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Lucy Butters

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Cultural Intelligence expert

Lucy Butters is a specialist in developing Cultural Intelligence which supports international ambition and inclusion in our universities. 

She founded her business, Elembee ltd, in 2010 following a career with the British Council and research and teaching roles at the universities of Aberdeen and Hertfordshire.

‘It always comes back to people and nurturing their capability’. This is the motivation for Lucy Butters, a Cultural Intelligence coach and facilitator. But what does it mean to be ‘culturally intelligent’ and what could a culturally intelligent higher education system look like?

Lucy talks me through why we need to ask more questions, more often, and find greater compassion for one another – not just across national cultures but across cultural differences such as generations too. If we can do this well, we can unlock potential and work together better to solve the big problems facing our world.

Louise: How would you describe Cultural Intelligence?

Lucy: In its broadest sense, Cultural Intelligence is what makes us effective at working across cultures. It’s about taking a wide perspective and thinking from a values base, from a performance base and thinking through how what you do can help you understand other people better. There’s no end to being ‘culturally intelligent’ as it’s the journey to your end result, whether it’s fulfilling your strategy, achieving better representation from under underrepresented groups, or enabling better feedback between colleagues.

Louise: Where did the idea of Cultural Intelligence come from?

You need to use both your emotional and intellectual intelligence and be comfortable adapting behaviours and communications styles to help you work effectively with cultural diversity; knowledge itself is not enough.”

Lucy: So Cultural Intelligence has been with us for a couple of decades. Back in 2000, Professor Soon Ang, who’s now one of the world’s authorities, became involved in discussions about the Millennium bug, which at the time was feared to cause the world’s – or at least the world’s computers – to implode. She found that the researchers who’d come together to solve this problem – people from the top of their fields from across the world – were largely ineffective. Agreements were made, but they weren’t understood and they weren’t followed through in the same way in different parts of the world. Along with Christopher Earley (then at London Business School), Professor Ang began to research why this was the case and together they found that there were four common capabilities that are consistently high in people who are effective at working across cultures. These are drive, knowledge, strategy and action. You need to use both your emotional and intellectual intelligence and be comfortable adapting behaviours and communications styles to help you work effectively with cultural diversity; knowledge itself is not enough.

Louise: The world seems to be getting smaller all the time, does this mean that Cultural Intelligence is becoming more important? 

Lucy: I think we’re living in a much more interconnected world and there’s an enormous amount of people on the move. This creates lots of different challenges because even if you’re not moving it requires adaptation.  We need compassion for each other, whether we’re adapting because we are moving or staying put and things are changing around us. Without compassion, we risk not having the conversations that matter and that help us find the solutions that are so important, across generations as well as across nationalities. An obvious example we need to work together on is climate change. To find the solutions we need to work effectively and globally.

Louise: Thinking about higher education specifically which is where you’ve worked quite a bit, is there anything specific that we need to consider in terms of Cultural Diversity?

Lucy: Well we’ve got lots of data and research that tell us where the Cultural Intelligence gaps are. For example, there’s a real need for better inclusion. We know that if you’re a black undergraduate student you’re much more likely not to finish your degree than if you’re white, and if you’re a woman you’re much less likely to work in a senior leadership position. Lots of people say its history and how we chose to look at it, but often it’s what we choose not to look at. There’s a real need for widening access and improvement for underrepresented groups of students and staff, and we need a different approach that overcomes siloed working with diversity and inclusion over here, and internationalisation over there, and instead bring these together and put Cultural Intelligence at the heart of all of it.

Louise: Despite this challenge, do you think universities have an opportunity to role model what good Cultural Intelligence looks like?

We always need to be mindful of who’s present, or not, and ask questions like, ‘how do we recruit and promote well?‘”

Lucy: Yes, absolutely. We always need to be mindful of who’s present, or not, and ask questions like, ‘how do we recruit and promote well?’. How we ask questions and how we are thoughtful about the differences across cultures or generationally all has an impact on how we determine people’s experiences whilst working or studying at university.

Louise: Can we make Cultural Intelligence a ‘habit’? Or are there habits that enable us to be better at it?

Lucy: In terms of the habits there’s something important about just slowing down and moving from solving to questioning when we’re talking about our relationships with people. When people interrupt and quickly try to fix a problem so that we can move on, what we actually need to do is go into a questioning and exploring mode. It slows things down so that we can really understand each other, and it enables other things to move much quicker because we’ve reduced the likelihood of misunderstandings happening and causing issues along the way.

This issue came to the fore whilst I was working with the British Council and leading on a transformative leadership programme, which had originally been developed and run across Sub Saharan Africa, and I was developing to run in a number of Arab countries and in the UK. Feedback from participants about the behaviour of colleagues from the UK was that they didn’t really listen, but they always tried to solve things. I now notice this more in myself and the UK. 

Giving people the time they need in the context that you’re in, and then moving into a question framework where you ask, ‘what is it you’re really saying’ and ‘what questions would really help me to understand’ allows us to connect better, and helps us give something of ourselves to the process to.

Louise: Even though we know that having an open mind and being open to questions is good, do you think people struggle with this?

