7 ways to build cultural intelligence and become a more inclusive leader


By Colette Phillips

There are many culture gaps among the Black, brown, and white experiences that whites often don’t even realize. Cultural intelligence can help us bridge those gaps. Institutions can use cultural intelligence not simply as a communications tool, but also to improve practices and make them more inclusive. 

For instance, it’s no secret that many in the Black community are more comfortable going to African American providers, in part because they don’t believe healthcare is delivered equally to people of color. Indeed, the health disparity between Black people and their white counterparts was exposed by COVID-19 like a forensic MRI. Boston Medical Center has become one of the nation’s leading urban hospitals because its executives, like Dr. Thea L. James, intentionally focus on understanding and addressing the needs of a diverse population. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it helped enable Boston’s underserved populations to receive COVID testing and vaccines in more approachable, nonhospital settings within their own community. 

As a business leader, the more people sense you are culturally intelligent the more willing they will be to open up, allowing you to function more effectively in different settings. And the more you understand how your own culture, experiences, and biases impact how you see the world, the more open you will be to helping others see the same. 

With a little homework and a very open mind, you can improve your cultural IQ and navigate our multicultural landscape with fewer embarrassing gaffes, faux pas, and miscommunications. And you can begin to break down the walls of racism and exclusion. 

Take these seven actions to improve your cultural IQ: 

Know Your Implicit Biases

We need to take a long hard look at ourselves and our social circles and ask, “How might I unintentionally be contributing to the problem?” Are any of my friends of a different culture or religion? How close are they really? If there are any people of color in my neighborhood, are they treated differently than white people? Are their children treated differently—or kept a bit more at a distance? The answers might surprise us. 

Understand Your Privilege . . .

Too often, people think “white privilege” means they didn’t have a hard life growing up. That’s not true—it just means that skin color wasn’t one of the things that contributed to those difficulties. When I walk into a room, people make assumptions about where I grew up—in a housing project or, when they hear my Antiguan accent, a tiny shack on an island. Now a white person may have grown up poor without running water in Appalachia. But when they walk into that same room, nobody makes that assumption. Your skin color affords you certain privilege in society that you may not even realize.

. . . And Leverage It to Lead by Example

Privilege also enables us to be advocates—to model the behavior we want to see for our children. Whether it’s using our position at work to advocate for building a more diverse team or clearly demonstrating our disapproval if someone uses racist tropes in conversation, becoming an influencer in big ways and small helps create a new normal and inspires those in our circles to follow our lead.

Make the Commitment

Becoming an Includer starts with our social and professional networks—the groups we get together with on Friday nights or volunteer with at our children’s schools. Do these groups include culturally diverse people? Are all the people we work with advancing at the same rate? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then we should be mindful about ways to be inclusive and how we can contribute to making meaningful change. For example, invite someone who is culturally different to socialize at a work event, or better yet, invite them to your home. 

7 ways to build cultural intelligence and become a more inclusive leader

Increase Your Interest in Other Cultures

Notwithstanding America’s longstanding history of structural and systemic racism, there are many resources in our local libraries, communities, and online to help passive sympathizers of all stripes become committed, informed allies and Includers. One resource includes Waking Up White by Debby Irving, a white woman from Winchester, Massachusetts, who writes about how, in her forties, a graduate school class awoke her to the realities of her own unconscious bias. Or look online to see what culturally diverse activities or events are happening in your community or state. 

Engage with Culturally Diverse Colleagues or Neighbors

It’s hard to empathize when you haven’t really lived in somebody’s skin or walked in their shoes—to understand, for instance, the stress factor a Black person confronts every time they walk into a room at work, a store, or a classroom. It’s even harder to understand what that would do to everything from our professional advancement to our children’s physical health. So sit down with a colleague or a friend and just talk about it for a bit. You’ll be amazed with what you might learn.

Prepare to Feel Uncomfortable

Here’s the thing: It’s never easy talking about racism. For whites, it feels like guilt or self-flagellation. But for people of color, it can feel like making an excuse—“pulling the race card” when you speak out about getting seated in the back of the restaurant, or being overlooked at work for an earned promotion. When you start talking about racism, everyone gets nervous and fidgets and squirms. But if racism didn’t make us uncomfortable, that would be a real problem. If you are uncomfortable speaking about racism as a white person, imagine what it’s like for a Black person who has to live with this ugliness every waking day of their life until they die. Ultimately, discomfort is a small price to pay for changes that can create a more racially equitable and just society.

The truth is, Includers can and should demonstrate cultural intelligence, but cultural intelligence is not a stand-alone—it intersects with emotional intelligence. In fact, leaders with emotional intelligence often instinctively know they have to create a work environment in which employees feel like they belong. Being self-aware and socially aware, and being able to self-manage as well as manage your relationships, inherently builds a mindset of empathy and the ability to listen and learn that, in turn, lays the groundwork for improving cultural intelligence and building trust.

Fast Company – work-life