Leading Organizations Across Cultures

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There is parable about 2 young fish swimming in the sea, when they encounter an older fish.

“Good morning, boys!” the older fish calls out. “How’s the water?”

The two youngsters swim along for a while, until one of them turns to the other:

“What the hell is water ?”

For humans, the water that surrounds every one of us since the dawn of civilization can be culture . Much like the fish from the fable, we often take culture and its pervasive influence on our existence for granted. Unlike fish, however, humans have made strides in investigating their waters. Across disciplines, culture has been called by many names: an amalgam of values , a shared system of meanings , a collective programming of the mind , an iceberg, and even an onion with outer (e.g., dress, food) and inner (e.g., norms, values) layers.

Culture can also be described as the way a group of people solves problems . As the root of the word cult ure denotes, culture is the way people cult ivate and act upon their environment; the way they manage their resources to obtain solutions to universally occurring dilemmas . In his book Riding The Waves Of Culture Dutch organizational theorist Fons Trompenaars delves into these dilemmas that emerge from people’s relationship with their surrounding world: in particular, other people, time and nature.

Marianna PogosyanSource: Marianna Pogosyan

Leading across cultures

Culture plays an increasingly vital role in the success and failure of international business. Now more than ever, deals and teams, management and negotiation are transcending cultural borders. And yet, our culturally biased leadership models are no longer adequate for the rapidly changing business landscape, says Trompenaars, who has spent over 40 years working in the theory and practice of international management consulting. Instead of searching for a universally right way to lead, he urges international managers to consider organizations as entities comprised of people with their own mental models and meanings that they attribute to the world. For instance, exploring mistakes in a team meeting might mean “useful feedback” to some, and an “admission of failure” to others.

"You know your children are growing up when they stop asking you where they came from and refuse to tell you where they’re going." - P. J. O’Rourke

Thus, to effectively lead across cultures, managers will need more than a crash course in the dos and don’ts of different country profiles. According to Trompenaars’ 4Rs model , they need to r ecognize the cultural differences, r espect the diverging points of view, and then, importantly, learn to r econcile the dilemmas and r ealize strategies that would continuously help their organization in resolving problems stemming from differences.

Marianna PogosyanSource: Marianna Pogosyan

It’s also essential for those working across cultures to develop self-awareness and transcultural competence . Self-awareness can help managers recognize that they – just as the members of their diverse teams – are continuously assigning meaning to behavior. Transcultural competence can help them successfully bring diverging values together, as well as go beyond these meanings that are ascribed by cultural models and explore the differences they encounter, without feeling threatened by them. After all, a wealth can be learned from other approaches – about the world and about ourselves.

Born to a French mother and a Dutch father, Trompenaars has been a firsthand witness to the marriage of cultural dilemmas and their solutions, as well as the rewards of respectful reconciliations of cross-cultural differences. Even now, when he returns home from his foreign travels, other cultures surround him (“In my native Amsterdam, 53% of inhabitants don't have Dutch parents!”). This is a sign of where the world is going, he says, a sign of “diversity of diversity.” So, what is it like to lead and to work internationally, where culture is not a side dish, as Trompenaars observes, but the main course?

Julia Roberts (mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus): “I try to call my mother, Betty, with more regularity because I think, What if Hazel didn’t call me for two weeks? I’m able to see her mothering now from a different vantage point.”

Here is Dr. Trompenaars in his own words.

What is one of the biggest insights you have gained from your research and experiences of managing across cultures?

First of all, the more you travel, the more you appreciate being at home. Also, people around the world share the same dilemmas, but they approach their dilemmas from different angles.

How important is intercultural competence in today’s business world?

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It’s crucial. If we had only one kind of diversity – gender, culture, age – with more information about the other gender, culture, or generation, you could come a long way. But with diversity of diversity, the dynamic of differences gets more complex. Let’s say you have a young male from Ghana working with an older female from the United States. What might be the cause of their communication hurdles – gender, culture, or age? Often, people are given a lot of information about a culture and are told, “Good luck in adapting.” But if you are working in a multicultural group, to whom are you adapting? Intercultural competence is not only about how well you can “adapt” to another culture. Intercultural competence allows you to go beyond the superficial cultural differences and reconcile dilemmas. That’s why I believe that dilemma reconciliation should be included in cross-cultural competence measurements.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (mom of Chelsea): When my daughter was younger, I would say, “‘Chelsea, you’ve never been a baby before, and I’ve never been a mother before, and we’re just going to have to help each other get through this.”

What do you mean by dilemmas?

Dilemma in Greek means “two propositions in conflict.” For example, if on one hand your organization wants to standardize and on the other hand, you want to be flexible, then you have a dilemma, because both choices have positive ramifications. When multiple cultures work together, the possibility of dilemmas rises. And that’s OK, because innovation occurs by combining opposites, which is dilemma reconciliation. Consider the example of Formula 1. The big dilemma there is speed versus safety. Formula 1 engineers are concerned with how they can use speed to make the car safer, or how safety can contribute to speed. Aerodynamics is the answer there – the faster you go, the more downforce you’ll have. It's a counterintuitive way of thinking about the world, but I think dilemmas are wonderful because they lead to innovation.

What is intercultural competence?

For me, the essence of intercultural competence lies in the dynamics between the 4Rs: recognition, respect, reconciliation and realization. It’s not enough to recognize diversity or even to respect it. You need to be able to reconcile the dilemmas and realize it in practice. Intercultural competence is almost the multiplication of the scores you have on the 4 Rs.

How does one acquire intercultural competence?

It’s a combination of experiences, training and having the right role models. It’s who comes with you on your travels and what you learn during your travels that’s important. The essence of intercultural competence lies in self-awareness. When you are self-aware and know who you are, it allows you to adapt to others. In a way, the stability and certainty in your life can let you be flexible when you go abroad.

What are some challenges and rewards of doing business across cultures?

"Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying." - Fran Lebowitz

One of the challenges is the tendency to emphasize differences instead of looking for what we share. In reality, international business can benefit from these points of departure if we think in dilemmas and try to bring these points together, even if they are conflicting. As for the biggest reward – it’s in the learning. Learning means that you are enriching yourself rather than replacing your values by adapting to the other culture.

What is one common source of conflict that leads to a breakdown of communication when working across cultures?

First of all, lack of active listening – really wanting to know what the other person is saying. In a way, active listening, which isn’t the same as agreeing, has a quality of empathy to it. Secondly, the tendency to overlook the fact that people around the world have the same dilemmas – they just look at them from a different angle.

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What advice would you have for leading across cultures?

Servant leadership – how can I enable others to perform better – works everywhere, because it goes beyond culture. Also, think about how to enrich yourself with different values, rather than replace yourself. This will make you a fuller human being and teach you how to connect different viewpoints. And there are so many ways to enrich yourself when you are leading a team of diverse backgrounds.

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As for the frequent travel, as my colleague says, “I am 84 and I still enjoy arriving.”

Many thanks to Fons Trompenaars for his time and insights. Dr. Trompenaars is an organizational theorist and a management consultant and Co-Director at the Servant-Leadership Centre for Research and Education at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. He has been ranked in Thinkers50 as one of the most influential management thinkers alive and in 2017 inducted into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame.