The importance of culturally savvy leaders

In order to remain competitive, global business leaders need to be able to adapt to diverse national, organizational and professional cultures. A leader who can accommodate and master these challenges practices what we refer to as geoleadership.

Differences in language, cultural preferences for pace, intonation, spatial distance and more play a role in any intercultural communication. The seemingly worldwide acceptance and use of “common” technologies, both hardware and software, can create an illusion of familiarity. Consultants can log on and instantly connect with clients in London, Paris or Istanbul. However, it does not follow that because a significant proportion of people worldwide run on Windows software, they think the same, have the same values or face the same issues. In reality, our computer operating systems may be one of the few things that humanity has in common. There is also a risk in our over-reliance on technology to solve all of our problems. After all, more plumbing does not increase the quality of our water.

Reflect for a minute about the variety of cultures there are just within the United States, sometimes within the same city. Los Angeles has a different feel than New York. In San Francisco, North Beach (the Italian quarter) is quite different from Chinatown. The suburbs have a different feel than urban centers. These settings are different because they make up what are referred to as subcultures; cultures within cultures. Some of these subcultures are ethnicity-based; others are created out of professional, lifestyle or economy-based differences.

Thus, the issue is broader than just the diversity encountered in today’s domestic workforce. The business leader of today is dealing with the world at large, and not always with perfect results. The tendency of American business leaders to emphasize getting to “back-end” results quickly, while most of the world’s cultures emphasize “front-end” loading, has proved costly.

There are also certain leader roles that, by themselves, require a high level of skill. One such skill is negotiating. Cultures vary in perceptions about negotiating; some frown upon it, especially in certain situations, while other cultures rely on it as an integral aspect of any business exchange. Mismatches commonly occur between culturally different individuals due to misunderstandings about discretionary power, about what is and is not negotiable.

Another issue frequently blocking negotiations between culturally different individuals is approach. For example, some cultures that adopt “positive face” will display sociability and solidarity in their interaction style, often using informality, friendliness and use of first names to show “inclusiveness” or lack of distance. This approach may create a sense of uneasiness for members of a culture whose approach is to adopt a position of “negative face,” showing deference and distance to other parties for fear of offending them or threatening their face. The concept of “face” refers to a person’s public self-image. Positive face comes from a desire for appreciation and approval from others. Negative face is the desire to not be imposed on or to impose upon others.

When people do not have a common frame of reference, misunderstandings, conflict and productivity problems tend to arise. Conflict resolution is yet another aspect of intercultural business relationships that requires a high level of knowledge. The majority of intercultural conflicts are caused by misunderstandings about different norms, styles, communication rhythms, values and approaches.

Providing a motivational work environment for employees who are different in their needs and expectations requires that a leader accurately interpret situations and respond in a culturally acceptable manner. Any leader who assumes that what worked wonderfully in his or her native culture will also work to motivate employees in Taiwan may experience serious problems.

The strategy of sending US corporate leaders and managers abroad for foreign assignments is not new. However, increasingly, corporations recruit leaders and managers to take foreign assignments to solve dicey business problems in their overseas locations. An entire consulting industry has sprung up in the United States to serve organizations that need to maximize the success of these personnel decisions because the success rate in the recent past has been poor. The chief reason for the lack of success is culture clash — rigid American managers sent to foreign cultures with a mandate to “fix the problem” encountering a culture with a different mindset.

Given all these demands, competent leaders are in short supply. With current demographic trends, including the upcoming retirements of many baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964), Pew Research projects that the US leadership talent shortage will continue into the next several decades.