As a group of senior leaders of a (newly) global company discussed their 2016 plans, it was quickly evident that their lack of visibility into cultural differences across geography was a factor in the planning they shared. A leader in Europe raised differences in norms about reporting relationships as a factor in their new “matrixed” leadership plan. A leader in Mexico brought up the lack of women leaders in his organization and wondered if diversity training would help. And a US based leader interrupted a Japanese colleague three times before getting feedback that culturally, this was seen as impolite.
My experience with US based companies is that we can be terribly narcissistic about what we believe business culture is and should be globally.
Leaders who have worked in the US only often simply don’t know what they don’t know, and as a result, they can easily offend, derail, and interfere with team healthy and strategy effectiveness due to cultural differences. At Gugin, leaders rate “understanding why people behave differently” as one of the top 5 challenges cross-cultural leaders face, and yet many US based leaders I have worked with have never even asked the question of themselves before working with people from other countries “why might s/he be acting this way?”
In the global economy, it benefits US based leaders to stop behaving as if the US based ways of running companies can and will work unconditionally across cultures. They simply won’t. “In multi-national business organizations, the values and beliefs of the home organization are taken for granted and serve as a frame of reference for the home office…Leaders in linchpin roles need to be bicultural because they need a double trust relationship, one with the home office company culture and one with the host country.” (Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov; Cultures and Organizations The Software of the Mind.)
How can you become less narcissistic as a cross-cultural leader? Here’s my top 10:
- Know the culture of your organization: how do we do things here?
- Understand how your way of partnering and leading represents your company/country culture to others.
- Study, ask, and learn the elements of the host country, and the specific organization on the ground.
- Become attenuated to behavioral norms that matter: social graces, attire, habits, patterns, and meeting formats so that you don’t inadvertently step in dog do.
- Ask for feedback about how you come across to colleagues in other places. Often.
- Manage your assumptions: just because you do things one way at your company in the US does not mean your colleagues elsewhere do it that way, too.
- Learn the language if you can–it is the keys to the kingdom in building partnership across cultures.
- Discuss company and country culture with your counterparts as a discovery process not an inquisition.
- Travel often and deeply; move beyond the tourist destinations and foreigner co-travelers to let yourself feel a place.
- Recognize that your American-ism is far more visible to others than it is to you. Pay attention, and you may lesson your unconscious negative impact?