"Ritual is necessary for us to know anything."
- Ken Kesey
The ability to engage in rituals, or create rituals when there are none, is probably one of the most powerful aspects of building engagement, and yet it is probably one of the least understood and used aspects of creating successful teams, functions and organisations.
Experience tells us that it is the thoughtful application of rituals that gives us an unconditional starting point from which to:
The examples below demonstrate the ways in which rituals can be used to contribute to sustainable business relationships and positively impact the way we do our work.
Rituals in On Boarding
Make the important organisational rituals explicit. Normally, we stumble our way through guessing what the accepted rituals may be until we think we have it, or someone is kind enough to steer us in the right direction. From an on boarding perspective, review your processes to see whether you allow for organisational rituals to be easily understood. After all, when we are new to an organisation it is the observing and practice of rituals unique to our new organisation that helps us fit in.
Rituals and Leadership
In leadership, the role of rituals in building employee engagement and healthy relationships can never be underestimated. When getting to know your people, it is often advised to get some one on one time. The one on one meeting process is a good way to start a relationship. Keeping them going, and creating a ritualistic experience is absolutely vital to maintaining individual relationships. Throughout the week things can get hectic and you may not always be available; but if your people know that come rain, hail or shine they have their weekly one on one with you, then you are in a good place.
In a virtual team setting this is just as important, even if more effort is required to create and maintain the rituals. One of my most effective leaders was based in New Jersey whilst I was in Sydney…half a world away, and yet I knew that he was available each week, at the same time whether I had something to talk about or not.
Virtual or not, the little things such as the morning coffee is a ritual that allows for simple connection. Acknowledge that those moments of ritual become cornerstone moments in your leadership relationship. Even in regular small doses, they signal your availability, and allow your team to experience you as a person, and not just their leader.
Rituals and the Expatriate
For the expatriate who is seeking to fit into their host country, the role of rituals becomes even more important. By seeking to understand the cultural rituals, the expatriate is able to pick up valuable cues that will aid their assimilation. For example, an Australian working in France may think that taking lunch with their colleagues isn’t such a big deal, and opt to take lunch at their desk instead. By doing this, they are missing out on an important ritual, one that is sacred for many Latin based cultures. That is; lunch is a social engagement and a means for connecting with colleagues – mostly without discussing work. Then there is the other ritual that follows lunch – taking coffee together. This is where work is discussed, but often with colleagues from other parts of the office. This ritual allows for connection, gossip and sharing of what is ‘really’ happening in the company. Beyond these examples; at the most basic level, the act of seeking to understand and participate in local rituals is a valuable and simple way for the expatriate to build connections quickly. It demonstrates an open-mindedness and a deep level of respect, and in most cases, escalates the assimilation of the expatriate into the new team.
Rituals and Team Building
The best teams often have a number of rituals that they don’t even realise. They are the moments that act like glue and bind the team together. I once led a team that was considered by onlookers as high performing, punching above their weight, and above all – tight. We were often operating in that place of high trust. When asked about this over the years, my reflections often come back to the fact that we created many ritualistic moments that reflected the heart and soul of rituals – acknowledgment and recognition. We took the time when I joined the team to create many moments of connection that became rituals. Some of them already existed; others we built on. As a team we often took coffee together, and regular morning teas or lunches taken together, celebrated birthdays and other special events in the lives of the team members.
Underpinning this were our non-negotiable rituals of one on one meetings and weekly team meetings. Built into our one on ones and team meetings was a sub-ritual of allowing for more personal exchanges and sharing before moving onto business. Individually they may not seem like significant events. Collectively these rituals became a larger element, representative of what it meant to be a member of (and 'belong' to) our team.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we weren’t busy; our team ran a national help-desk as well as delivered a full schedule of training and coaching for employees around the country. This is where I personally learnt the importance of discipline and valuing the time spent acknowledging ‘who’ is in the team. And since then, the teams I have seen perform consistently above and beyond as an engaged unit have this same value placed on the discipline of maintaining healthy rituals.
