Culture is “An integrated pattern of human behaviour that includes thoughts, communications, languages, practices, beliefs, values, customs, courtesies, rituals, manners of interacting and roles, relationships and expected behaviours of a racial, ethnic, religious or social group and the ability to transmit the above to succeeding generations.” It’s a system of rules that are the base of what we are and affect how we express ourselves as part of a group and as individuals.
We all grow up in a specific culture. Our environment determines what we learn, how we learn and the rules for living with others. These rules are transmitted from one generation to the next and are often adapted to the times and locale. The rules are absorbed by children as they develop, either through word-of-mouth or just ‘osmosis’.
We are all connected through the increasing globalization of communications, trade and labour practices. Changes in one part of the world affect people everywhere. Considering our increasing diversity and interconnected problems, working together in harmony seems to be the best strategy for accomplishing our goals. Because social and economic change is coming faster and faster, organisations appreciate the need for cross-cultural leadership. If leaders do not improve their cross-cultural competencies, organisations may end up in a cultural gridlock.
Organisations also have a ‘culture’ of policies, procedures, programmes and processes and incorporate certain values, beliefs, assumptions and customs. Organisational cultures largely echo mainstream culture in its sense of time orientation, perception and use of time. An organisational culture may not lend itself to cultural competence, so that’s where skill building comes in. A culturally competent organisation brings together knowledge about different groups of people -- and transforms it into standards, policies and practices that make everything work.
How do modern leaders create effective collaboration between members from different cultures? How do they build trust in each other? How do they instil a sense of belonging together within the company? Understanding how to create people alignment is crucial for today’s leaders. People alignment is more than just aligning functions and tasks. The essence of people alignment is creating a sense of relatedness. A sense of relatedness builds mutual trust between people. People that sometimes literally come from different worlds. This requires not just an operational focus but also a mental focus – cross-cultural leadership.
Today’s international organisations require leaders who can adjust to different environments quickly and work with partners and employees of other cultures. It cannot be assumed that a manager who is successful in one country will be successful in another. Cross-cultural competency could emerge at four different levels as detailed below.
‘Cultural knowledge’ means that you know about some cultural characteristics, history, values, beliefs and behaviours of another ethnic or cultural group.
‘Cultural awareness’ is the next stage of understanding other groups -- being open to the idea of changing cultural attitudes.
‘Cultural sensitivity’ leads to appreciating differences in cultures but not assigning values to the differences (better or worse, right or wrong). Clashes on this point can easily occur, especially if a custom or belief in question goes against the idea of multiculturalism. Internal conflict (intrapersonal, interpersonal and organisational) is likely to occur at times over this issue. Conflict won’t always be easy to manage but it can be made easier if everyone is mindful of the organisational goals.
‘Cultural competence’ brings together the previous stages -- and adds operational effectiveness. A culturally competent organisation has the capacity to bring into its system many different behaviours, attitudes and policies and work effectively in a cross-cultural setting to produce better outcomes.
Corporate leaders often underestimate the importance of creating a sense of relatedness in dealing with cross-cultural differences. They often focus on aligning tasks and business results as the sole driver for creating team spirit. When they are confronted with cross-cultural differences (for instance in cases like mergers or expanding business to other countries) they tend to expect their middle managers to obtain the required multi-cultural management skills. They reduce it to an operational issue.
The result is that cross-cultural differences and issues are managed (mitigated) but in many cases does not lead to more trust in each other. Problems are deep rooted. The differences are still there, the misunderstandings are still there but the negative effects are maybe more or less under control. No real change in mentality has taken place. Thinking in terms of ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ is still there. People still do not feel they are a team and therefore they are not willing to go that extra mile for each other.
The impact on business deliverables is evident. Those companies, that can create mutual trust and a sense of relatedness despite the cultural differences, have a clear competitive advantage. Leaders who have mastered cross-cultural leadership are successful in creating cross-cultural alignment by displaying following behaviours that fuels mutual trust.
Leaders actively build cross-cultural relationships – They start themselves engaging with people from the other culture and build relationships. They use this as an example to their teams and convince others to follow the leader. ‘If I can, so can you’.
Get outside their comfort zones – Leaders show an active will to learn from other cultures and to change their thinking and behaviour. They show openness and vulnerability. They create an environment of learning from each other.
Embrace diversity and explore its potential – Leaders see cross-cultural differences as potential for enrichment and improvement, not as issues. They create an atmosphere in which differences and frictions are ok. They focus on possibilities to reconcile the differences, not on eliminating them.
Actively engaged towards relatedness – Leaders take time to discuss cross-cultural differences in-depth with each other. They stimulate open dialogue. They set out clear actions. They understand it is vital to build mutual awareness and understanding through dialogue but that acting together in small steps towards common goals eventually creates the real trust.
Persistence – Leaders realize that mutual trust is not built overnight and that in the rush of daily business, people sometimes fall back into old thinking and behaviour, which revives old prejudices about each other. They create specific moments together to monitor and evaluate the progress, the positive things and the areas for improvement. They consider creating mutual trust to be a specific objective for themselves and their teams.
Emphasizing the importance of cultural sensitivity, one of the greatest management gurus of our time Peter Drucker said – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
(This is the 28th column of the leadership series by Eng. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana [BSc Eng (Hons), MBA, CEng, FIE (SL), MCS (SL), MIDPM (UK), FIAP (UK), MBCS (UK)], a Management, HR, OD and ICT Consultant, Corporate Trainer, Executive Coach, Consultant - HRD - Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd. He can be contacted at email@example.com)