An interview with Soon Ang, Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Pioneer

Soon Ang’s interest in cross-cultural skills in the workplace began 20 years ago. Today, she is a recognized world authority in Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and global leadership.

Ang pioneered and co-authored Stanford University Press books on Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures and CQ: Developing Cultural Intelligence at Work.  She co-edited the Handbook of Cultural Intelligence. She is the Goh Tjoei Kok Distinguished Chair and Professor in International Management at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and heads the Division of Strategy, Management & Organization at the Nanyang Business School. She is executive director and founded the World’s first center on cultural intelligence and leadership.

Ang recently was named CCL’s Walter F. Ulmer, Jr. Applied Research Award winner and visited CCL’s Greensboro, NC headquarters – more than 15 years after attending the Leadership Development Program (LDP). She met with CCL research, design and program delivery faculty, held a colloquium, and spoke with Leading Effectively. Here, an edited version of the interview

CCL: How do you define cultural intelligence and what are the factors involved?

Ang: Cultural intelligence is a person’s capability to function effectively in situations characterized by cultural differences. By culture, we do mean national culture, but also other types of diversity like age, gender, ethnicity, profession, organization, religion, social-economic status, sexual orientation and others.

We conceptualize cultural intelligence into four factors: Drive, Knowledge, Strategy and Action. Drive is a person’s motivation to cross cultures and it’s really important. Without the energy and willingness to channel the energy, you cannot really attain the knowledge of different cultures, or strengthen awareness, planning and monitoring one’s experience of crossing culture (what we call Strategy), or flex behaviors appropriately (Action) when crossing cultures.

For example, let’s talk about planning – which is part of Strategy. When we are planning for a conversation or meeting, typically we think about the task and the objectives. But how much time do we plan the relationship? We don’t think much about how I can relate to you, who you are, how we can connect at a deeper level, or how to sustain a relationship beyond a very short span of time.

CCL: How did you derive the four factors of cultural intelligence?

Ang:  We grounded our research program on the long history of intelligence, and in particular, Sternberg and Detterman’s theory of intelligence loci. This deductive approach is a unique feature of cultural intelligence. According to Sternberg and Detterman, one consensus among intelligence scholars is that intelligence refers to the capability to adapt effectively to the environment and that different intelligences are needed to adapt to different environments. Hence, cultural intelligence is needed to function effectively in culturally diverse environments.

A second consensus among intelligence scholars is that intelligence resides in different loci within a person. Obviously, there is the biological locus – or the brain. This is the basis for different types of intelligences and we have recently advanced the theoretical foundations for the culturally intelligent brain as well. But then there are also other loci. The mental locus – or the mind includes: a) what one knows, which is the basis for CQ Knowledge; b) how one understands one’s own and other’s cognition, which is the basis for CQ Strategy; and c) because all cognitive and metacognitive basis of intelligence are motivated, mental locus of intelligence also includes the intensity and direction of cognition (the basis for CQ Drive).  Finally, behavioral locus includes the actions a person engages in as a function of mental processes and forms the basis for CQ Action.

CCL: How is cultural intelligence different from emotional intelligence?

Ang:  A burgeoning number of studies show that cultural and emotional intelligence are somewhat related yet clearly distinct. Both emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence include capabilities that facilitate effective interpersonal interactions. Emotional Intelligence has a different theoretical basis, and focuses on detecting and regulating one another’s emotions. Cultural intelligence focuses more broadly on cognition, emotion and intentions of self and others, and explicitly on intercultural interactions.

Importantly, research shows that cultural intelligence is a key predictor of performance when the work context is culturally diverse, whereas emotional intelligence is more important when the work context is more homogeneous.

CCL: Why is cultural intelligence a must-have skill?

