“Leading with cultural intelligence” will mean something very different post-COVID lockdown from what it meant six months ago. Six months ago, when we spoke about “cultural intelligence,” we focussed heavily on understanding how each person’s culture influences how s/he interacts with the world—and then adapting our own leadership practices to celebrate these differences. We were living in a richly multicultural and globalised society, and we were looking forward to an ongoing cross-pollination of ideas with people from different countries and backgrounds.

We have, understandably, had to pivot our expectations to reflect the realities of global lockdowns, border closings, and immigration restrictions. Our world, for at least the foreseeable future, will experience significantly less global movement as we battle this virus. But the lack of global movement doesn’t mean that cultural intelligence has become less important. On the contrary, leading with cultural intelligence is more important now than it has ever been before. 

But our definition of cultural intelligence must now expand to include an awareness of—and intelligence about—trauma and the impact it can have on us, our teams, and our economic ecosystems. To encourage a healthy social and economic regeneration after lockdown, we must lead, build, encourage, and develop with this trauma-awareness in mind.

This is especially true for those of us working in Tech—and particularly for those of us who work in client-facing and/or customer-touching roles. We must recognise that our work will literally influence the way the world heals through and experiences this crisis. 

Tech holds our society together. In the past four months, we have witnessed this reality on a scale we could not have imagined. When lockdowns and self-imposed isolations became the norm around the globe, people relied on technology for their personal and professional interactions and kept connected virtually, despite being physically distanced from friends, loved ones, and colleagues. 

Now that we are moving into the next stages of this lockdown and crisis, people need to trust Tech to work, and they need to be able to trust those of us who are building, marketing, and selling Tech solutions to be honest. Our customers need us to connect with them and understand the reality of their experience before we attempt to redirect them to our products, services, or platforms. They need to trust us to honour their experience and the uniqueness of it without attempting to tell them that everything will be fine once they’ve bought, downloaded, or subscribed to our solution. 

As Tech leaders, we must embrace the weight of this privilege and responsibility and respond accordingly, with a deep understanding of and compassion for people’s unique experiences throughout this crisis. And we must do this in a way that builds trust and establishes felt psychological safety—both for our customers and within our teams. 

Creating psychological safety means creating environments where cognitive friction can flourish in a healthy, productive way. Psychological safety, as Shane Snow wrote recently, is not about comfort; it’s about knowing that you have the freedom to share yourself and your ideas in an honest and authentic way without fear of retaliation or retribution. As we collectively come out of lockdown and begin to navigate our so-called “new normal,” establishing psychological safety within our teams will be a vital step toward extending that out to our clients and customers in the coming months. 

We can begin by recognising and appreciating each person’s unique experience of lockdown. We can then recognise that each team member returns to the “new normal” with a new and very valuable perspective. Each of these new perspectives will help shape how we and our teams can interact with each other and our clients/customers in a more sensitive and compassionate way, one that acknowledges each person’s unique response to our “new normal” culture. We can do this, in part, by advocating for and facilitating open and ongoing dialogues across the sector to encourage an honest reflection on the experience. This will give is the data we need to pivot, adjust, and adapt with agility, no matter the circumstance.

Post-COVID, leading with cultural intelligence will mean understanding what has happened at the individual, societal, cultural, and economic levels on a global scale so that we can lead with empathy and compassion. We will need to adjust, pivot, and adapt daily—sometimes hourly—as more information becomes available and we learn more about the lasting physical, psychological, and economic impacts the virus has caused. Leading effectively in the face of such uncertainty will mean embracing paradox, like recognising the level of trauma many people have experienced this year whilst simultaneously recognising that, for some, the lockdown has provided a much-needed respite from the stressors of pre-COVID daily life. 

As leaders, we must be aware of each person’s experience so we can provide proper support. And we must also remember to honour our own experience and reach out for the support we need as individuals so we can effectively lead, motivate, and encourage our teams. If we do not hold an awareness of trauma and the potential need for collective, cultural healing in our minds over the next few months as we reopen our economies and instead choose to focus on leveraging consumers’ trauma to convince them to buy our products, we risk Gaslighting an entire generation by rewriting the memories of the past few months, as Julio Vincent Gambuto argues in his widely read articles about the crisis (here and here).

As we lead ourselves, our teams, and our communities through these coming weeks and months, it will be useful to keep in mind the analogy so beautifully presented in recent weeks: We are not all in the same boat. We are all facing different parts of the same storm, each of us in our own unique boat. To expand on this idea, each pair or group of friends, colleagues, families, lovers, etc. is experiencing a unique separation as well, despite the fact that the circumstances look similar. 

We are sharing an experience, yet experiencing it in radically unique ways. And for many, this experience has been deeply traumatic. Each person’s experience is as valid as it is unique, and we must resist the urge to consider our teams as homogenous entities. The COVID crisis has presented us with a near-global exposure to trauma, and each of us has responded differently. Our responses have been influenced by our past and current circumstances and experiences. These experiences will continue to shape our responses to and interactions with the crisis and the return to our “new normal.”

For Tech leaders, our collective challenge this year will be to hold these realities in mind as we design, develop, and distribute our products, platforms, services, and solutions to the various challenges our customers will be facing globally. We have such an opportunity to do widespread social good, both by creating products that improve people’s lives and by keeping the engine of the economy moving. It is imperative that we reflect on this reality now so that we are prepared to make decisions quickly and responsibly in the coming months.

It is a privilege to stand alongside each of you in this industry, and I truly look forward to sharing our skills, experiences, and strengths so we can lead the world through this journey to healing, resilience, and hope.

Devon Geary

Devon Geary

Devon is the Tech for Good Community Lead at Birmingham Tech and an advocate for all things technology related across the West Midlands. In 2019 Devon created This Is Our Brum, a cross-sector community committed to driving positive social change and launched it during Birmingham Tech Week.

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