Culturally intelligent leadership

Written by
Changeboard Team

02 Feb 2011

02 Feb 2011 • by Changeboard Team

BRIC forecast

These countries have been described as the four largest high-growth emerging economies.

Forecasts suggest that by 2050 the combined economies of the BRICs could eclipse the combined economies of the current richest countries of the world.

Many societies are becoming increasingly multicultural and most companies have employees from many differing cultural backgrounds; races, nationalities, religions and ages. Managing a mix of people like this needs a different approach than ever before to ensure effective performance and cooperation.

In today's globalising world,’ cultural intelligent leadership’ is a necessary tool for every manager who deals with diverse teams of employees, customers, partners, competitors, government, and other business players. To lead effectively, you must act with a local touch but global reach.

How does this impact HR?

It sounds somewhat trite to say this, but leaders at all levels must adopt an approach that acknowledges this multicultural environment and work with it for the betterment of the organisation. By that I mean we should address our notions of how we manage our people. We can no longer dismiss how things are done elsewhere in the world.

Our ideas of leading and managing teams are based on methods that have a common bias towards Western- or European-influenced ways of working. Although the style may differ from person to person, the focus remains the same; very driven, goal-oriented, time-bound, self-reliant with ‘speak up’ values. These can be very disconcerting for many cultures where speaking-up is seen as disrespectful and self-reliance as being selfish or immature and time is not so scarce.

Intercultural competence

In terms of ‘deadlines’ and adhering to schedules, it takes a lot of intercultural competence from a foreign executive on overseas assignments to be able to respect local culture and, at the same time, to align team work in a way that the ‘international time orientation’ is kept. In cultures where time is used for building relationships not work processes, learning to communicate better becomes essential.

Unfortunately, most English-speaking nations have little concept of ‘cross-cultural differences’. The world speaks English and Business has been constructed in our own image. We do, we act and we think business in our cultural mode, and expect the world to do the same. Therefore, when things go wrong repeatedly we tend to look for many sorts of causes, but never that there is a cultural mismatch.

In fact, cultural diversity can be the cause of many underlying problems in the workplace that most people fail to recognise stem from that.

Compounding the problem, most firms consider ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ as much more of a compliance issue than as a sound strategy for developing business growth. Competition for talent is fierce and the demographics of the workforce are rapidly changing. Taking a ‘compliance issue’ approach to your business will seriously inhibit your competitive edge not only at home, but also when ‘going international’. Helping your people develop culturally intelligent leadership will reap dividends: building on brand reputation, increasing customer retention and adding to the bottom-line.

Understanding cultural differences

Culture is the lens through which you view the world. Your culture is like wearing a pair of spectacles that becomes central to what you see, how you make sense of what you see, and how you express yourself.

Our cultural programming shapes our behaviour. Most importantly it helps us decide what is ‘normal’ in our eyes. It is the perceived deviation by other cultures from our version of normality that causes problems or miscommunication.

People tend to think of the world as an increasingly homogenous place but it is really a collection of worlds within worlds, with definite boundaries and edges. In short, ‘us’ and ‘them’ still live on. Thinking otherwise means we reduce the world to a ‘melting pot’ where individual and community identities become blurred.

If you want to get on in business across the globe, it takes a combination of good self-awareness, cross-cultural knowledge and cultural sensitivity to be effective. Most importantly, studies have revealed that the really successful people have personal attributes such as openness, flexibility and resilience. If you are one of these types you are well on your way to developing cultural intelligent leadership; understanding that the world is more like a mixed salad where each ingredient is valued for its own flavour and texture.

More than ever before there is a real chance to develop better understanding and see what creative approaches and innovations can transgress culture and difference to make a positive impact on our organisations.

Be flexible and open

Already they have a greater overall engagement with the social web than users in the West; their use of online services and internet buying is greater than our own. Users are going online in ever increasing numbers and using it in more diverse ways than Westerners who established their behaviour patterns when the technology was limited. 

‘Greasing the wheels’ is a practiced business activity that probably gives us our biggest headache. The black market economy in Russia is a huge industry, estimated to be the equivalent of the GDP of Denmark – some US $300 billion. The Russian phrase ‘nel’zya, no mozhno’ (prohibited, but possible) sums up the attitude of getting around the ‘official system’ where “nothing is legal, but everything is possible”. There is a pseudo legitimacy in “blat,” the term for ‘the informal exchange of favours,’ which is the practice of using personal networks and informal contacts to obtain goods and services in short supply and to find a way around formal procedures. It is grounded in personal relationships and in access to public resources – and has become all pervasive.

Many of the BRIC countries are collectivist in nature and more tightly woven than Eurocentric cultures. As a result, they cherish relationships and harmony. To maintain these elements, people behave politely, act in a socially desirable manner and respect others. Brazilians, for example, cannot understand foreigners’ ‘obsession’ to keep to deadlines since there are always other more important things to worry about such as people’s ability to be flexible, gentle and tolerant towards ‘un-expectable’ troubles; they prioritise keeping good relationships and time is just a detail. In their eyes, at worst, we are seen to be hard, rigid, inflexible and unreasonable.

Cultural mannerisms

In Brazil, India and China you will have to emphasize that you value people and relationships over business. This is to the extent that changing your negotiating team mid-stream can jeopardize the entire contract and is a major breach of business protocol. Communication, especially in China, is very indirect where they have many ways to say ‘Yes’ most of which mean ‘No!’

A student friend of mine, while staying with a Chinese family, would state her intention of going to the town only to be told that ‘the bus will not come’. It took her a while to learn that the family were ‘suggesting’ she should not go. By communicating in this manner, the family were ‘giving her face’ or face-saving by not refusing her permission directly. They were saying ‘No’ but maintaining harmony, minimising conflict and keeping everyone’s honour.

How should you conduct yourself?

So, how can organisations approach emerging markets, research, network, build partnerships, and get to understand the cultural differences that will generate success?

The most important step is to be aware of the differences in meaning and importance of ways in which other cultures conduct business, especially in relation to: time, punctuality and deadlines; how contracts are negotiated and what they stand for; the way meetings are conducted and the reasons to hold them; how communication patterns differ (direct, frank exchange of views or indirect, vague, hinting) and issues around ‘face’ saving and giving. See my article on ‘How to do better business abroad’.

It does not mean you should accept and agree with them. It is however, advisable to understand the social values behind these differences as well as to find constructive ways to react to them. If you find yourself getting too irritated and not being able to function as well as you would like, professional help is at hand in the form of intercultural business training & coaching which helps you modify your expectations to a more realistic level for the specific cultures you are working with.

Successful businesses are those that teach employees to accept small differences and work together for the greater good of the organisation. In culturally intelligent leadership, one step towards minimising conflict is encouraging people to deepen their relationship with colleagues and view each other as part of the same family. It makes them feel a responsibility in finding a way to coexist. This is exactly how more collectivist cultures, such as the BRICs, work.

Willingness to listen and learn

There is no ‘quick fix’ to developing cultural intelligent leadership in your workforce. For the organisation, it takes is a firm commitment from the top to leverage cultural diversity with strategic intent to help build brand reputation, competitive advantage, employee satisfaction and successful overseas operations. For the individual, it takes a desire to learn and a willingness to listen and learn, contrast and compare ourselves with others. The more we understand the cultural dimension around us, the greater our chance of hitting home with the message we want to give.