Individuals from different cultures respond differently to various leadership styles. With the workforce becoming increasingly multicultural and business operations spread across multiple countries, developing a richer understanding and sensitivity to other cultures is a must have competency for contemporary leaders.
The Cross-Cultural perspective of psychology tries to explain how culture affects psychological processes. This perspective highlights the need and benefits of participants from various backgrounds having a seat at the table. Let us take Australia as an example. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest Census data (2021), which shows that almost half of Australians (48.2%) have a parent born overseas. The same Census found that 3.2% of the population identifies as being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin. Statistically, if we look at this data, leaders with underdeveloped cross- cultural competency are not serving half of their customers. Of course, this is more complex than what the numbers show, and the Australian example is just an illustration. Still, it is a good reflection point and something to consider when managing organisations displaying cross-cultural characteristics. If unsure about the organisation’s cross-cultural characterises, looking into customers, employees and stakeholders’ data will provide a clear answer.
There is hardly any doubt about the role culture plays in how we show up in the world. World culture is often understood as something that echoes events that occurred or belong to earlier times. Yet, we now know that culture is constantly evolving and that we acquire pieces of culture throughout our lifetime, contributing to our personal growth. Culture covers a wide range of perspectives. It encompasses social behaviour, norms, beliefs, arts, food, laws, customs, religion, language, region, capabilities, habits, and other characteristics of a particular group, affecting how we think and behave. It can be as complex or simple as one wants. Whatever the view or understanding, the impact of culture in the workplace cannot be disregarded.
As a branch of psychology, cross-cultural psychology searches for relationships between cultural context and human behaviour, studying similarities and differences in behaviour among persons who have developed in different cultures. European and North American research has been prioritised for many years. However, the cross-cultural researchers began to question whether some of the ideas once believed to be universal are actually universal and if the findings and assumptions were broad enough because of the sample from which the observations were drawn. Hence, cross-cultural psychologists work on exploring many biases and establishing if the phenomena in European and North American cultures appear in other parts of the world.
An increased number of leaders manage teams dispersed across the globe. This trend is more likely to continue. Leaders who still get surprised about the need to take a cross-cultural perspective to management have probably ignored the reality and their stakeholders’ expectations. Communication has long been identified as one of the critical success factors for leaders and their organisations. It can raise an understanding, and it can also create a conflict. This can be even more prevalent in culturally diverse workplaces. Misunderstanding among the culturally diverse workforce and various conflicts as a result of it can affect the performance of an organisation. Therefore, underdeveloped leaders’ cross-cultural competence is a risk for an organisation.
Following cross-cultural psychology studies, leaders may need to rethink their management approach. They need to examine whether what they learned about management is still relevant. Otherwise, they may omit to note, as in Australia’s case mentioned earlier, that half of their workforce might have a different concept of relationships, communication, or information processing.
Research shows that good leadership starts with self-awareness. We may not see ourselves in the same way others see us. Asking people who know us to share their views is one way to address blind spots. While neuropsychological surveys, often called 360 surveys, are regularly used with people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the tool’s design may consider a specific population only. It is encouraging to see that the need for cross-cultural leadership competency is also impacting this area. Worldwide Institute for Research and Development (WIRE) ran a bias test on the Leadership Circle Profile (LCP), the 360-survey tool that measures behaviour and assumptions simultaneously. The test conducted in 2021 suggests that the assessment shows no systematic bias for gender and ethnicity. One of the potential reasons could be that the tool uses a diverse norm base of 10,000 worldwide leaders. The LCP is used for illustration purposes only. There may be other tools that take into account cross-cultural factors.
People across cultures tend to hold different inherent beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes. It is no surprise that the implicit theory of leadership (ILT) suggests that all this affects the view of leadership. What is considered a good leader for some may not be a top leadership competency for others. Leaders need to keep this in mind if they are in an organisation displaying cross-cultural characteristics.
The ability of leaders to manage well in a cross-cultural environment is a critical leadership 2 competency. There are five simple steps leaders can follow to develop or enhance their competencies in this area:
- Build self-awareness. There are several ways to do it, and one tool that could kick off the process is a 360-degree survey. To make it even more beneficial, leaders could be more intentional when selecting people to provide feedback on their leadership style, including more diverse evaluators.
- Learn about cultures of peoples associated with the organisation, internally and externally. Starting with the intersection of culture and business could make this more manageable. It could be as simple as asking HR or L&D personnel to create a reference booklet that could be useful for the entire organisation.
- Connect with leaders from different cultural backgrounds, either internally or externally. There are several platforms designed to bring leaders together – LinkedIn, for example.
- Allocate time to know your people. Be deliberate and intentionally choose to know people that may be a minority in the organisation. Because of the perceived or actual power imbalance, it is up to leaders to initiate the conversation rather than waiting for others to instigate it, even in an organisation with a high level of psychological safety.
- Make communication a two-way street. It is easy to fall into the habit of perceiving regular updates via newsletters or videos as good communication.
- Cross-cultural competency is an ongoing process. Since culture is constantly developing, it is helpful for leaders to think long term and find a way to stay current. Some leaders engage internal or external coaches to support their personal development and keep them in check with open and honest feedback.
As the workforce is becoming increasingly multicultural and businesses growingly operate across borders, a leader will need a well-rounded set of skills to understand the differences among people from different backgrounds. To stay effective, a leader must have well-developed cross-cultural competency.
If you need support on your organisation’s and leader’s coaching journey, do contact us at ICF and our team of volunteers in the UK will be happy to help.
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