I was recently asked what I thought were the one or two most important attributes when leading a culturally diverse team. My first thought was that leading a culturally diverse team is not a black and white affair. Nor is leadership in general, but in a culturally diverse setting there is clearly an added layer of complexity. This complexity is underpinned by a genuine blurring of the lines around the standard leadership rules of engagement. Should I be inclusive or directive? Involved or distant? Task or journey focussed? Naturally, being human, there is also the challenge to our own sense of what is right, wrong, acceptable or not acceptable.
So to lead effectively in such an environment I believe requires a couple of things. Firstly, a map that can help you make sense of how to navigate through the mires of what is broadly acceptable. Secondly, it requires a willingness to adopt an almost emergent and unconditional approach to how you lead.
I'll explore these points a little further below:
Knowing how to navigate cultural differences plays out on two levels. Firstly, for behavioural level do’s and don’ts you can pick up a Lonely Planet guide or Google your country of interest. This may be fine for a simple, short exchanges or vacations, but the risk of operating only at this level is stereotyping; a fatal flaw when seeking to build more authentic relationships. The simple example of this is assuming that all Asian countries are the same based on the collectivist nature of society and the power of the group. A little scratch at the surface and you can quickly start to uncover differences in how various countries perceive and deal with uncertainty, perceive time, or the importance of task over relationship. To truly understand the values that motivate the general behavioural patterns in your country of interest, it’s important to move beyond behaviour and understand the ‘why’ that drives behaviours so you can re-shape your overall approach. The Hofstede 6D Cultural model provides one of the few truly global frameworks based on continuous research over the past 50 years. This is more than a two-dimensional road map; it provides a vertical drop into the core cultural dimensions that we all share, and paradoxically, that separate us and can cause so much confusion. By understanding the extent to which your destination country is hierarchical, or the ways in which they view uncertainty or time can dramatically impact the way you choose to engage your colleagues or clients.
Adopt a Relational Leadership Style.
You can build a healthy intercultural style without having knowledge of an intercultural framework such as Hofstede’s by adopting a relational style of leadership. Of course, understanding the cultural values and motivations of the other country will inform and enhance your relational style, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. A relational approach to leadership is one that could be defined as co-creative. Being prepared to step back, suspend judgement and commence your relationships almost on a neutral plane. I like to think of it as being a blank canvas that you are about to fill; but how you fill it will vary depending on where you are and who you are with. In Anglo and Germanic cultures for example, it is about listening, being inquisitive, and observing. Across Asia and the Middle East it is about listening, observing, reading the air and then being respectfully curious. In either case it is more about creating the space to observe and take in all the available evidence before making a decision to act. Beyond this, it is acknowledging that there is a psychological distance that exists between you and the other person, underpinned by values as much as geographical distance. A relational leadership approach is about finding ways to reduce the gap with culturally diverse team members, and the easiest way to do this is to understand ‘who’ it is you are working with or leading. Taking the time to establish rituals that allow for sharing your professional past, your interests and hobbies and your family will go a long way in helping to develop a rapport with your team, irrespective of the culture. More importantly, whilst understanding the cultural map and values of the country is without doubt very useful, this is based on a country norm. But countries are made up of individuals who hold personal values and views, and the person you are leading may well be a cultural outlier. The quickest and easiest way to uncover this aside from completing an assessment of personal cultural preference, is to simply take the time to get to know them. Even in task oriented countries, like the US, Japan, Australia or Germany, failing to take the time to build rapport in the early stages of a relationship will make it difficult to develop a more engaging relationship.
Leading a culturally diverse team requires you to take a diverse approach; to stray from the road most travelled and consider the path least travelled. There is no doubt that there is still the need to manage in a way that the task gets done, but there is an almost equal requirement for paying close attention to how the job gets done. If you can build this bridge, then you are building the foundations for a constructive and more authentic relationship; no matter the difference or distance.
One of the emerging challenges of leadership is the question of how to lead a culturally diverse team. Whether this is as a leader of a global project team, a global or regional business leader or as the leader of a domestic team which is comprised of many different cultures.
The reality is that it isn’t always easy. The other reality is that we can do it, and do it well. In this article, I’ll share some ideas on how we can create a path of least resistance when it comes to building engagement in a culturally diverse team.
1. Change your lens
Probably the most important first step is to remember the quote by Anais Nin; “We don’t see things as they are…we see things as we are.” We can’t help but do this; it’s one of the ways we are wired. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean we can’t take our cultural glasses off and see people and situations through a different lens. In fact this is what I consider to be the starting point for effectively leading a culturally diverse team. It’s not about giving up who you are; rather it’s about finding a neutral place that allows your approach to be more open and empathic. If your team is comprised of multiple ethnicities, this first step is critical and creates a platform for building engagement in a meaningful and targeted manner.
2. Know how to build rapport
Let me clarify. We all know, in varying degrees, how to build rapport. But the way in which we build trust differs greatly between various cultures, and so the way you build rapport and develop relationships with your people will need to reflect this. For example, in the anglo-sphere, trust starts out from a task and competence base, and after we have established that you can do what you said you would do, we then move to getting to know who you are as a person. Throughout Asia, parts of eastern Europe and Sth America though, trust develops in the opposite way, where you need to share ‘who’ you are, and build a more personal rapport with the group you are seeking to work with, before you get on task. Well, in actual fact, the process of sharing and building a rapport is part of being ‘on task’ in these cultures.
If you are leading a culturally diverse team in your own country, and you only apply these first two steps, you will go a long way to building engagement in a more effective manner. Best of all, these steps are easy, and require little effort on your part; just an adjustment in style for each of your team members, just as you would consider adjusting your style to engage more effectively with highly outgoing or more shy or introverted team members.
To help you understand the cultural norms and behaviours of the people in your team, go to https://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html for a full description and links to the underpinning research of Prof Geert Hofstede.
3. Don’t Assume…Allow room for an flexible approach
You could consider this step a bit of a disclaimer…and it is. Simply because we are human, and are the result of how we are raised, where we are raised and the cards we’ve been dealt throughout life. I have coached many global workers over the years who are cultural outliers. That is, they don't quite fit with the cultural norms of their home country. Scandinavians, for example, who display a preference for winning at any cost and not at all displaying the relationship and collaboration oriented values that the Scandinavian region is well known for. And in Australia, a tough culture, I have coached many leaders who display a more tender approach; valuing relationships and being more open to change and changing goals.
What I’m suggesting is that if you apply step one, and commence from a neutral, and empathic position, you will soon see to what extent you need to adjust your rapport building approach (step two) and step three is always top of mind and will allow you to adjust further if appropriate.
The final word...
It is possible to build engagement in culturally diverse teams, and beyond borders. It just takes a little practice and discipline to start from a neutral position and not to introject our perceptions of what are right or wrong ways to behave. We attend many leadership courses and read leadership books that open our eyes to adjusting our approach to suit different working styles and personalities; and this is no different...it's just focusing on cultural style and preferences rather than personality preferences.