• GIG_Culture

The Culturally Intelligent Leader – Part 1

Updated: Jul 17, 2018

This is the first article in a 7-part series on Culturally Intelligent Leadership.

All references and further reading material is listed in Part 6.


Our cultural heritage plays a role in every facet of our lives. It provides the basis from which we develop our self-identity, our purpose within a group and our ability to lead and connect with others.

In today’s global marketplace, organisational leaders understand the impact of at least three cultural forces at play.

· Their own personal culture;

· The cultural heritage of others; &

· The expected attitudes and behaviours of the organisation for which they work.

Consider the impact of your own culture on:

· Business development

Designing, launching and selling products and services that connect with people? Think selling a big 5-litre SUV in Scandinavia, or Texas?

· Staffing & Mobility

Do cultural norms such as uncertainty avoidance influence job performance in risk-based decision-making positions?

Why is it that charming and charismatic leaders in one country often struggle to understand social cues in others?

· Performance

Why Western-centric management techniques such as the Individual Performance Appraisal process are often a source of major discontent in cultures that are more collective in nature;

Or how members of individualistic cultures tend to attribute success to their personal talent and traits, yet attribute blame for their failures externally?

· Organisational Structure

Why matrix management structures can cause great organisational friction in strict hierarchical societies;

While other societies demand seemingly excessive adherence and enforcement of social protocol and unquestioning loyalty?

· Leadership

How certain styles of leadership are effective in one culture, but not in others;

Or why the degree of a culture’s task-orientation determines, possibly more than any other factor, how effective Western leadership and management theory is likely to be.

In exploring and distilling several leading theories of what it means to be Culturally Intelligent, this series seeks to highlight the need for greater self-awareness, better cross-cultural leadership skills, and ultimately improved career prospects and business results.

Introduction to Culture

How do we react to any given situation?

A seemingly simple question which may be answered with something along the lines of, “Well, it depends on the situation”.

And if I said it depends more on who you are with rather than on the actual situation, you may object...

But consider how we react in the company of our friends; or family; or in the workplace? In fact, for the most part, how we react to any given situation is influenced by what we think is appropriate in front of others.

How we perceive others expect us to react.

Apart from a dangerous situation, basic fight-or-flight, could the way we react to the world not be a function of our how we see ourselves, our self-concept, and a set of ‘values’ instilled in us from a young age?

We all grow up with a set of explicit rules governing our behaviour. Later, these expectations allow us to respond to a variety of more nuanced situations. We naturally adapt the prevailing standards; of what is expected in order to be accepted by the social groups we aspire to belong to.

Most humans want to belong to a group – a church, an organization, a family, a political tribe – so we behave in a manner congruent with acceptance into that group. Rejection is a very powerful motivator.

Consider your position in your personal social hierarchy. Where do you fit into the structures of authority? Awareness of a person’s position in any social structure is a crucial element of a healthy and functional self-image. No human being grows up in isolation; our very survival as a species depends on assimilating and respecting the rules of our environment. And that environment includes other people in our group.

Developmental psychologists tell us that “children need boundaries”, yet one culture’s boundaries are another’s call to social services. Similarly working for any organisation comes with a set of expectations, indeed, working for bank is going to be very different from working for an advertising agency.

Group membership – be it work, in the community we grow up in or in the social communities of our choosing – requires each of us to abide by a set of rules in exchange for acceptance. That’s culture.

If someone tells you they are doctor, this information automatically creates an expectation of how that person will behave. The doctor themselves accepts that a certain standard of behaviours is almost universally required. It matters not if one is from America, India or China. All doctors subscribe to a basic standard of attitudes and behaviours. Call the culture of being a doctor.

What does differ though is how different cultures respond to authority. So being a doctor in one country will elicit widely varying responses from patients from one culture to the next. Some will accept a doctor’s diagnoses unquestioningly, while others not so much.

These rules, both formal and informal, that govern appropriate behaviour, are a product of our cultural heritage. They shape our world view and provide the framework against which we make every decision. Our personal culture provides us with a reference point; the foundation upon which we build and preserve our self-image.

Are you individualistic and contrarian?

Such a question only makes sense when referenced to something. In this case our personal cultural norm.

Alternatively, if our self-concept is tied to group membership, if we feel belonging to something is more important than being separate, then we are more likely to gain a sense of fulfillment by conforming to what is expected of us by our families and communities. It is almost as if we are ‘programmed’ to not only act in a certain way, but to feel in a particular way too.