Instead of seeing questions as a hinderance, they enable us to motivate people and encourage them to reflect, and give their own insight into whatever we’re working on.”

Lucy: We’re often encouraged to be in transmit mode. It goes right back to how we’re taught to do things, so when we’re at school or at home it’s all about providing the answer; that’s what’s valued here. This comes from good intentions, but we’ve made it normal even though it doesn’t always work well. It would be more useful for us to embrace the idea that we don’t always know the answers and that we can’t know what’s going on in other people’s heads. Instead of seeing questions as a hinderance, they enable us to motivate people and encourage them to reflect, and give their own insight into whatever we’re working on.

Louise: Playing devil’s advocate, is there a risk that Cultural Intelligence will become a bit of a tick box exercise?

Lucy: What’s important is to think about Cultural Intelligence within the framework of your own, or your organisations, values. So it’s about linking Culturally Intelligent behaviours and practices to the values and strategic aspirations of the organisation. For individuals, embracing the idea of not knowing and really taking it to heart is critical. To prevent it becoming a ‘tick box’ exercise – which there’s always a risk of – you need to avoid it being seen or experienced as ‘training’, and instead embrace it as a way of being.

One of the challenges for higher education is that we work in a knowledge sector. I was at a conference earlier this year, where Dr David Livermore (President of the Cultural Intelligence Center) talked about how we’re discovering that people who are really high in knowledge about culture but weaker on the other capabilities of Cultural Intelligence can be the most difficult to reach in terms of challenging behaviours or thinking. But the good news is we can’t get to the end of being culturally intelligent, because we’re talking about working with people. If we can stay curious, we can always build stronger relationships, wherever they are.

Louise: What do you think higher education would look like if we embedded good practices around Cultural Intelligence?

Lucy: What I would hope is that universities would see much better feedback on student and staff happiness and satisfaction. From teaching, to how people interact with each other. It always comes back to people and nurturing their capability, beyond whether they fit into one diversity box or another. For me this is quite personal, because when I was younger I really fitted into school, but my younger brother didn’t and we were quite certain this happened because I’m white and he’s half Pakistani. It meant that the interactions that we experienced on a day-to-day level were totally different, and it had a profound impact on us.

Our education system needs to have places where people can thrive and be their best, and where people who could be great are able to become great. There are some brilliant solutions that are coming up from young people, like things to help clean the oceans yet, these solutions are often not taken seriously because they come from young people. If we put this example through the lens of being Culturally Intelligent, we would see potential, not an age bracket.

Louise: You mentioned curiosity earlier. How do you stay curious, and how can we help others to be curious too?

Lucy: When I first studied Cultural Intelligence I was confident that my own CQ Drive (the motivation to want to be effective working with diversity) would be high, but in doing the assessment I came out only as so-so and this got me reflecting very differently on why this was the case. What I realised was that I’d become familiar with my habits, and stopped trying new things. With this awareness, I got the motivation to try different things; for example, every month I try and cook something that I’ve never done before. I also love being around people and I’m always curious about people too. When I started working for myself, I realised I missed meeting people so I built in the practice of meeting someone that I don’t know every month for a coffee.

Thinking about encouraging curiosity in others, it comes down to questions again. Asking people what they’ve done that’s different, or what they could do that’s different and sharing a little of what you’ve done – even if the end result wasn’t great – helps. And just being enthusiastic about the challenge of doing something new and the excitement of it all helps.

Louise: We’ve talked about Cultural Intelligence and values, but who are the people, or what are the values, that are fundamental to your own practice?

There’s no one way to become more culturally intelligent, which makes it really achievable and doable.”

Lucy: I love working with people and watching them develop, and for me there’s a sense that if we’re developing Cultural Intelligence we’re contributing to enhancing things rather than making them worse. The idea of a better world and contributing positively really keeps me grounded. I also have a very strong sense of equality. It doesn’t matter the trappings we come in, we’re all human. There’s no one way to become more culturally intelligent, which makes it really achievable and doable.

Louise: I’d love to know why you keep doing what you do? How do you see your purpose?

Lucy: There’s lots of things that feed into this, ranging from the very mundane about how I organise my life, to what works and then what gives me a sense of purpose. But I feel such a commitment to doing this, especially when there’s so few people in the UK that are certified in this field. There’s so much more that we could do. If you look at the States they’ve been investing in this for a number of years and it’s resulting in much better diversity (for organisations who commit to this area). I feel that I am on a bit of a mission to try and raise the awareness of what Cultural Intelligence can do and I think it’s a really important field for the age that we’re living in. So I keep coming back to that and a feeling that this is worthwhile.

Louise: Finally, if you had one piece of advice for a leader, what would it be?

Lucy: It’s about listening and having compassion. These two feed into a mindset of being Culturally Intelligent. Taking time, being curious, listening, and then sowing all of what you’ve learned with an intention to do what’s best.


With thanks to Lucy for sharing her insights, advice and story. Find out more about Lucy and her work at Elembee Ltd.

If you’d like to find out more about Cultural Intelligence, Lucy is running a workshop on Transforming Inclusion with Cultural Intelligence on Thursday 5 March in Glasgow.

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