In an increasingly smaller world, understanding and leveraging cultural differences is a skill worth having.
As I already argued in the post called I am a citizen of the world, the world is getting smaller. We are not traveling much at the moment, and there has been a push towards localism and protectionism in the last few years, but thanks to the internet, cheap traveling, the rise of immigration, and an increasingly integrated global economy, we are more exposed to other countries and cultures than ever before in history.
Each culture has its own ways of looking at and functioning in the world. Some cultures (like mine, I’m Spanish) have a more fluid concept of time than others (Germans, for example). Some are more individualistic, others more collectivistic; some are more formal, others informal; some prefer to communicate directly, others indirectly, and so forth. No culture is better than others. They all have their good and bad things, their advantages and disadvantages.
In this increasingly smaller world, we work and interact more often with people with different views than ours, so cultural agility and sensitivity will become a critical leadership competency. The leader of the future will be culturally astute, agile, and sensitive. She will display cultural intelligence.
Leading and Coaching across Cultures
A couple of weeks ago, I finished a training course by the great Philippe Rosinski on Leading and Coaching across Cultures. Philippe is the author of several books on the topic, has been a coach and consultant on cross-cultural issues since the 90s. He has created several interesting concepts, such as the Cultural Orientations Framework (COF) and Global Coaching (coaching with a holistic view focusing on the physical, spiritual, managerial, psychological, cultural, and spiritual aspects). Apart from his evident expertise, he is a very approachable, nice, and down-to-earth man.
In the COF, there are 17 cultural dimensions where we display our preferences and abilities. These dimensions relate to our communication styles (formal/informal, direct/indirect), thinking modes (deductive/inductive, analytical/systemic), concept of time (scarce/plentiful), organizational arrangements (hierarchy/equality, competitive/collaborative), and so on.
Like many other things in life, the critical step here is not to learn the theory but to increase your self-awareness and be more aware of others. Learning by heart the etiquette and customs of every country you will be visiting can be helpful, but it can only take you so far. Understanding the underlying preferences of the people from the culture you are seeing and how this differs from your preferences, on the other hand, is more helpful and can be easily applied across different cultures.
As an example, I am quite direct and low context in my communication style. This means I like to tell it as it is, without adorning much what I am supposed to say, and I expect others to understand what I am saying and act upon it. There are other cultures, like in Asia, where I happen to live now, where direct communication can be seen as too harsh or aggressive and can cause others to lose face. I can offend others without even realizing it.
High context communicating cultures (like Asian ones again) convey their messages with much more than their simple words, like for example symbols, gestures, etc. I suspect my colleagues in Singapore, India, or China have often sent me subliminal messages that I didn’t get at all due to my low sensitivity to high context communication. I am not used to it; so many things escape my attention.
Italians and Spaniards are different after all
I saw a clear example of this when I started my previous job in 2015 in the Mediterranean region. We were reorganizing our structure, and for the first time, Italians and Spaniards were going to work together as part of the same regional organisation. An Italian leader came to me, visibly upset and complaining about a Spanish colleague. I asked him what happened, and he replied something like this:
“This guy from Spain has sent a rude email to his new team in Italy. He asked the manager in Italy to send him an org chart of his organization, can you believe it? This is outrageous!”
He was clearly agitated and upset, but I didn’t understand why. I replied like this:
“But isn’t he the new manager? He is just asking for an org chart to get an idea of the organization, who reports to whom, who is in the team, etc. I think it is a normal request. Why are you so upset?”
His response was enlightening:
“You don’t ask these things like this. It is a lack of respect. The managers in Italy and Spain were peers until now. The Spanish one has been promoted and is now the manager of the Italian one, but the latter has been in the company for longer and deserves some respect. The Spanish manager should have come to Italy and start building the relationship. They should have a meeting, have lunch together, he should meet the team personally. Once that is done, he can ask the org charts and all the information he needs.”
This was a great lesson for me. Many people believe Italians and Spaniards are quite similar (Mediterranean, passionate, we like good food and long meals, similar languages, etc.), but we are culturally different. It seems Italians use a more high context communication style than us Spaniards. The Spanish manager just wanted to get some information, so he asked for it as he knew, explicitly and directly. Italians, with their high context, looked at much more than the words uttered: how they were uttered, in what context, in what medium, and so on, and they got a completely different message.
Who was right, and who was wrong? Nobody really. They just looked at things in different ways, and there was a disconnect. If this can happen between Italians and Spaniards, what other misunderstandings can occur between farther away and dissimilar cultures? The margin for a relationship-damaging faux-pas is huge.
Leveraging differences across cultural dimensions
We all have different ways to look at things. We have unique individual characteristics linked to our personality, but also perspectives, preferences, and mindsets related to our culture. We all belong to different cultural groups (ethnicity, country, region within a country, profession… even companies have their own culture) that give us different ways of thinking, communicating, and looking at the time, hierarchy, or the importance of relationships over tasks. None of these cultural preferences are better than others; they all have their good and bad things. I may think communicating directly is clearer and more effective, but indirect communication can be more appropriate in some circumstances and will probably help maintain the harmony of the team better. Understanding the advantages and drawbacks of both communication styles and being able to decide when to use each can be very helpful.
Cultural agility will be one of the main competencies a leader has to master to succeed today and in the future. A culturally agile person is self-aware of her cultural preferences and abilities but understands other preferences can be useful depending on the situation and the people she needs to interact with. She will have a broader range of options to face different challenging situations. Cultural agility is not only about understanding differences, but leveraging them. It is about making the most of all the possibilities a broad palette of cultural choices offers.
Since that episode with my Italian colleagues, I learned that there are different ways to communicate with other people and that when you talk to someone you convey a message with much more than your words. Believe it or not, I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time. I think that episode helped me, not only to work better with Italians, but to adapt better to my life in Asia.
Living in Asia, you get exposed to a dizzying array of cultural differences, working and socialising with Singaporeans, Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Japanese… They are all very different from Spanish and among them too. I made plenty of mistakes and there have been plenty of misunderstandings in the way. Still, every day I learn something new, and I expand my personal toolkit with different ways to respond to situations, get things done, and communicate with people. Every day I get better at leveraging differences for my own and other people’s benefit. Every day I’m getting richer, not in money, but in internal resources to face the challenges life puts in front of me, and I love it!