From Misunderstanding to Mastery: Four Dimensions to Transform Your Cross Cultural Leadership

Apr 10, 2024 8 Min Read
diversity, cross culture of different genders, different cultures
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Cross cultural leadership to build better teams

Cross cultural leadership is a fantastic chance to broaden your impact and develop teams that excel in performance and innovative problem-solving. You can achieve these outcomes when you recognise the challenges and focus on four dimensions of team collaboration.

That Wasn’t a Compliment

Early in my (David’s) career, I worked in a very culturally diverse organisation. A few months into my work there, a man named Jack took me aside and said, “David, I noticed that when you come into our all-hands meeting, you walk straight up to the front row, sit down, open your notebook and are ready to take notes.”

Happy that he’d seen my focus and preparation, I answered, “Jack, thanks for noticing.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, that wasn’t a compliment.”

Jack explained that when I entered the room and sat down, focused on the meeting and the work, I was not greeting my colleagues and engaging in pre-meeting conversations. “To us,” he explained, “that comes across as either you don’t like us or you think you’re better than us. And I don’t think that either of those is true—I just don’t think you know any better, so I wanted to tell you.”

It was an early lesson in cross cultural leadership, and I am so grateful for Jack having that conversation with me.

Cross Cultural Leadership Challenges

Recently, we were working in the Philippines when a leader asked me (Karin) how to help their team speak up with ideas or identify problems and potential solutions. The heart of their question was a cross cultural leadership challenge. Their team is from a culture that prioritises respect for elders and authority figures and minimizes direct confrontation or criticism.

We’ve had many leaders, managers and clients around the world approach us with different cross cultural leadership challenges, including:

  • “In my culture, we need sound and music to do our best, but my office is silent as a graveyard. It’s so depressing and hard to feel energy for anything.”
  • “I don’t “care” or want to be friends with my team. Culturally, this does not work for me.” (This leader WAS invested in her team’s success—the words “care” and “friend” meant something different for her than they do for others.)
  • “In my culture, when someone offers you a favour or food, you decline. They offer again, you decline. They offer again, and then it is polite to accept. But in this country, I must be rude and say ‘yes’ the first time or they stop asking.”
  • “When I ask the team for status updates, they tell me everything is good, even when I know it can’t possibly be going well.”

These are just a few examples of the many cross cultural leadership challenges you might face.

The Price of Cross Cultural Conflict

There are so many benefits to leading a cross cultural team (better problem solving and performance are just two examples), but failing to lead intentionally can also cause serious problems, including:

1. Erosion of Trust and Respect

Ignoring cross-cultural challenges can lead to a significant erosion of trust within a team, as team members may feel the team undervalues or misunderstand their backgrounds and perspectives. This erosion of trust undermines team cohesion and can significantly affect morale and productivity.

2. Reduced Innovation and Creativity

A failure to address cross-cultural leadership challenges stifles the creative potential of a team. When team members from various cultural backgrounds don’t feel included or understood, they are less likely to contribute their unique insights and ideas, leading to a homogenisation of thought that can stifle innovation and limit problem-solving capabilities.

3. Increased Conflict and Miscommunication

Cross-cultural challenges often manifest in misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which can escalate into conflicts and ultimately lead to a toxic work environment.

4. Reduced Global Competitiveness

Failing to address cross-cultural challenges compromises your ability to operate effectively across different markets. You can struggle to attract talent, collaborate with partners, and serve your customers.

Four Dimensions of Cross Cultural Leadership

There are four dimensions of team collaboration that will help you lead cross culturally and bring out the best from your team.

connection

1. Connection

Leadership is a relationship, and that’s never truer than when you lead a team of people from different cultures—especially when their culture is different from your own.

Building that relational knowledge for yourself and everyone on your team will help prevent misunderstandings and give you a platform to bring out the best in your team.

There are many ways to build cross cultural connection, but you don’t want to leave it to chance. People will certainly learn about one another slowly over time, but why wait?