To use an analogy by Gertt Hofstede1, our cultural heritage can be thought of as the operating system on a computer. As we grow older we add various software programmes to our computers (brains), which gives rise to individual variation.

Obviously, we can choose to break the norm, break the rules, but we still need to know what we’re rebelling against.

In this series, we will define the concept of culture using models that describe dimensions of culture. This approach allows for a more robust model of culture. By defining a dimension, and then measuring and comparing different cultures along those dimensions, it is possible to quantify some aspects of culture. For instance, some cultures are more individualistic than others, some deal with uncertainty and ambiguity differently, others place far more emphasis on traditional patriarchal social structures, while others favour short-term results over long-term planning. We will attempt to capture as many as these dimension in the models that follow.

Needless to say, if we are to accept that our personal cultural heritage at least influences the manner in which we react to almost every situation we encounter, we are then able to appreciate how a person from a different culture is likely to respond to a similar situation in a different way.

This is a key skill in an ever-globalising market place.

Think for example how people from different backgrounds might respond to:

· The rights of the individual compared to the position of the majority.

Consider the differences from one country to the next in respect of gay rights, property rights or the right to freedom of expression.

For example, Tim Cook the C.E.O. of Apple is openly gay; yet if Apple were a Russian company could we have realistically expected a similar outcome to Mr Cook’s coming out? Regardless of one’s personal feelings on gay rights, the key take-away here is the possible difference between how individuality is perceived between the U.S. and Russia in general.

Can one argue that cultures that are more 'individualistic' , tend to less homophobic?

· Risk taking

Why is risk taking celebrated in some cultures, while others tend to have highly regulated, strictly-enforced environments?

Perhaps an example of this is how some societies idolise sports heroes. Some cultures are comfortable if talented youngsters drop out of school nurture their potential; a risky proposition at best; yet other communities would simply never allow their children to interrupt their education to pursue a career in sport.

· Authority

Why do some societies insist on seemingly excessive protocol (to some) in order to preserve social hierarchy; yet others demand their leaders be held to account on seemingly irrelevant issues?

The nature of Prime Minister’s Questions time in the Houses of Parliament is highly unlikely in highly authoritarian cultures, for instance.

· Consumption

Is incurring debt to fund a outward appearance of a lavish lifestyle accepted in your culture?

Are the eco-green credentials of your product more important than the price?

In fact, one’s cultural heritage influences every decision you make. How we raise our children, whether we approve a loan application at the bank we work at, how we respond to innovation from our teams, how the bonus pool is split at year end, and how we insist others show us respect.

The list is extensive because culture is everywhere.

Perhaps the greatest example of cultural interaction happens in the modern, multinational organisation.

Whichever way we look at it, the modern workplace thrusts so many people from different cultures together that some cultural friction is inevitable.

For the most part, we possess a degree of control in our personal lives over who we choose to interact with. Unsurprisingly, most of us tend gravitate to social environments in which we understand the social cues. These are the places in which we feel comfortable that our attitudes and behaviours will be understood; where they will find acceptance. For the most part in the modern multinational workplace, we don’t get to choose. So adapt we must.

The Importance of Cultural Relativism

Speaking about culture is a sensitive topic. The key to is to discuss culture in an objective, academic way, taking care to check one’s personal bias regularly, and to stick to the evidence-based theory as much as possible. However, some people simply do not like their culture being discuss by those of another culture regardless of the depth of academic rigour involved.

As a practitioner of culture, one also runs the risk of stereotyping individuals according to the group to which they belong. There is little point pretending that we don’t prejudge people, the key is to check your bias by reminding yourself that culture is relative. If one is to truly understand culture, one must fully accept that one culture is not better than another.

The concept of cultural relativism is a key principle in understanding the role of culture in our own lives, and in that of others. Essentially cultural relativism enables us to discuss culture in a mature, judgement-free manner.

Explorations of culture are simply that – explorations.

There is no ‘good’ culture or ‘bad’ culture; simply culture.

It is also important to acknowledge that descriptions of culture are generalisations and the reader should resist attempts to describe individuals along cultural dimensions –human traits, behaviour and attitudes vary greatly, not just from one culture another; but among people of similar cultural heritage too.

I urge you to read this series and think about how it applies to you.

How does your culture inform your world view, your attitudes, your behaviour? Understanding this is key to understanding others, and understanding the power of culture to shape behaviour!

Part Two to follow…..

© 2018 by GIG Culture.

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