Rituals and Mergers & Acquisitions
Another place for the effective integration of rituals is in the M&A process. It is critical that the companies involved establish rapport quickly, and it is here that rituals can speed up the process of connection and integration. Seeking to understand existing rituals will provide significant insight into to the culture of the other organisation. The M&A may look great on paper, but if the way cultural rituals are enacted in each company are poles apart then you have something to think about. Remember that rituals are behavioural and driven by a deeper level of collective belief around what’s important and what’s not important to be doing; and these aren’t so easy to shift. This is more easily seen in cross-cultural M&A’s where the national culture differences are often quite noticeable. In domestic situations it is looking at the subtleties. Does anyone get allocated the best car parks? Do people start early and finish late? Who gets involved early in projects – finance or R&D? Often, factors such as this may be unspoken, but deeply ingrained rituals that give you insight to the differences that may need to be dealt with in the transition period.
The final word
The creative use of rituals can open the door for a deeper level of connection. This shouldn’t be surprising; as a human race we have been engaging in rituals for a long time to help distinguish one group from another and create an unspoken language that helps to define who we are and who we accept. When we engage in rituals different to our own, or what we are used to, it isn’t about compromising our values or ways of doing things. We are however signalling that we are interested in the person or group sitting opposite us. We are acknowledging who they are, what they bring to the relationship, and that we want them to participate in the relationship. At all levels of an organisation, this is beating heart of employee engagement, and business to business success. So why not use it as a thoughtful lever for greater success?
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When it comes to fostering engagement, the role of a leader is central, and for leaders themselves, it can seem quite overwhelming. We know that the level of engagement is the result of a number of factors, two of which are leader-critical. They are the ability of your leaders to understand and articulate your:
Let’s explore these ideas in brief.
Whether you are a first time supervisor or a seasoned leader, your ability to make sense of where the company is headed and wrap your head around the strategy and objectives as they relate to your level of leadership is a pivotal activity when it comes to building engagement in your teams. The reason for this is simple. People like to know where they are going and what they are investing their energy in. Sure, there are some people who are just happy to turn up each day, do what they have to do and then go home. But for a majority of your people, they like to know why they are turning up each day and just how their role is contributing to the achievement of the bigger picture. Part of this is psychological, as we all have deep hungers for being informed and acknowledged. At its very core, sharing what you know of how your team’s objectives contribute to the function or company strategy will feed those hungers and prevent your people from making their own sense of where the ship is headed. So, if you know where the ship is headed, share it.
This one can seem a bit harder than sharing on direction as culture can seem like such a big and impermeable beast. But the reality is that as leaders we are custodians and champions of our organisations culture. If you’ve not gone down the path of capturing and optimising your organisational culture, you can still nail this one. What are the company values? These are usually derived from processes that distil what we believe are the important ways to think and act around here. If you don’t have clearly stated values, what is the vision? This is another way of getting in touch with the culture of an organisation. It’s certainly not the whole picture, especially if you find yourself in a situation where the stated vision or values are not demonstrated by the leadership of the business. Between your vision and values, you have some important guide posts for ‘how’ you should be leading. Whether they be values such as ‘passion’, ‘entrepreneurial’ or ‘customer-focused’, find a way to bring these to life in the way you lead. Talk with your team about what they mean for how your team does what it does on a daily basis. From first time manager to experienced leader…this one can be easy to do as well. From a psychological standpoint, by having this conversation your people feel involved in the business. And when you walk the talk, and carry out your role in the spirit of the vision or values you let your people see what good looks like. Some people need to see it to make sense of it whilst others will just get it.
These are a couple of small actions that any leader can deploy that will start to have a positive impact on engagement. Seriously, they are not time-consuming nor do they need to suck energy…rather they will most likely generate energy…and we know that when we feel energised we also start to feel engaged.
The continued push toward globalisation and the reality of single digit margins across many market sectors has seen organisations looking for ways to leverage every ounce of collaboration to optimise business results. This has seen a stronger reliance on matrix structured organisations which in principle are designed to do just this through well-crafted areas of cooperation, that allow for value added work to take place.
