What is contextual intelligence, how can it be developed, and why are employers looking for it (for leadership positions) | The NY Journal


Since 1993, Professor Tarun Khanna has been a fellow of the Harvard Business School. He talked about contextual intelligence and why he teaches his students to “think in different directions”

Perhaps without realizing it, Harvard University professor Tarun Khanna gave me the first lesson in what contextual intelligence is before formally beginning the interview, when we were talking about the situation that has caused the pandemic.

As soon as he connected to Zoom, he greeted me in Spanish with a smile, but immediately clarified that, despite speaking several languages, he could only read it.

“The current crisis is making us return to a basic idea,” he told me.

“We have to have enough humility to know the limits of our own expertise and not assume that technical knowledge is the most important thing to make something work.

“I think this is extremely important these days because the way the covid-19 pandemic is going to be faced will be very similar in different countries: social distancing, masks, vaccines and treatments when they are ready.”

“The universal principles are the same. But the way you make them work on the ground it will be very different“.

Knowing the environment is key.

The context

To make his point, he appealed to his contextual knowledge.

People with masks

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The new coronavirus has highlighted the need to understand the context of a place before implementing strategies that respond to universal principles.

“You come from Latin America. Your culture is like Asian cultures: people are very close to each other and our families have very close ties ”.

“You like to hug each other,” he told me.

“Yes, sure,” I replied, making him see how difficult it is for people like me to be alert to the two meter rule.

In other cultures – he reflected – such as the Nordic or even the British, physical proximity is much less because there is the notion of personal space and individuality.

“I grew up in densely populated cities: Bombay, New Delhi and Bangalore,” he said in relation to his native India, a country dramatically affected by the new coronavirus.

“In those cities it is very difficult to establish social distancing“.

As in other countries, where there are places with a large population, living in confined spaces and living in poverty, these conditions must be taken into account before putting into practice any strategy that arises from analytical tools and models to reduce infections.

For example, regarding the way in which covid-19 tests have been carried out in some developing countries, “they have fallen into the same trap of not respecting the idea that you have to be aware of local conditions when you try to implement something ”.

A definition

Since 1993, Khanna has been a professor at Harvard Business School, where he has taught courses on strategy, corporate governance, and international business.

Professor Tarun Khanna

Courtesy: Harvard Business School
Professor Tarun Khanna has studied entrepreneurship for social and economic development in emerging markets.

He is the author of “Trust: Creating the Foundation for Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries”(“ Confidence: Building the Foundation for Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries ”), among other books and scholarly articles.

One of them titled it: “Contextual Intelligence”And was published in 2014 in Harvard Business Review, magazine of the Harvard Business School.

He defined this type of intelligence as “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to a environment different from the one developed“.

In the text, the professor warned that until this type of intelligence was developed “the failure rate of cross-border companies will continue to be high.”

It is not a new term, there are academic references from the mid-80s.

“New situations”

In 2008, Joseph Nye, a professor at the Harvard University School of Government and a pioneer of the theory of soft power or soft power, defined it as: “an intuitive ability that helps a leader to align tactics with objectives to create smart strategies in new situations ”.

Professor Joseph Nye

Rick Friedman / Corbis via Getty Images
Joseph Nye created, together with Robert Keohane, the theory of neoliberalism in international relations, which he exposed in his book “Power and Interdependence.”

This is how he wrote in the article: “Good leadership is deciding how to decide”(“ Good leadership is deciding how to decide ”), published in the newspaper Financial times.

There is another key to contextual intelligence: the ability to interpret new realities.

But there is more: this type of intelligence is built with the help of analytical skills, but also with the knowledge we acquire from our own experiences.

“In some situations, ‘street knowledge’ is much more important to success than ‘school knowledge,'” wrote the influential internationalist.


In that sense, Khanna made me see how difficult it was to give advice to a high-level executive of a tech giant who expressed his desire to enter other markets without losing sight of contextual intelligence.

Split screen with faces

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Due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, virtual meetings are important to continue stimulating the exchange of ideas and knowledge.

And it is that travel restrictions and social distancing measures hinder the way in which knowledge of a particular context is acquired.

“Giving a practical answer to that is a huge challenge for me because the way I enjoy my job is traveling: going to Medellin or Johannesburg, making friends there, talking to people, learning the language. So you understand how a society works. But now how do you do it? It is a challenge for everyone, ”he said.

Although he does not think he has the answer, he invited him to explore the options that exist and to adapt to the new reality: for example, create focus groups and bring them together on a video platform to get their views.

It is essential, he explained, that both the voices of those who specialize in that market and those of other actors in that society are heard.

“Even if your business is technological, ultimately, your technology will only work to change things in a society if it appeals to the man and woman in the street. To do that, you must ask for the opinions, not only of technologists, financial experts and government officials, but also of social activists, teenagers, journalists ”.

The idea is to have a vision as complete as possible through representative samples of the population and take advantage of the resources that exist in the midst of these circumstances.

Zoom focus group conversations “is something that has worked for me in the last few months.”

And it is not only about realizing how good our understanding of the new reality is, but how well we are adapting to it.

“Multiple Thinking Lenses”

“How can we develop contextual intelligence and even improve it?” asked.


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“We have to develop very wide lenses to see society,” says Professor Khanna.

After an interesting explanation about our expectations when entering the higher education system, in which we tend to specialize, he led me – I think without realizing it again – to a reflection: why does one want to develop contextual intelligence?

