Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Challenges of Intercultural Leadership - Watching out for Blindspots

Cross-cultural, multicultural, intercultural...these terms are often used interchangeably yet have finely nuanced distinctions. For a leader, the cross cultural context means literally crossing cultures to do business, provide service, or vacation in another culture. Multicultural refers to multiple cultures existing in a geographic place or organization, each separate and distinct. Intercultural refers to the act of understanding the values and beliefs of a culture and being able to communicate and collaborate with people across multiple cultures. Interculturalism has as its goal innovation, inclusion, and friendship. Intercultural ism implies interaction.

Milton Bennett, an interculturalist and the founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute in Portland, Oregon suggests the following definition for “Interculturalism”. It is “the learned and shared values, beliefs, and behaviours, of a group of interacting people”. There are at least two key ideas embedded in this definition. One is the notion that with enough curiosity and respect we can come to share values and beliefs and the second is that real understanding between people has to come from mutual interaction. The positive spinoffs to this approach are manifold. The act of valuing differences rather than imposing your own norms, values, and beliefs, applies to all, professional, corporate, and perhaps best of all, families.

It seems to me that many organizations believe that a “global” perspective on leadership will simply emerge as a leader interacts with diverse cultures. This is unlikely to happen. Our own western culture values and recognizes certain kinds of behaviours. As leaders grow within an organization they quickly discover what gets recognized and therefore rewarded. We place a high premium on “getting it done”, on production, and timeliness. Someone who can bring a project in “on time and on (or under) budget” is likely to be highly sought after. Yet these valuable skills may be at odds with another cultures respect for relationship and collective decision-making. The challenge in becoming truly intercultural is raising our awareness of how and why we do, say, react and respond in the ways in which we do. It requires a high level of curiosity aimed not only at another culture but at our own.

My own curiosity is piqued when I see the preponderance of leadership books, articles, and blogs with diversity or multicultural leadership as their subject. My lived experience tells me that few of us actually know how to enact these competencies. What prevents us from seeing our own way of being in the world? Is it system blindness, cultural blindness, personal blindness? Is it because our systems don’t recognize and reward curious, reflective, experimental behaviour? What’s more rewarding the path of greatest or least resistance? Let me know when you figure it out...I’m curious.

This blog was written by Christine BonneyManaging Partner at The Acacia Group – responsible for leadership and coaching.


  1. Of course it's not possible (or advisable) to forget your own values; and you're correct, there is little use in trying to advance in an American company by not trying to come in under budget, on time, etc. However, the key is to be able to communicate, motivate, and understand those who come from other cultures, and how best to work with them so that projects do come in under budget and on time.

    *Example: An American manager working with a team of IT workers in Mumbai. There is an agreed upon timeline, and project plan with which the Indian team leader and all other stakeholders are on the same page. The American manager calls one day and asks one of the programmers to make some small changes to the project plan, and asks if that will be doable. The response he gets is "Probably. I'll try my best to get that done." From an American standpoint (direct communication), what the Indian gentleman has just said was "yes", from an Indian standpoint (indirect communication) what he said was a definitive "no." (and keep in mind that English is most often the language of business in both countries!) For a cross-culturally competent manager, the next steps would probably be to call the Indian manager directly (high power distance), and perhaps the other stakeholders to agree to concrete changes in the project plan, and then to call back frequently... daily if necessary, as "first come first served" is not the typical way of getting work done in India... time tends to be more synchronic (rather than linear) there. He could also ask open-ended quetions of the IT worker: "So what would be the best way to make changes to the project plan?" etc.

    So you can see in this example, how the American manager can benefit from a cross-cultural mindset, to get work done in a manner that is acceptable to their American superiors, and will likely help to advance their career. Cross-cultural mindsets help you manage your own cultural expectations, and to develop more efficient ways of getting work done. It's not about changing your own values, it's about being aware of your own values, how those differ from others, and how to best navigate those differences.

    *Keeping in mind, of course, that the actors in the above example are behaving archetypically. Cultural dimensions are cultural tendencies only, and do not apply to every member of every culture group equally, or in the same ways. It’s important not to apply them as stereotypes.

    -Sean Oliver
    Language & Culture Worldwide

  2. Hi Sean,
    Thank-you for the thoughtful posting. It really shows the depth of your experience with Interculturalism. Your example of the American working with an Indian team highlighted the complexity of interaction and underlined the need for a deep understanding of different cultural paradigms in addition to leadership skills.
    Response from Christine Bonney - posted by Penny Lane