But it doesn’t always seem to play out like this, not because the idea of a matrix is poor. Rather, it seems that the matrix organisation may not be a natural fit for the human condition. In fact the very things that eat away at the effectiveness of a matrix organisation are the same factors that are key to its success. These elements are:
At the heart of the problems created by a matrix structure is the question of structure. At the macro level, some cultures have a stronger desire for clear, explicitly stated and unambiguous organisational structures (eg; Anglo, German cultures), whilst in other cultures there is a higher tolerance for working in ambiguous and fluid settings (eg; Scandinavian).
Then, on a more personal level, irrespective of what country or culture the person is operating from, there is the basic need to clearly understand the primary objective of their role, the interfaces and boundaries that come with their operating environment. A strong matrix gives this clarity on the one hand, by providing well documented policies and frameworks for working in the matrix, but then takes it away with the other hand when the people who need to make it work don’t know how to.
Employee engagement studies conducted across western countries has shown for many years that the keys to keeping people engaged at work evolve around clarity of understanding what they are expected to do, why they are doing it and having clearly identified boundaries within which they can do what they do best. The perception is that a matrix structure makes it difficult to deliver on these basic needs, and as a result we tend to see the following problems:
Silos are created. The very thing a matrix is designed to eliminate is more often present in a matrix than in simpler structures. Silos are created when the purpose of a matrix is misunderstood; when instead of seeing the new organisation through a collaborative lens it is seen through a lens of loss and having to give something up. It is our natural human instinct to protect what we have when we are threatened, or facing change without understanding why. Transitioning to a matrix style from command and control is the perfect situation for silos to evolve if a full transformation plan hasn't been enacted...which is usually the case.
Roles, boundaries and relationships can become complicated. It's often difficult enough to stay on top of a relationship with one manager (and dealing with their expectations) along with the immediate function you work in; but two or more? And what about the other countries in your network? In India or China for example, do your peers believe they have the power to work around and up the organisational hierarchy to get some information for you like you can in Australia or the US? In most situations the answer is no; but due to the importance of saving face they won’t tell you that.
It becomes easy to opt out. As a result of the complicated roles and relationships, unclear or competing expectations, and walking on the egg shells of internal politics, the easy option is to just opt out. Whether this is to leave the organisation, or get very good at practicing presenteeism!
You lose good people. Many good people leave matrix organisations because of the politics at higher levels, or because expectations are so poorly communicated and managed that the real work can't get done. In these cases, more time is spent trying to decipher expectations than allowing talent to shine in the delivery of good work.
Making the Matrix Work
There are many tools and methods available to enhance the performance of a matrix organisation, and one set of guidelines in particular that provide a positive impact on employee engagement in a matrix, as well as driving more collaborative performance. The best thing about these steps (outlined below) is that, besides being inexpensive, they quickly dispel the myth that matrix structures can't work.
1. Create a cross-functional team charter
The heads of function should have a clear picture of what successful business looks like on the back of cross-functional collaboration. If these people can't picture successful collaboration, then it won't happen below them. The respective management teams of these functions should be involved in the creation of a cross-functional team charter that captures how these groups will optimise cross-functional performance, including: collaboration, prioritising, solving conflict and communicating.
2. Optimise how you work with your shared direct reports
The heads of function then turn their attention to have a clear and unambiguous understanding between each other around the primary objectives of their shared direct report/s. This means that there is a clear understanding of what tasks have priority, and how consultation should occur if priorities change or the business landscape shifts. These primary objectives, and the expectations that each head of function share are talked through at the very beginning of new reporting relationships to ensure everyone is clear on the expectations. This is underpinned by the cross-functional team charter, and allows guesswork to be replaced by real work!