And while, as you’ll explain later, it’s something employers look for in candidates for leadership positions within organizations, the answer can be as straightforward as: to better understand our realityregardless of what we do, and make the best decisions.

“When I was a child, they always told me: ‘You must study something practical so that you can be an engineer, a doctor, an accountant. Don’t be a philosopher or something like that. ‘ I don’t know if the same will happen in your country ”, he told me with a laugh.

He followed the advice and studied mathematics in the United States. “Something that would allow me, for example, to develop computer programs and earn a living.”

“But I have found that the most difficult problems in society are not those related to hard science, the most complex problems have to do with human behavior and with changing people’s minds ”, he reflected.

How to solve climate change or how to face future pandemics are two examples and, in both cases, you have to think about behaviors and attitudes.

That is precisely what one of the classes he teaches at Harvard is all about, which encourages students to deal with complex problems through “multiple lenses of thought.”

“Of course science is going to help us face the problems,” he said, “but we also have to develop these very wide lenses to see society ”.

And by doing so, you are developing contextual intelligence.

Think in different directions

“I think the most difficult thing to develop is that sensitivity towards attitudes, towards ways of thinking, and I don’t think there is a shortcut to that. I think the best thing to do is expose yourself to very Different types of people“.

People with masks

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Knowing the points of view of people very different from you and seeing how they approach certain problems helps you enrich your vision of reality.

“Ideally, you should be able to meet people you like and do different things and develop a joint vision on how to tackle problems.”

And he told me about another class that he teaches at Harvard and that has turned out to be very popular, in which he seeks to explore how a social problem is solved by people from different disciplines: the analysis that an architect makes is going to be very different from what he does a doctor, an artist or a mathematician.

“We force students to think in different directions”And to consider with what people can connect to make the proposals work.

We must not stop being practical and as a society we have to be respectful of different types of learning styles.

The key, he insisted, is “to expose oneself to different ways of thinking, which can be given by different professional fields, origins or nationalities, gender, socio-economic situation.”

If you are going to start a business

That is why one of his recommendations when starting a business in a developing country is to talk to people in the poorest areas.

People walking on a brain

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Contextual intelligence is not limited to knowing and diagnosing the environment, but must be adapted to the new circumstances that arise.

“Usually nobody asks them anything because people just ignore themHe reflected.

“I tell them,‘ Ok, you want to make this product. So go sit there and see how people react to him. ‘

“Sometimes a medical device that could be very useful to a poor person, he will not use it because he will think that it is probably too expensive and nor touch it, even being cheap ”.

“You really have to break away from that kind of helplessness, learned helplessness.”

“In India, I have seen poor people standing in front of a hospital that was built for them and not entering because they can’t believe it’s for them“.

And that requires contextual intelligence: you have to know that this mentality exists and think about how to change it, “it is a difficult problem, but a very important one.”

When looking for a job

Asked if the people who are in charge of hiring are paying more attention to contextual intelligence, the expert noted:

An employer versus a candidate

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Many years before the novel coronavirus pandemic broke out, contextual intelligence was a requirement when searching for leaders and executives within many organizations.

“Yes, at the senior levels they are. I have sat in boards from large companies that are in the process of hiring someone for a position C-Suite (term used to group high-level managers, such as CEO, director of operations, finance or information) and a lot of attention is paid to the judgments ”.

To issue a very good judgment, you need a high degree of contextual orientation and this becomes important in difficult, ambiguous circumstances, for example, when there is not enough information.

And in those situations of uncertainty within an organization, it is important that contextual intelligence is allied with emotional intelligence:

No sensitivity to the needs of others, pure cognitive analysis and extensive experience may be insufficient for effective leadership, ”Nye wrote.

In the case of mid-level and operational personnel, Khanna believes that less attention is paid to this type of intelligence because employers they often look for skills that are measurable.

For example: if you are looking for a software developer, you measure the efficiency and speed of the software that that candidate develops.

The search for contextual intelligence in applicants for managerial and leadership positions is not something new, it has been a highly valued skill in organizations for years.

Fluency in more than one culture

In fact, in his article, Khanna said that one way companies could acquire contextual intelligence was by hiring “people who were ‘fluent’ in more than one culture.”

Paper Planes

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Both emotional and contextual intelligence are key in the development of a leader.

In a talk he gave in 2013, at Chatham House, titled “Do US Presidents Matter?”(“ Do Presidents of the United States matter? ”), Nye said that contextual intelligence means understanding the culture and being aware that when you move from one company to another or from one country to another, the culture also changes.

It is also about “understanding the distribution of power, understanding the needs of those who follow you. But to understand your relationship with them, that part of the context, shoulds understandte a you same“.

“That’s where emotional intelligence comes in. Emotional intelligence means being able to understand your own emotions, your limitations and your abilities, and how you can use that to relate to other people and get them to follow you. “

Perhaps the desire to cultivate contextual intelligence must go beyond a job expectation.

From her teaching experience, Khanna highlights the value of getting involved in small projects that attract our attentionNot only because of the educational potential they have, but because we can get to know mentors and they can even encourage us to become mentors to someone from another culture, from another context.

“If I were to rewrite that article again, it would not only speak to the mindset of contextual intelligence, but the mindset to develop that mindset.”

You need to want to have it“, He concluded.

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