Intercultural Leadership is challenging. Everyone who has tried to manage a group of people from diverse cultures can confirm that.  That can be people from different departments, different professional groups, different age groups, different nationalities etc. Since we started Gugin in 2001 we have been working with all sorts of intercultural leadership challenges, so in this short article I will try to summarise some of the major, generic challenges we have faced

Intercultural Leadership definition

If you google intercultural leadership you will find thousands of definitions We like to stick with this definition

We don’t want to go into a long discussion about the differences between leadership and management here especially not when intercultural competencies are the main focus.

 Unpredictable behaviour in Intercultural Leadership

We all have different values, different priorities in life and different understandings of what each word means. Quality, for example, is by some people associated with delivering on time, while others associate it with being perfect, beautiful or robust. We always say we want the highest quality delivered on time, but we all know that reality often is very different. We have to compromise. We have to either deliver an 80% solution on time or give up delivering on time. The intercultural leadership challenge is that we have different preferences for what is important.

organisational effectiveness

Example: Intercultural leadership in IT outsourcing

We have worked with quite a few clients who were frustrated about the companies to which they had outsourced their IT development projects. The frustration related to intercultural leadership develops if the company prioritises delivering on time while the company they have outsourced to prioritises perfection about delivering on time. Both values are important but when you can’t achieve both you have to prioritise. From an intercultural leadership perspective, this is very challenging. We assume we prioritise the same way, understand words like “quality” the same way and communicate the same way. But we don’t.

So suddenly we experience other people behaving and prioritising in ways we don’t understand. If we are less experienced with these intercultural challenges we get frustrated maybe even angry. If we have a higher level of cultural intelligence we assess the differences in the underlying values. We will try to reconcile these differences and find a solution that enriches having different value sets in play.

 Compromising intercultural values

Our behaviour is closely linked to our underlying values and norms. As we have different norms and values because differences in cultures lead to different behaviours. According to ourselves we always behave properly because our behaviour always reflects our own values – even when we do something cruel. Intercultural clashes happen when other people’s behaviour compromises our own values. It happens all the time. You may have a value about giving up your seat on the bus to an elderly man, while others do not share that value. When an elderly person comes on the bus and no one gives him a seat you will feel offended – because your values are compromised.

Some years ago I moved from Denmark to southern France. I use to have a coffee at the same cafe every morning when walking the dog. In the beginning, I noticed that the regulars got a small Pain Au Chocolat together with their coffee, while I just got the coffee. I could feel offended. Why do they get better treatment than me – we are all equal. At least that is how the cultural norms are in Denmark. Everyone is treated equally bad and no one should think he is somebody special. In France it is different and that is one of the reasons why I love living here. By coming to the same cafe often you build a relationship and you show loyalty. That loyalty is rewarded with a small Pain Au Chocolat together with your coffee. If I was not aware of the differences in the underlying values, I could have made a scene ( what some tourists do sometimes). There are different values in different cultures and we are not to judge which ones are right. They are all right in the cultural frame, where they exist.

In business dealing with compromising values is an important issue to reconcile. As I wrote before – norms and values are closely tied to a culture. The norms and values you have in your organisation support your corporate culture, so when you employ new people, outsource to external companies or hire in-house subcontractors you have to make sure that they share your norms and values.

How do you check norms and values?

First, you have to be very aware of your own culture. In Gugin we call that the cultural DNA and we describe that Cultural DNA through our Cultural Due Diligence Process which goes through all the elements of your culture and make the diffuse term “culture” more tangible by looking at all the measurable elements in the cultural DNA.

 Difficult to perform as a manager without intercultural competencies

Many of the managers we talk to find intercultural leadership annoying and difficult.  Managing culturally diverse groups is difficult and challenging because decision processes take much longer time, you have to explain everything and you never know what is going to happen. The managers don’t respond this way because they are narrow-minded or don’t acknowledge that we are living in a globalised world.

They respond this way because they find it difficult to perform well as a manager in that situation because they lack skills and experience in cross-cultural leadership. The managers have to meet deadlines, and deliver high quality within the budgets. They can only do that in a multicultural environment if they know how to manage, motivate, encourage and communicate with a team of people with many different values. That is why developing cultural intelligence is crucial for most organisations.

Managing a culturally diverse team is like eating with a knife and a fork. They are two very distinct tools, but because you have the cultural intelligence that enables you to use the knife in one way and the fork in another – at the same time you can eat a huge variety of food.

Cross Cultural Management

Intercultural Leadership explained

As annoying it might be working with a diverse group of people it is equally rewarding when you succeed and you experience how much better multicultural teams are when all the members understand the basic elements of cultural intelligence.

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Book Dr Finn Majlergaard for a thought-provoking and energising speech or workshop on how you can create competitive advantage from elevating the level of cultural intelligence in your organisation

Dr Finn Majlergaard
Dr Finn Majlergaard

CEO Gugin, Professor, Keynote Speaker, Author

  • We align your corporate culture with your strategy.
  • We take you safely through major changes in your organisation.
  • We develop the crucial cultural intelligence in your organisation by training your employees and leaders
  • We help you develop a competitive advantage with a unique corporate culture

Gugin has helped more than 600 companies around the world creating a winning corporate culture.

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