3. Train and be coached for working in a matrix
Working and leading in a matrix requires a different set of skills and mindset. The ability to understand and work with ambiguity, manage stakeholders, build and maintain relationships and collaborate all require different development to that in simpler structures. There's no point training to ride a bicycle when you will be riding a motorbike! Good matrix training combines behavioural skills with a focus on connection at a values and relational level. But we also know that on a deeper level, there are other factors that enhance or reduce our ability to be effective in a matrix; our confidence, need for recognition, cultural background and personality (eg; rigid and tough-minded vs flexible and tender-minded). Consider coaching to help you become more aligned to working in a matrix if you know that the matrix doesn't fit who you are...but you love what you do and don't necessarily want to leave!
4. Things Change - so keep the team charter alive
Look for opportunities to reinforce a culture of collaboration by bringing the different functions together to review the extent to which they are achieving the output of their cross-functional team charter, and to continually update their preferred ways of working.
5. Culture Matters.
A matrix structure works more efficiently in some countries than others. Seek to understand the national and organisational culture characteristics of the countries you may be interacting with to understand how you can optimise relationships.
Implementing a series of steps such as those above provides an opportunity for greater employee engagement in a matrix or highly networked environment. It also quashes the perception that matrix structures need to be difficult; a little coordination amongst the functional leads, and even a basic level of rapport between functions and countries will go a long way.
Having a sense of purpose is central to effective employee engagement, and there are three dimensions to this, that if understood, can contribute effectively to organisational engagement strategies. I call these dimensions:
Below is a short descriptor of each type of Purpose.
Intrinsic Sense of Purpose
This is really about those fundamental questions like; Who am I? or What are my values? We may never fully know the answers to these types of questions, but for most people there tends to be a sense of what the answers are, especially on the values side of things. I like to think of this as being our internal compass and life vest all rolled into one. It gives us direction, and in those times when the direction isn’t clear, or we lose our way, our values can act as our life vest to keep us afloat until we regain traction. If we are unable to access, develop or acknowledge our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose, we aren’t in the best position to optimise our Extrinsic Sense of Purpose.
Extrinsic Sense of Purpose
This is the part of us that the rest of the world can see when seeking to fulfil our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose, whether it be in our career, our personal activities or the way we engage with family and friends. Ideally, in a professional context, we would like to think that what we do for a living is an extension of ‘who’ we are and the reality is that this is true for all of us, no matter what our country or culture. In Asian and Middle East cultures, for example, our work team really is an extension of our family on many levels with individual purpose being reinforced through acceptance of, and belonging to, the group. This of course relies on knowing ‘who’ our colleagues are and what they stand for and is as important, if not more important, than knowing ‘what’ we are here to do. Whilst in cultures, like that found in Anglo countries, there is a continuous need for organisations to understand and express its Intrinsic Sense of Purpose in an effort to attract and retain employees by demonstrating that what it stands for is good for the Intrinsic needs of the people it hopes to attract and for those who already work there.
So our Extrinsic Sense of Purpose serves the purpose of being fulfilling on a practical level (I enjoy what I do) and reinforcing our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose (I enjoy how I do what I do and why I do what I do).
Adapted Sense of Purpose
This is an interesting place to be as there are times when our Intrinsic and Extrinsic senses of Purpose aren’t in alignment. This can be when we aren’t sure of ‘who’ we are but we are finding ways to sustain ourselves externally with the hope that this will provide clarity on who we are. This can be caused by a major life event which creates the need to re-evaluate who we are, and can sometimes seem like it’s always a work in progress.
There are also those times when we are sure of who we are, but our Extrinsic activities are out of alignment. For example, when we are starting out in our career, there is sometimes the need to take what we can get to build up experience. There are also those times when we are caught up in a restructure or major organisational change; and then there is the more stark situation that comes with expats moving from one country to another. In all of these situations we are required to adapt temporarily until we can find that common ground, or reconcile between who we are and where we find ourselves.
The Challenge and the Opportunity
It is in the Adapted space that we can lose people…no matter the circumstance. It is in this adapted space that we see the largest turnover of expats during the assignment and upon return due to culture shock, reverse culture shock and a lack of planning to support effective return of the expat. In change management, we lose people because the change plan didn’t take into consideration how people will feel, react or perceive the change. In restructures, it is more obvious because who we are can often be wrapped up in what we do.
