The not so cultural intelligent colleague – a true story

You are a sales representative for a large global software company in the United Kingdom. You consider yourself cultural intelligent as you have worked in many countries around the world in many different industries. Imagine you going to a sales meeting with a potential new promising client. You will bring your colleague along with you to the meeting because she possesses valuable industry knowledge and has experience from previous projects. You are well prepared. You know your products fit the client’s need.  The person who you are going to have the meeting with is an Italian engineer, who is in charge of this project. You know your price is right and you know you have a good reputation. So you feel confident about the meeting and our colleague can easily cover all the more technical questions the client might have. You are already thinking about how to celebrate this new deal – Champagne with colleagues.

You arrive at the meeting a bit too late and as you are about to apologise for the delay. Your colleague interrupts you and says it is ok to be late when you have meetings with Italians as they are always late themselves. You are chocked and you can see your host is something between confused and angry. You finally manage to express your apologies as you walk towards the meeting room from the reception. But you can already feel that this meeting is going in the wrong direction. Your colleague keeps talking about her vacation in Italy  – how dreadful and inefficient the service was at the restaurants.

Minutes later when you do your sales presentation you can see that your host is not even paying attention and when you are finished there are no questions or comments. You are escorted to the exit of the building without a word – except your colleagues who keep talking about all the great features of your product and that she will start working on the agreement. At the door, your colleague gives your host her business card. On your way out to the parking lot, you can see that he throws your colleague’s business card in the bin at the reception before going back to his office.

Why can things like these even happen?

The above story is true and was told to us (Gugin) by the sales representative when we facilitated a number of cultural intelligence workshops for her company. We were brought in because they wanted to avoid things like the above ever to happen again. But why did it happen in the first place? The sales representative’s colleague wasn’t deliberately trying to obstruct the deal. Unfortunately, we couldn’t interview her as she got fired shortly after this incident as there had been several other incidents like this with her. The sales representative told us that her ex-colleague didn’t feel she was doing anything wrong. She felt,  that by telling the anecdotes about her vacation in Italy she would bond better with the Italian guy with whom they were going to have a meeting. She also said that even the Italians were complaining about the ineffective service at the restaurants so she didn’t feel there was anything wrong in telling an Italian in a foreign country.

This incident happened because she had no cultural intelligence. She assumed that everything she found amusing everybody else would find amusing as well. Furthermore, she was only focused on talking and paid no attention to what was being said (or not said in this case) and she didn’t pay any attention to the non-verbal communication.

Unfortunately, this happens a lot and I am almost certain that you – the reader – can recall stories in the same category from either your professional or private life.

From an HR and business perspective, it is far from sufficient to make sure that people have the proper professional qualifications. They also need to possess very good interpersonal skills and a high level of cultural intelligence. Are they not cultural intelligent then there is a very high risk of having them obstructing valuable deals and business opportunities with all the best intentions.

How can we check if our colleagues are cultural intelligent?

Cultural Intelligence is about entertaining a thought or an idea without having to accept it. It is quite challenging but very rewarding once you master it. When you are cultural intelligent you also know and acknowledge that there are as many realities as there are human being. There are not 2 human being that shares the same set of realities. This also means that the “I am right – you are wrong” approach soon will make you very lonely.

So you have to look for signs that a person accepts that there is more than one (equally valuable) reality. Another characteristic of cultural intelligent people is that they tend to focus more on the commonalities than the differences when they meet new people. And they don’t stereotype!

To test that capability you can use the image below that we have created.

Cultural intelligence test

Are you Cultural Intelligent?







Ask a person what he or she sees first. Give them only a couple of seconds to answer. It is about getting the first impression. If they see 3 different colours first their brain focuses on the differences before the commonalities. If they see 3 squares first then their brain focuses on the commonalities before the differences.

This will give you a brief indication of how cultural intelligent a person is – but only a glimpse.  In the Gugin workshops, we use several different tools to assess cultural intelligence. The one above is entertaining too and easy to use to test your colleagues, friends and family for fun.

You can learn more about our corporate cultural intelligence workshops here

You can learn more about our 12 half-day training modules here. The can be put together to fit your needs

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