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The Culturally Intelligent Leader - Part 2

Updated: Jul 17, 2018

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

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

Cultural Intelligence and the Modern Workplace

Whether by acquisition, or organic expansion, much of today’s business opportunity is inevitably geographical in nature. Technology is rendering borders obsolete, and the great challenges of our time require greater collaboration, not more nationalism.

Expanding in culturally diverse markets offers great promise – new customers, new employees, greater scale and global brand equity.

However, with geography comes culture – a different world-view; a different way in which business is conducted; in how products and services are perceived and consumed.

Most importantly, of how leadership styles are received and responded to. If you believe that leadership is universal, quite simply you’re wrong. The leader of a Scandinavian country is likely to have very different traits to the leader of Russia, or the governor of Texas.

Each culture expects different qualities from their leaders, different leadership styles. If you want to lead across cultures, you need to accept that you must adapt your leadership style, not the other way around. Many Westerners don’t get this.

Culture has been described in many ways, but in a business context Charles O’Reilly of Stanford’s GSB (at the time) probably summed it up best.

Culture: “the set of expected attitudes and behaviours of those that belong to the group”.

Consider your personal cultural heritage. How are you expected to think, act and react in order to be functional and effective? Similarly, companies with strong organisational cultures, tend to leave employees with very little doubt of what is expected of them within the organisation. Whether this is written, unwritten and even unspoken but understood.

Culture, the manner in which each of us is expected to conduct ourselves in exchange for social acceptance, is intrinsically understood by all of us. After all, we’ve been learning a social code of conduct from the day we are born.

In the workplace, culture manifests in three distinct ways.

Firstly, one’s personal cultural heritage shapes the way you view the world; how you make decisions, solve a challenging task and assimilate into the prevailing social order.

For example, if you come from a culture that is highly individualistic, chances are you will attribute much of your success at work to your personal input, your personal talent and the effort you made to bring about success. It’s what behavioural scientists refer to as internal attribution.

Failure on the other hand is often attributed to external factors such as ‘poor market conditions’ or a ‘lack of teamwork’, that sort of thing.

It is an entirely reasonable and predictable effort to preserve one’s self-image, to save face rather than openly admit a mistake or a personal shortcoming. And this can be especially acute in ‘high-blame’ cultures such as banks for instance, though less so in say, software development firms.

The second cultural dimension we experience in the workplace is the cultural heritage of others. This interaction occurs when we engage fellow employees, customers, regulators and local shareholders. If we are able to appreciate the impact of our own cultural heritage in shaping our conduct and influencing our decisions, so too should we be able to appreciate the influence of the cultural heritage of others.

Think for a minute of how customers express dissatisfaction with a product of service. Americans certainly do so differently from the English.

Or consider whether one culture may differ from another with respect to uncertainty.

The evidence is unequivocal – some cultures are more risk-averse than others. How many leaders consider this a factor in measuring performance in jobs that require a degree of risk- taking (such as a trader or credit loan officer) versus one that emphasises the need to stick to the rules (such as a compliance officer or auditor)?

It is an uncomfortable question for some, despite robust evidence that suggests culture plays a significant role in job performance.

What of research that highlights the concept that persons from strong collective or communitarian societies, perceive ideas such as ‘respect’, or ‘talent’, and ‘individual performance’ very differently to those from a more Western-centric individualist background?

Psychologists refer to this as social attribution theory – and it differs widely from one culture to the next; in fact so widely that it brings the whole question of ‘individual performance reviews’ as a management tool into question; and as many human capital managers in multinational organisations will attest, this type of review process can be a great source of employee dissatisfaction in more collective cultures.

Again, whether one agrees with this or not is more likely to reflect your personal cultural heritage. A major benefit of studying formal models of culture is it requires a level of introspection and self-awareness.

Thirdly, in addition to our own culture, and that of others, the organisational culture of the place in which we work dominates much of our lives. Whether these expected norms and standards develop formally or informally, employees soon realise what attitudes and behaviours result in promotion and financial reward.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest this is a predictable survival response, yet modern organisational culture tends to be heavily influenced by Western-centric management theory such as extreme task orientation (vs. a more relational orientation) and is often at odds with local social norms and practices.

One example, in organisations that provide services, rather than tangible products, the relationship between value creation and personal contribution is often blurred. An inevitable outcome is the development of what people in these organisations like to refer to as a ‘performance culture’ or similar narrative.

In practice, this more often than not means office politics, turf wars, unnecessarily long hours and an excessive meeting culture. One’s personal ‘currency’ is how valuable your ‘perceived’ contribution is to the organisation because it is so difficult to measure one’s actual contribution to the revenue-generating process.

While I frequently refer to banking, where I spent a good deal of my career, I find that in modern banks, the ability to 'talk a good game' is often valued more highly than being a 'team player, having a great work ethic or being technically competent'.

Alternatively, consider the potential for cultural friction in a multinational that sets all policy centrally. Policies that are then rolled out across widely diverse businesses. A common example is the concept of ‘Respect’. Almost all large businesses use the word ‘Respect’ somewhere in their stated values and mission statement, yet very few of these businesses consider what respect means to different people.

In the West for instance, respect is associated with the individual; their credibility is attained through their actions; respect is earned. It is the person and not the position that people look up to.

In strict hierarchical societies on the other hand, respect is afforded to the office not just the person holding office.

A visible manifestation of this is Prime Minister’s Question time in Westminster. The Prime Minster not only answers questions posed by members of parliament, she expects these sessions to be heated and the questions to be pointed. Contrast that with the President in a strictly hierarchical society such as those found in some African or Latin American countries - few would argue that these leaders are ‘expected’ to put themselves in a similar situation. In fact the group to which the President belongs will mostly likely ensure such a public examination doesn’t take place.

Business cultures generally tend to be more hierarchical in nature. A lowly bank employee would probably not last long if they put the CEO or regional head on the spot in public.

One large bank CEO recently told employees to circumvent their line managers if they were not satisfied with the response of their boss to a particular challenge. Anyone who has worked in a bank knows doing that would be 'career-limiting' at the very least. It goes against the real culture in most large banks, which are far more authoritarian than many bankers would openly admit.

This highlights three important points about culture and leadership, which many multinational organisations often fail to consider –

(1) Mobility: Promoting someone from a hierarchical society into a leadership position in a Western-centric organisational environment requires specific cultural assimilation; just as much as seconding people from head office (in a developed market) to a country role (in a developing market for instance) does.

But this applies internally too - understanding the organisational culture of a group, business function and team-level are crucial at enhancing influence and persuasion in an effective leader.

(2) Leadership: a great number of followers expect to be led in a very different way to what much of modern day leadership training suggests.

This is confirmed by extensive literature (see Part 3). MBA-style leadership theory places the individual-hero at the core of its philosophy. As the GLOBE study ( illustrates, this may be appropriate in some parts of the world, but entirely ineffective in others.

(3) Reporting Structure: Matrix management structures often lead to a great deal of friction within the modern cross-border organisation; taking people that grow up in strict hierarchical societies in which authority is centred around specific roles and unquestioning loyalty; then creating multiple reporting lines?

By creating two sources of authority for people that grow up their entire lives in an environment in which authority tends to be strictly and clearly linear almost always results in destructive office politics and undermines line management responsibility.

A key consideration is that if as an organisation, you seek to eliminate managerial parochialism, stereotyping and ethnocentric behaviour within your employee’s experience; you simply must implement some type of formal cultural intelligence training.

In Part 3 we begin to examine Models of Culture in more detail....

© 2018 by GIG Culture.

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