This challenge also represents the greatest opportunity for both the individual and the organisation. It is in the Adapted space when there is the greatest opportunity for personal and professional growth.
If you are able to identify those moments in your organisation when at either an individual, team or functional level, there is likely to be gap between the Intrinsic Sense of Purpose and the Extrinsic Sense of Purpose, that’s where the work is to be done. That’s precisely the place where concerns are planned for, fears are addressed, excitement is harnessed and progress can be created.
We often miss this piece as we are focussed mainly on the external factors, for example, what I want you to be doing compared to what you are doing today. And our change plan supports this in a structured and behaviourally focussed way.
However, if we are prepared to explore the space between who our people are (and therefore the reason why they likely joined your organisation) and what we are asking them to do differently, (and therefore the intrinsic impact this will have on them), we are in a better position to drive genuine engagement. In my last post titled Build Engagement Through Change, we started to explore how to work in this space, and over the next couple of posts we will explore the ways to work with this in more detail.
Your skeletal system is not your nervous system. Anyone who has worked with me, especially in the last couple of years will know that this is my favourite expression when starting the discussion around how to optimise the way we approach change.
The skeletal system is of course important. It’s the tangible, structural and probably most visual aspect of change, represented by things like a change plan, the organisation charts in a restructure or documented work flows for a new system. We need the skeletal system because people need structure throughout change. We know that people like structure at the best of times, and when the ground is moving underneath us, structure is needed more than ever.
However we also know that the skeletal system is only as effective as the nervous system that powers it. If the skeletal system is about the solid and structural elements of change, then the nervous system can be considered as the way we approach the change and work with the intangibles.
Consider stakeholder management throughout change. This is often thought of as sharp end of engagement throughout change, and the process is usually one of asking: who are our stakeholders, and why are they our stakeholders? What if we reframed this to ask a different question that combines the approach of the skeletal and nervous systems? It would sound something like this:
Who do we think:
We are then armed with a powerful piece of information that is ready to be validated through informal conversations and checking in with each group to get a sense of where they are at. Once the validation has occurred you can then structure your communications around what those in each category need to hear or experience to help them engage with the change.
For those who are leading change across multiple countries this takes on a much more important meaning. The ‘how’ and ‘when’ they need to hear or experience the messaging will be quite different depending on their country and cultures. For example, it is often assumed that a single approach will work for driving change throughout Asia; yet we know that from a dealing with uncertainty perspective, Japan is very different to other Asian countries. In Japan a solid plan is required that removes surprises and manages risk, whilst there is a more relaxed approach to how change (uncertainty) is driven and adopted in countries like China, Singapore or the Philippines.
The final word?
Both the skeletal and the nervous system are required for the human body to function effectively and the same goes for ensuring there is engagement throughout change. If we focus only on the tangibles, we miss the opportunity to get people involved and engaged with what’s going on. If we focus only on the intangibles, such as who we need to engage and what they need to hear or know, we risk losing them because they can’t see or sense how the whole thing hangs together and more importantly what there is for them to hold onto throughout the change…especially in Anglo cultures!
First published on LinkedIn, 21/11/17
Trust gained through vulnerability is not a natural preference for those of us in the Anglo-sphere, but it is probably the door through which we can stand to gain the most in our business and personal relationships.
Based on the work of Prof Hofstede and his work on national cultures, we know that close to three quarters of the world is Collectivist. In other words…it’s about ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. Group harmony is a central theme, and trust is built based on ‘who’ you are as much (if not more than) ‘what’ you do. There is a level of implicit vulnerability in this way of being as it means sharing who you are, spending time ‘being’ with others, listening, and putting your own wants, needs and desires to one side whilst you consider and value the wants, needs and desires of the group. Based on this description, you can probably guess that Asia, the Middle East and pockets of Eastern Europe and South America fall into this dimension of culture. It is also said that how you are introduced to a work group in Asia or the Middle East, is critical, because the work group is seen as an extension of the family group. You aren’t just being introduced to any other team, you are being introduced to ‘my’ team; my ‘family’.