Ang:  I talked about how the concept of cultural intelligence arose out of our struggle to understand who would be able to work effectively across cultures. Whereas expatriates were the primary population having to work with other cultures just one to two decades ago, nowadays almost all of us do so on a daily basis. And we may not even recognize that we do so, for example when we talk about types of diversity like age, gender, ethnicity, social-economic status, organization, profession, sexual orientation and others.

Accumulating evidence shows that cultural intelligence predicts key outcomes in the real world. People with higher cultural intelligence make better decisions in intercultural situations, have better job performance, are more effective global leaders, achieve better results in cross-cultural negotiations and sales, build better rapport with people from around the world, are more creative and innovative, tend to build more culturally diverse social networks, and experience less burnout when working globally. Notably, the benefits of cultural intelligence accrue even beyond the effects of experience, cognitive ability, and personality.

This evidence has pushed cultural intelligence from an academic construct to a practical framework for global selection, training and leader development that organizations in over 98 countries have applied.

CCL: How can organizations measure cultural intelligence?

Ang: Initially, we validated a 20-item cultural intelligence scale (CQS) to measure all four factors of cultural intelligence. Intercultural measurement instruments need to demonstrate construct validity and measurement equivalence across cultures. The CQS satisfies both criteria.

We have extended the cultural intelligence measurement in several ways since. First, we introduced the expanded CQS (E-CQS), a 37-item scale that is more diagnostic because it measures sub-dimensions of the four cultural intelligence factors. This report-based measure can be used both as a self-report and an informant-report, in which knowledgeable observers provide ratings.

Second, we have recently developed and validated a series of performance-based measures of cultural intelligence, the intercultural situational judgment test (iSJT). In this test, people respond to a series of high-fidelity multimedia simulations of challenging intercultural situations. Evidence shows that the iSJT is a very promising predictor of performance and interpersonal effectiveness in culturally diverse contexts. For information on the use of these instruments for selection or training, email me at:  I will put you in touch with relevant research scientists at the Center for Leadership and Cultural Intelligence (CLCI).

CCL: How can one develop cultural intelligence?

Ang: This is an important question. In light of the well-documented benefits of cultural intelligence we have devoted considerable research in recent years to understand how such a capability can be developed. The great news is that strong evidence supports the malleability of cultural intelligence.

Research has also shed light on how to best develop complex capabilities such as cultural intelligence. A key insight from this work emphasizes the importance of actual experiences. Nascent research also illuminates different aspects of intercultural experiences that make such experiences more or less developmental. I’ve always been a strong proponent of what CCL has done, which is a behavioral-based approach to leadership development. Similarly, we focus a lot of attention in the development of cultural intelligence on creating developmental experiences that stretch one’s behavioral repertoire.

CCL: In your own career and journey, what has motivated or been most important to you?

Ang:  I’ve seen enough pain or conflict at the workplace. People are tentative about coming to work just because relationships are not as pristine as they want them to be. So much has been focused on efficiency and getting the task done that  the relationship and social harmony is lost.

In Asia, the idea of being in harmony with each other is tacit. It’s something we grew up with; it’s been primed in us. Going into any engagement, we’re trying to make the relationship work. There are no grounds for divorce. The relationship is the most important.

The idea of putting relationships first in the workplace has always been my dream. Hence, the work on cultural intelligence. It’s not just about trying to get the work done – it’s to make sure that when you get the work done the relationship is strengthened and sustained.

CCL: What’s most important for a Western manager who is working cross-culturally to know and do?

Ang: Be aware of time pressure and the insidious cultural differences in time and time orientation in getting things done.  All of us possess an innate knowledge of how to get along with others – on how to behave and an instinctive sense of right and wrong with regards to creating and sustaining harmonious interpersonal relationships.  So long as we have time, we have the ability to pay attention, communicate and build relationships even across cultures. But with time pressure, cultural imprints take over and all things go awry. So, create situations or leadership development moments when the time pressure is really strong and see how you behave. Learn how you cope and work on it. Like a basketball player who has one second left to shoot the basket, you have to learn to be in the zone under time pressure.

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