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Highly Engaged Workplaces Have Culturally Intelligent Leadership

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

By Workplace Peace Institute

Reimagining organizations by devising an innovative model that encourages productive, fulfilled, and engaged employees.

We are experiencing a watershed moment in the American workplace, as people leave their jobs in search of employment opportunities that offer mutual care and respect. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 25 million people left their jobs between January and July of 2021. In a recent NPR article, Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere, noted that the pandemic changed us.

We have changed. Work has changed. The way we think about time and space has changed. Workers now crave the flexibility given to them in the pandemic — which had previously been unattainable. —Tsedal Neeley, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere

The pandemic was hard on us all. And it also proved that we can do hard things together. Workplace Peace Institute research found that humans come together and collaborate in times of crisis. This ability to collaborate sustained organizations and employees throughout the Covid-19 crisis. However, the pandemic also illuminated disparities that exist in the workplace among employees of color and women of all racial and ethnic identity groups that negatively influenced employee engagement. These disparities point to a lack of cultural intelligence among leadership, which is a factor in the underlying causes of the Great Resignation.

Our research shows that to successfully engage employees in a post-pandemic environment, organizational leaders will need to be intentional about cultivating dignity among employees, specifically employees of color and women across all racial and ethnic groups. This will require an intentional focus on growing the individual and collective cultural intelligence (CQ) of an organization.

Read More: Cultivating dignity in the workplace requires that leaders are proficient in four core leadership intelligences: Social Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Intelligence, and Dignity Intelligence.

In his book Mediation in a Time of Crisis (GoodMedia Press, 2021), author Kenneth Cloke explains that there are myriad ways of defining culture, but that it is broadly:

… how we approach our environment, how we group and separate from one another, how food is produced and consumed, how gender is perceived and displayed, how space and boundaries are established, how time is defined and used, how learning takes place, how people play and laugh, how goods are made, used, exchanged, and distributed.

Culture is how we perceive and process reality. It is shared beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and customs. It is a way of life, a method for differentiating and integrating, a set of lessons on how to satisfy needs and navigate environments. It is an accumulation of successful adaptations, and agreed upon meanings of symbols, events, sensations, behaviors, and communications. It is what everyone knows, and no one talks about.

Culture is shaped beneath the surface, at a level deeper than conscious attention, where we seek to avoid the uncertainty and chaos of conflict; to alleviate, resolve, and learn from the fear and pain they provoke; to encourage cohesion, collaboration, and community — all of which require significant conflict resolution skills.

This image illustrates the basic human needs and dignity needs inhere to all people.
Basic Human Needs

The ability to experience cultural security is a basic human need that directly correlates to our ability to experience other basic human needs in the workplace, such as: psychological safety, belonging, participation, and personal fulfillment. There is also a direct correlation between the actualization of basic human needs in the workplace and employees’ ability to be involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. This is why cultural intelligence is one of the four leadership intelligences critical to creating a highly engaged workplace.

According to P. Christopher Earley, professor and chair of the department of organizational behavior at London Business School, and Elaine Mosakowski, professor of management at the University of Colorado at Boulder,

Cultural intelligence is an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.

This ability to have a nuanced understanding of the gestures, behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and customs of coworkers has never been more important as our workplaces become increasingly diverse.

A lack of cultural intelligence in the workplace leads to a lack of authenticity from employees. When employees do not experience cultural security, they do not experience the psychological safety necessary to bring their full, authentic selves to the workplace. This leads to experiences of exclusion and lack of belonging. The behaviors that result from a low CQ are often experienced as microaggressions.

Workplace Peace Institute research found that during the pandemic, employees who were able to work from home experienced a significant increase in their ability to experience authenticity.

Forty percent of remote study participants expressed an increased authenticity among coworkers, including their ability to be themselves in the workplace. When we looked at this data by racial and ethnic identity groups, we saw that Asian-American remote workers and African American remote workers expressed a 50 percent increase in their ability to experience authenticity.

There has been a significant amount of reporting that attributes this increase in authenticity by remote workers of color to the reduced exposure to microaggressions in the in-office work environment.

In his book, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence, psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as, “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” In other words, a lack of cultural intelligence leads to an increase in harm to people who are outside of the organization’s dominant culture. Here in the U.S., too often that means that employees of color, individuals who identify as LGTBQIA+, and individuals who are differently abled are more apt to experience the microaggressions associated with low CQ in leadership.

Working from home has allowed employees to be more relaxed, physically comfortable, and able to exercise control over their environment in such a way that supports authenticity. One African American research participant noted that in addition to working from home, explicit work her organization was doing around racial equity during the pandemic also supported her ability to be her authentic self.

Cultural intelligence is related to emotional intelligence, but it is more expansive in terms of understanding the nuances of human behavior. Earley and Mosakowski differentiate between cultural intelligence and emotional intelligence in a Harvard Business Review article. “A person with high emotional intelligence grasps what makes us human and at the same time what makes each of us different from one another. A person with high cultural intelligence can somehow tease out of a person’s or group’s behavior those features that would be true of all people and all groups, those peculiar to this person or this group, and those that are neither universal nor idiosyncratic. The vast realm that lies between those two poles is culture.”

Cultural intelligence competencies are both heart and mind skills that are not inherent to all people but that all people can learn them. If organizational leaders are to transform the Great Resignation into the Great Reimagined Workplace, increasing cultural intelligence among leadership will be essential.

Workplace Peace Institute Leadership Academy provides leaders with the knowledge of human behavior, communication skills, and conflict resolution competencies to create highly engaged workplaces where dignity is consistently honored. If you are ready to reimagine your workplace, contact Workplace Peace Institute today for a complimentary consultation.


Workplace Peace Institute is an organizational systems design and research firm that brings a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to organizational development. We support small to mid-sized businesses in optimizing employee engagement, maximizing organizational productivity, and improving profitability by infusing human security and dignity as foundational attributes of their business model.


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