This is not a natural way of being for Individualist cultures such as Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada or the UK. In an Individualist culture ‘it’s about me not we’! It’s about me being acknowledged for my needs, wants and desires. Alongside this is the focus we have on the task and achieving the task, often at the expense (or in spite of) the relationship. It’s little wonder that most money made in team building is probably made in Individualist countries!
However, it’s also important to note that neither the Collectivist or Individualist way is better than the other. They are what they are and work still gets done; but when the cultures come together in a highly multi-cultural society or in global teams, understanding this concept and how to adapt your approach can be a career-saver!
Beyond this though, in the Anglo business world we also know that vulnerability is a concept, and practice, that can help bind a team and lift performance in a mono-culture environment. How do we know this? Look at the focus on helping leaders learn how to engage with their people through development programs and executive/leadership coaching. Consider the metrics we see in engagement surveys that focus on trust and the way leaders create environments conducive to trust and engagement. Are we in effect asking our leaders to consider some Collectivist practices and create the feeling of family? A place where we may not always like each other, but we have a relationship built over time that allows us to relax our individual boundaries, share what we really think, what really motivates us or scares us?
To borrow from the school of Transactional Analysis, the heart of genuine engagement is about being able to move beyond being ‘On Task’ with each other. It’s about being able to relax our boundaries, and to experience connection and true collaboration based on a platform of professional intimacy.
And therein lies both the dilemma and the opportunity...the ideal of the ‘authentic’ relationship that we hear so much about in the Anglo leadership space is relative to the willingness and ability of the individual to be vulnerable.
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.
I recently attended a business forum held by the European Services Forum and the EU Centre for Global Affairs, to learn more about the status of trade agreements between the European Union (EU) and Australia and what the future may hold for them considering Brexit and the US election.
One of the things we know about trade agreements, and this was confirmed in the presentation, is the huge amount of time and energy spent (not to mention money) on crafting, negotiating and bringing a trade agreement to life. Then there is the time and energy required to maintain it and ensure it is communicated and leveraged (though I’m not sure this happens so well, but perhaps that’s a topic for another time!). But what we don’t know is that whilst this new relationship is being created in good faith by both parties, one half of the marriage is most likely getting itchy feet and thinking about moving on already! You know, the whole ‘it’s me, not you’ scenario? The sad thing is that neither party is aware of this process, or that it is already bubbling away below the surface before the relationship has even commenced!
Let’s look at why I think this, and why I’m not quite as optimistic as some of the speakers that morning on the future of trade agreements between the EU and anglo-sphere countries. Having worked for several years in culture and its intersection with business and politics, I can see how Prof Geert Hofstede’s two dimensions of Uncertainty Avoidance (how a society deals with or prevents uncertainty) and Long vs Short Term Orientation (how we view time, a long term open orientation or a short term normative view) can help us understand why the marriage may be on the rocks before even starting!
Let’s start with the EU. The EU is not a country, but almost all its member countries are moderate to very high in Uncertainty Avoidance. In other words, there is a preference to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity and to prevent such situations. It’s also about securing the future by removing uncertainty today and seeking to understand where uncertainty may lay along the journey. They are also mostly quite Long-Term outlook countries, preferring a future-oriented approach rather than a Short-Term normative perspective. So, despite not being a single country, the grouping of EU member countries is certainly strongly influenced by these factors.
Let’s contrast this with the UK and the US who have a cultural preference for throwing caution to the wind and being more spontaneous, or perhaps unpredictable, as they are each tending towards lower Uncertainty Avoidance. The US cultural norm is middle of the road on the Long-Term/Short-Term orientation, but certainly there is no strong preference toward a Long-Term outlook, and the UK rates as very Short-Term oriented on this cultural dimension. Considering this we can see some possible links between the Brexit decision (many observers commenting that it is a short-term/near-sighted decision) and the unpredictable decision in the US polls in what is as much about throwing caution to the wind and taking a chance on an unknown. Right now it’s quite an ambiguous and unsure time for both the UK and the US.
