FEW: You've got quite an impressive background — how did you first get into cultural intelligence?
Sunaina Vij: It's been a long journey. I am actually a linguist and certified trainer. I teach French as a foreign language in India.
When I was a young teacher at Alliance Francaise, I was exposed to this wide range of people. You know, elderly people, young kids and people from different nationalities. It was nice. Then I moved cities and the dynamics of the group changed even more for me. So I was always trying to look for my classroom management strategies and how different groups work together.
There would be times when I would have a 17-year-old — or a kid — in my class, working with 60-year-olds. And when you're working with languages, you need people to talk to each other and get along.
That was my first encounter with different cultures. Culture is not just nationalities — it's all different things. It can be age groups, generations, genders — even organisations have their own culture.
I started reading about this "new age" thing called cross-cultural intelligence competency. And it was much more than knowing how to eat, sit or greet people when you go to another country. It was much deeper than that. That intrigued me. I started learning about it more and incorporating small changes in my classroom set-up. That's how it started.
FEW: How would you describe cultural intelligence?
Sunaina: Very simply, it's a skill. It's how you adapt across cultures.
We all come with different backgrounds and baggage and we need to know how to adapt. It could be when you're working with people across different nationalities or generations. Cultural intelligence is much deeper than just understanding how a different culture works. It's how you adapt to different cultures. You need to know about yourself. We need to understand how to adapt, where to adapt and even why to adapt.
FEW: So it's not just about knowing another culture — it's about knowing yourself?
Sunaina: Exactly. A part of it is understanding — you know — a generation or even a country. But that's just one part. You also need to be aware of who you are and what your culture is.
FEW: How do people build this awareness?
Sunaina: In our program, we use a four-quadrant model: motivation, cognition, metacognition and finally behaviour.
Motivation is about your motivation — we call this your cultural quotient. How willing are you to adapt? We may have the same knowledge but react differently in different situations. Some of us might be really motivated to adapt, others might be more rigid. And you may not even know that you're rigid!
Cognition is what you know about that culture. This could be your organisation's culture. How well do you really understand it? Do we follow hierarchy or is it more egalitarian? Is communication direct or indirect? When we don't know things about our culture, it's very hard to work together. So understanding a culture is part of it, but it's only one part.
Metacognition is about unpacking our own thinking about culture. We need to consciously think about our baggage and biases. We can understand what we know, but what don't we know?
And finally, behaviour is turning the above into action. How are you strategising? You have the knowledge, but how are you going to put this to use?
FEW: What are the benefits for people and organisations?
Sunaina: Productivity goes high, you know how to manage your diverse team members and employees. If I'm not aware of why something is not working in my organisation, I can't make the changes to adapt it.
The reason we have this program for leaders is that there's such a mix of people now. It could be different genders, there are lots of cultural differences. This kind of diversity is here to stay. It's not going anywhere.
FEW: And it's not just about nationalities, either.
Sunaina: No. Of course, that's one side of it, but culture is everything. We all have culture — whether it's when we were born, where we grew up — these things impact everything. They even impact our problem solving and decision making.
Culture is like an iceberg. What you see above the sea level is just 10%. The rest is below the surface. Culture is not just rituals — it's so much more.
As a kid in India, we'd normally be humble. You wouldn't tell people what you do. So when I moved to work with Americans, they wouldn't take my work seriously. And I wouldn't question them.
When I began to understand cultural intelligence, my worldview changed. Now I've worked with over 40 nationalities. Every time I teach a class, I have to adapt and come to some common ground.
FEW: We hear a lot about, say, women speaking less in meetings than men. How do you manage a situation like that?
Sunaina: Setting expectations is really important. If I do something where you feel like your idea isn't being heard, why would you speak up? Or maybe you come from a culture where you wouldn't say something in front of ten people. If I recognise that, I might meet you one on one, instead.
That's where your strategy is. Am I motivated enough to let this woman talk? Do I know the kind of person she is? Which culture does she belong to? What is expected of her? Will she be penalised? Does the culture of my organisation support her, or do I need to change the framework for her?
What is my strategy — am I asking for people to speak up? Or asking for anonymous input? I'm the one who needs to adapt. At first it may seem tedious, but once you know how it works, it works wonderfully.
FEW: What do you hope people understand about cultural intelligence?
Sunaina: I really hope that they understand that it's equally important as any hard skill. Whenever we work we deal with people. You cannot work in isolation. I would really like leaders and people to explore these new future skills and not be restricted to what they know.
The pandemic has taught us so much. We need to be flexible. We need to adapt. We need to stop patting ourselves on the back for being right. We're not right.