective. This does not mean you accept or will even practice polygamy, but simply requires you to adjust your behaviour and understand that they are bringing something different. This could improve your interactions and how you relate with that person moving forward.

The outcome of an environment steeped in cultural intelligence is innovation. 

It requires the kind of leadership that says together we are capable of much more and while this is not going to be easy to achieve, if we endeavor to learn we will do better.  


The world has never been more divided or polarised than it is now. We face complexities and rapid change like never before. We have influential leaders in politics, business, and popular culture who thrive from dividing society and profit from spreading false messages, insinuating that being different is bad. This practice has given rise to the #MeToo and the #BlackLivesMatter movements as a push back from this unjust treatment. 

Diversity is complex, can also slow us down and open us up to conflict and misunderstandings. As a solution, intercultural intelligence creates harmony, inclusion, and a sense of belonging. It is an antidote that allows us to create spaces for common understanding, lessen divisions, and helps us to create a new social order. 

Leaders must have cultural intelligence now more than ever because the workforce is different and requires leaders who can connect emotionally, and socially and understand what is needed for the workplace to be successful, competitive, and inclusive. 

In instances where leaders are not connected, it leads to mass resignations. These tell us that when employees feel excluded at work, they leave. 

During the symbolic Women’s Month, we need to understand why it is urgent for women to have an equal place within organisations: as transformative agents. 

The paucity of women in executive positions shows us that women continue to be marginalised. They bring a unique set of talents and their value in the workplace is undisputed. We know that when women are on boards, the companies they serve perform better on profit and loss metrics. 

Women executives remain in the minority in South Africa, accounting for 5% of the country’s CEOs, according to a 2021 Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) research, despite the fact that women are the majority in the country and are in charge of most purchasing decisions.   

If we had better cultural intelligence and conceived women’s identities more broadly and in a more complex way, then women would have the opportunity to lead differently. 

Women are cultural beings who exist within a cultural context. They carry the greater burden and responsibility of raising children, building families, taking care of the home and the elderly. At the same time, they have the responsibility to become professionals and contribute to the workforce. However, cultural perceptions and practices have been misapplied to exclude them and flatten their experience and identity in the workplace. Women’s exclusion in the workplace is structural, intentional and has been designed to have the exact consequences we are currently faced with. 

Yet what is so notable about women is that they are more likely to be attuned to cultural intelligence because it is linked to emotional intelligence. Self-awareness, understanding of self and how I affect others, how I am in relationships, how I manage myself and others, are key characteristics of cultural intelligence.  

Leaders must bring women to the table and be curious enough to learn from them about their unique experiences. They must not assume that every woman’s experience is the same and that women are a homogenous group. Instead, they must focus on their individual uniqueness. Owing to its immense benefits, cultural intelligence is not a ‘nice to have’ nor a soft skill but a critical strategic business imperative.  DM/BM

Author: Dr Dorothy Ndletyana is a Senior Lecturer specialising in Change Leadership at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). She is an ICF-accredited Associate, Certified Coach & New Ventures West Certified Integral Coach.




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