Global Leadership: Five Steps to Calibrating your Cultural Compass — by Dr. Richard Griffith

Global Leadership today: The modern workplace brims with activity as people dart from meeting to meeting. Sometimes our communication is too brief. At times our messages are not well thought out. Even when the communication is crystal clear, the message can get lost in a wave of workload. But because our organizations tend to rely on best practices, people have a common frame-of-reference when there are misunderstandings. Best practices are a common denominator that allow us to understand and predict behavior, and serve as “true north” as we navigate the complexity of modern organizational life.
As organizations expand internationally and multi-cultural communications between employees, vendors, suppliers, and customers become more frequent, we are finding that the common denominator of best practices begins to unravel. And once we can no longer fall back on best practices, our inner compass can go haywire.

Are Best Practices Universal?
What we may have come to know as best practices aren’t the same everywhere in the world. For instance, leadership practices vary greatly across the planet. The most highly regarded MBA programs would tout the best practices of participative decision making and empowerment. But if you attempt to apply those practices in Eastern Europe or in Asia you may be viewed as a weak or ineffective leader. Business-related practices from compensation to motivation are all rooted in cultural assumptions about the value of work, risk, and the relationships between superior and subordinate. Although there is a great deal of similarity in how business is conducted, these cultural assumptions can alter the practice of management in non-western cultures. So how do we know which direction to go? We can calibrate our cultural compass by following five steps.

Develop Flexibility
While familiar best practices are useful algorithms to fall back on in our own culture, adherence to them also makes us rigid in our thinking, and leads us to conceptualize tasks in the light of the “right way” to do things. This rigidity is often the underlying cause of cultural errors in business. Rather than approaching tasks in a pre-determined fashion as we are trained to do, begin to complete them in a manner that you haven’t before. If you are impulsive, try to make a deliberate, data driven decision. If you prefer to work alone, try to get more experience in a team. Something as simple as choosing another way to drive to work adds to your cognitive flexibility. This flexibility leads to less tension when plans deviate, more viable alternatives when problem solving, and allows you to consider context before acting.

Do Your Cultural Homework
For any substantive decision, leaders now absorb a great deal of data and analysis before finalizing business. Strangely, culture is ignored. A great deal of research examines how cultures may differ, and this science is very accessible. For those who want to delve deeply into the topic there are a number of books, such as Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Hofstede, or Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business by Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars . For others looking for a less time consuming method to understand culture, there are now smart phone apps that allow you to compare cultural dimensions described in Hofstede’s work to your own. Many workshops are available to help you apply this new knowledge responsibly and effectively. The extent of your cross-cultural business preparation is inevitably influenced by organizational strategy, available resources, and motivation. But if you aren’t doing your homework, you aren’t doing your best.

Create “Empty Space” On Your Calendar
Part of the challenge of leading international teams is that the simplest task can take much longer to complete than with a team from a familiar culture. In the U.S. fast = successful. In general, leaders who take over a new team want to make a splash; a quick visible win to show the home office that they are capable of running an overseas initiative. This is a mistake. If you plan to be efficient in the early stages of an international initiative, your expectations won’t be met, you will be frustrated, and you will feel that you are behind from the very first stages of the project. We recommend building extra space in your calendar to handle these unforeseen project delays. In general, add 30% to any time estimate you might have developed with the home team, and sandwich the project plan with some “empty space”. Trust us, you will need it to develop relationships, and solid connections on a personal level are invaluable when navigating new waters.

Emphasize Relationship vs. Task Focus
In the US, we maintain a very tight task focus when we are working, and an individual’s trustworthiness is often tied to their competence. However, in the rest of the world the basis of trust may be different, as well as what actually may be considered “work”. For instance, in Chicago drinking coffee in the afternoon and chatting about family may be considered slacking off. On the other hand, in Sao Paulo spending an afternoon getting to know a colleague or customer may be the smartest business decision you can make. The foundation of business in much of the world is not based on “what you know”, but rather “who you know, and who knows you”. Business deals are often conducted in tight, well maintained networks comprised of family and close friends. If you intend to get something done, you need to spend time developing and maintaining relationships.

Cultivate a Cultural Advisor
If you are lucky, your new relationships may yield a cultural advisor. This advisor should be someone familiar with the culture you will be working with, and ideally familiar with your own culture as well. Given their level of cultural expertise, these advisors can point out invisible cultural traps. The famous Invisible Gorilla studies conducted by Daniel Simon at the University of Illinois dramatically demonstrated that you can’t see what you don’t know or expect. If you are unfamiliar with cultural norms, they are literally invisible to you. A trusted cultural advisor can point out the invisible cultural gorilla in the room, and provide guidance on how to better navigate the issue. It is actually a good idea to cultivate a few advisors so you can get multiple perspectives and not rely too heavily on one person’s opinion.

When we are leading teams at home, we use our accumulated experience to develop management instincts, and we can rely on our gut feelings to know when something is wrong. However, when leading an international team or conducting international business, you may find that your inner compass fails you. The good news is that with a little effort, trust, and perspective taking, you can calibrate your cultural compass by incorporating some relatively straightforward steps. While you may still get turned around and disoriented every now and then, if you invest time getting your cultural compass to operate accurately you can stay on the path to prosperity.


Richard L. Griffith, Ph.D., is the executive director of The Institute for Cross Cultural Management (ICCM) at the Florida Institute of Technology. He has conducted research for the Department of Defense on the measurement and training of cross-cultural competence and the development of region-specific cultural databases, and has 15 years of corporate coaching experience. He is the co-editor of The Age of Internationalization and the upcoming book Leading Global Teams: Translating the Multidisciplinary Science to Practice. His work has been featured in Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

Institute for CrossCultural Management Florida Institute of Technology

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