Now, let’s bundle Australia, New Zealand and Canada in with the US and the UK. We all share similar cultural norms; no real preference for avoiding uncertainty and all of us having a very short-term, normative orientation. With this in mind, how much faith can be placed in any trade agreements with anglo-sphere countries? Especially if there is every chance that in the future we may fall back on our natural cultural norm of being Short-Term oriented, possibly scrap or work back any global trade agreements and replace them with more protectionist driven domestic policies that echo the 'your with us or against us' nature of Short-Term orientation? And whilst this may appear to the EU as a spur of the moment decision, we will feel ok about this because of our ability to create and deal with uncertainty; it doesn’t mean we like it, but at the same time it feels ok. You only need to look at the Australian political landscape over the last nine years to understand that dynamic!
So, the big question. Will we be faithful to our EU partner over the mid to long term in our various trade agreements?
I’m not sure; but perhaps it would be wise for the EU to build in a pre-nuptial agreement. One that ensures accountability and commitment, and that requires up front marriage counselling to ensure as much transparency and understanding about ‘who’ it is that we’re jumping into a relationship with. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about the parents, it’s also about the kids. In this case, the thousands of businesses who stand to gain or lose based on the quality and efficacy of the trade agreement. And whether it's a global focused trade agreement, or a domestic driven agenda, it doesn't matter because either way will work. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Short-term societies know how to make things work as much as long-term. It's the loss of momentum, energy and fatigue that comes with the significant change in direction (the 'separation') that slows us down more than anything else and creates an impasse as us kids try to work out who we'd rather live with!
First posted on LinkedIn, 9th December 2016.
Being able to engage, influence and lead effectively across borders was once considered one of the new frontiers of leadership as globalisation started to take effect. Now it seems there is almost an assumption that if you work in a global organisation, and are an effective leader in your home country that this will automatically translate into being an effective leader in a different country or across a region. But that’s not normally the case, as I’ve found when coaching many leaders who have found themselves in this position.
So, what are the characteristics of being an effective global leader? In my experience, there are three dimensions to consider that have underpinned the success of those leaders I’ve worked with who are achieving good results beyond borders. By contrast, I would also suggest that they are many of the missing elements for those I’ve coached who aren’t performing as well as they would like at this level. These three dimensions are:
Let’s take a brief look at what these dimensions comprise.
This is the ability and desire to:
This is the ability and desire to:
This is the ability and desire to:
These dimensions are highly interdependent, for example, you can be quite open to taking in new experiences (Perceptual Awareness) but not be so interested in engaging with your new surrounds (Relational Awareness). I see this when strong technical leaders who have spent many years working as an individual contributor, and have a preference for this, find themselves in an expat or global leadership role and suddenly having to lead or influence peers across the globe. Doing it in their home country probably presented enough challenges without the complexity of having to do it in a global setting!
Then there are leaders who have average to well-developed levels of Perceptual and Relational Awareness, but have lower levels of Self-Awareness, and are unable to cope effectively with the stresses that come with having to perform and lead in a foreign environment. Working in these environments can allow lower levels of self-esteem and confidence to manifest as stress and negatively impact what could potentially be a positive experience.
You’ll also notice that I’ve not referred to technical competence. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important; it’s just that rarely is it the reason that I find myself coaching global leaders. In fact, I can only think of a couple of occasions when part of the challenge for a global leader has been technical competence. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen more frequently, however it’s the behaviours relating to the ‘global self’ that are mostly the reason for poor performance than technical competence.
The good news is that these dimensions can be measured and developed providing the global leader with a window to their ‘global self’; which is a good thing for the leader and the organisation when we consider the high turnover rates of expats either during their assignment or within eighteen months of returning. But even if the only thing you do is take the time to reflect on where you think you sit on these dimensions, you’ve already taken the first step towards developing your ‘global self’ and enhancing your effectiveness as a global leader, no matter your starting point!