Facilitate sharing and model with your listening and learning. The time you invest up front to help a cross-cultural team connect and understand one another will pay huge returns in saved time and innovation. Here are a few activities you can incorporate into your meetings to help build connection (these should be shared activities where everyone can participate, with you leading by example—avoid pressuring one person to educate a group about their culture):

  • How do you… – Invite your team to pick a different subject from time to time – for example: How do you offer to do someone a favour or food? Politely say “no”? Celebrate birthdays?
  • Colourful metaphors – Invite team members to think of a fun or colorful metaphor, cliché, proverb, or saying that they grew up with and then explain its meaning. (A favourite of ours we learned from our Swiss clients is “Put the fish on the table.” It means “have the conversation about the uncomfortable subject.”)
  • Myth-busting – Invite team members to share one myth or stereotype that they believe people sometimes think about their culture. Then they ‘bust the myth’ by clarifying the reality as they know it.        
curiosity

2. Curiosity

After connection, curiosity is a vital dimension of cross cultural leadership. An attitude of learning, flexibility, and ability to look at issues from different perspectives will help you bring your team together. This means approaching your leadership and coaching with questions and seeking genuine understanding.

One of the most important aspects of leading with curiosity is to avoid judging and instead ask, “How can we?”

For example, you might be tempted to judge a team that prizes respect for authority and think, “They won’t ever tell me the truth and I can’t count on them.” That attitude limits your creativity and automatically puts you in opposition to your team.

Instead, asking a “How can we?” question will help you reframe the challenges your team faces.

One practical application is to ask, “How can we reframe this issue in terms that support, rather than erode, cultural norms?” For example, if you have a team member who prizes peaceful coexistence or deference to authority and doesn’t speak up with problems they observe, you can reframe the issue as one of peace or respect for authority. For example:

“In our team, the best way to create peace or to show respect for your teammates or leader is to bring up issues which can cause us harm.”

clarity

3. Clarity

As you build connections and learn one another’s styles and cultural preferences, the next dimension to help you lead a cross cultural team is clarity.

Specifically, you want to invest in clarity about the culture of this team or organisation. This is an open discussion about the norms and ways in which the team will operate. The goal is to define (and continually redefine) a shared culture.

This starts with your mission and values. What are you here to do? How will you commit to doing that work with one another? Two of the most important clarity conversations you can have about values are:

  • “What does this look like in practice?”
  • “What do we do when these values conflict with one another?”

Ask these two questions regularly. Share your own stories. Occasionally, invite other leaders or executives to share their stories and examples. If culture is “what people like us do,” then story-telling is the engine that drives your team’s culture.

commitment

4. Commitment

The final dimension of your cross cultural leadership is to make it all happen. Commitment is the alchemy that transforms the Connection, Curiosity, and Clarity into performance. There are three aspects of commitment that will carry your team to new heights.

Practice

It takes time to build a new culture, to incorporate our understanding and new relationships, and to learn how to reframe cultural values for team performance. You will have missteps and misunderstandings. Use these as opportunities to circle back to connection and curiosity and build new clarity. Practice your team norms and values when the stakes are low.

Celebrate

As you build a new culture together, watch for moments of commitment. When someone recognises their teammate’s values, celebrate. When a normally silent teammate raises their hand, encourage them. Build in time to “look down the mountain” and see how far you’ve come as a team – what understanding do you take for granted now that was very different ten months ago?

Use Yourself for Accountability

Often, one of the more challenging aspects of cross cultural leadership is building a culture of accountability. And one of the most effective ways to create the psychological safety and model what success looks like is to use yourself as the subject of accountability.

For example, when you don’t follow through on your word (even if it’s for a justifiable reason), and someone mentions it, stop everything and celebrate. That’s a huge moment and exactly what needs to happen! And if no one says anything, ask your team if they noticed your dropped ball, and use it as a moment to invite their accountability. You can even use the moment to practice using the specific words. For example, “I noticed that we don’t have what you mentioned.”

When you help people practice accountability ON you and celebrate when they do, you make it safe for everyone to learn, grow, and practice accountability with each other.

Your Turn

Cross cultural leadership is a wonderful opportunity to expand your influence and build higher performing teams who solve problems creatively. You’ll get these results when you invest in Connection, Curiosity, Clarity, and Commitment.

And, we’d love to hear from you—what’s one of your most effective approaches for leading diverse teams and helping everyone succeed together?

This article was first published on Let's Grow Leaders

Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick, and the author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers and Customer Advocates.

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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results. He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the author of several books including Courageous Cultures and is the host of the popular podcast Leadership without Losing Your Soul.
 

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