Why Strong Leadership in Cross-Cultural Environments Is Important To The Employee Experience & How You Can Embrace A Diverse Workforce

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Why Strong Leadership in Cross-Cultural Environments Is Important To The Employee Experience & How You Can Embrace A Diverse Workforce
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Why Strong Leadership in Cross-Cultural Environments Is Important To The Employee Experience & How You Can Embrace A Diverse Workforce

The importance of strong leadership in cross-cultural environments has never been higher as the COVID-19 pandemic has virtually redefined how and where we work. With top talent being seriously considered for job opportunities regardless of geography, leaders are recognizing the essential need to adapt and manage an increasingly diverse and global team.

Being an effective and dynamic leader means learning how to build culturally competent bridges that create a healthy, inclusive, and accessible work environment that drives everyone towards success.

What is Leadership In A Cross-Cultural Environment?

Leadership in a cross-cultural environment means understanding and motivating a culturally diverse team to come together through a shared sense of purpose, which moves the team closer to the company’s goals and vision for the future.

By definition, leaders are individuals who inspire, encourage, and empower their teams to move positively forward. They not only provide the necessary resources to have their team do their job effectively but also encourage them individually to step into their unique abilities so that they can perform at their best. Leaders also have the capability to foster a collaborative work environment that steadily produces efficient results.

The challenge now with a largely remote, globalized workforce is to preserve this type of effective teamwork while also leading a team from multiple time zones and different cultural backgrounds. According to Maryville University, Technavio reports that the global market for cross-cultural training services is expected to expand by $1.2 billion between the years 2020-2024, which is driven primarily by companies’ growing emphasis on cultural awareness and new opportunities created by COVID-19.

As the talent pool continues to boast a diverse group of experienced professionals from across the globe, leaders must evolve alongside their multicultural workforce and create a work environment that is both inclusive and also supports a true sense of belonging. Leading a cross-cultural team can create advantages that help make a huge impact on the company.

Benefits of Leading a Cross-Cultural Team

The Benefits of Leading a Cross-Cultural Team

Successful leaders understand that one of the top benefits employees actively seek is flexibility. In order to foster a positive work environment that optimally performs, it’s important to keep this top of mind as it creates a culture of trust and loyalty when employees feel their time and efforts are valued and appreciated. This is more important now than ever as the workforce evolves into a virtual capacity composed of a globalized team. However, when a team is led successfully despite the barriers, there are a number of benefits:

  • Increased employee engagement – When employees know they work for a company that prioritizes and works with a diverse group of talent, they’re more likely to appreciate the organization and believe in the company’s mission, which results in more motivation, productivity, and overall engagement. Gartner Research reveals that inclusive teams improve performance by at least 30%.
  • Knowledge-sharing through new perspectives– A diverse team can learn a lot from each other. They can share skills, experiences, and information that help inspire the team to think creatively in ways they’ve not thought of before as a result of new perspectives. This greatly improves teamwork amongst individuals from different backgrounds. When the group is able to apply the unique knowledge they have gained from their colleagues, collaboration is more efficient and often innovative.

Greater innovation

  • Greater innovation – According to Maryville University, companies with a diverse workforce are 1.8 times more likely to embrace change and 1.7 times more likely to become market leaders. This is likely because your team is feeling motivated to do their best work under leadership that makes them feel included and safe.
  • Attracts and keeps top talent – 3 out of 4 candidates consider diversity in the workplace to be a top priority when considering offers of employment. (Source: Glassdoor.) An increasingly high number of top talent are searching for work environments that value inclusivity and diversity in the workplace. This allows the potential employee to get a glimpse into your company’s values. You’ll gain more interested, qualified, and A-list job seekers when you prioritize hiring a highly diversified team. As an added benefit, your company’s reputation gains positive traction in your industry as you positively interact with candidates, bring aboard new hires that respect the company’s mission, and offer an employee experience where everyone is aligned in their values and goals, helping to retain your top performers.
  • Increased profits – As employee satisfaction within the company increases, so does employee performance and productivity, ultimately resulting in higher profits. In a survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, over 1,700 companies across eight countries were examined to assess if there was any correlation between having diverse teams and a company’s overall innovation and performance. The result of the survey was that in all eight countries, there was a statistically important relationship between diversity and innovation. The study continued to show that diverse companies had 19% higher revenue. CMS Wire also echoed a similar finding. Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 36% more likely to see financial returns that exceed the average for their particular industry.

A cross-cultural team can yield so many benefits for the company by bringing in fresh perspectives, new ideas, and inspiration for more inspired creativity, all of which help cultivate a positive work environment.

Challenges of Leadership in Cross-Cultural Environments

The Challenges of Leadership in Cross-Cultural Environments

Of course, having a multicultural environment is not without its complexities. Common expressions that we normally don’t think twice about in everyday life can be easily misinterpreted by others from different cultures, especially in the absence of context. Working in an exclusively remote capacity exacerbates miscommunication in virtual teams.

For example, in a talk given at a TEDx event in Barcelona by Ricardo Fernandez, he outlined some of the challenges he experienced as a leader of teams located in multiple countries and the communication challenges that arose internally. One notable story involves a routine conference call with his team in South Africa. By the end of their meeting, one of his team members relays that he would call Ricardo “just now.”

Ricardo ended the team call and waited. And continued waiting until, after 15 minutes, he sent a message asking if they were going to speak soon as he was under the impression they were going to speak shortly after the meeting. His team member responded, repeating what he had said and sending an image of how South Africans define some expressions of time. Fernandez had thought that they were going to speak in a matter of minutes, while his team member explained that they would talk in the near future, but not necessarily right at that moment. Fernandez was astounded that something as simple as expressions of time led to a misunderstanding. Fernandez also noted that while he was glad the miscommunication happened internally — allowing him an opportunity to digest the difference in expression — he considered that this may have not gone as well if it had happened in a meeting with a client.

This was an instance of the difference in forms of expression. Here are some other common cross-cultural misunderstandings that are common in work environments:

  • Attitudes towards conflict. Generally, any conflict in the workplace is considered uncomfortable and something to be avoided; however, in some cultures, conflict is actually viewed as a positive thing. In most cases, we are often encouraged to identify the root of the issue and begin the steps necessary to come to a resolution, likely involving a face-to-face discussion. Adversely, most Eastern countries like to address interpersonal conflict quietly and prefer written communication as the preferred way to solve issues.
  • Communication style. Having effective communication in the workplace is one of the biggest challenges for teams. This is especially true for diverse groups where language barriers may continuously lead to misunderstandings. Leaders must also be aware that certain cultures often use open-ended questions, rather than declarative statements.
  • Work Style. Leaders should be conscious of the different working hours and time zone differences of the people on their global team to maximize work output and ensure regular communication. It’s important to have an understanding of the various holidays, expectations of time off, and overall work schedule that allows the team to maintain flexibility within their personal lives.
  • Decision-making. Different, more inclusive methods of leadership are certainly on the rise. However, the general view of decision-making primarily in the United States is that of the top-down system. Decisions are made at the top and then rolled down to those who will carry out the assignments and execute those instructions. For some cultures, especially in Japan, decision-making is a collective effort, in which consensus among the entire team is the favored method. Remember that individuals will likely approach decision-making from their cultural frame of mind.
  • Attitudes towards openness. Inevitably, gossip or discussion of personal matters makes its way into the workplace. In some cultures, open disclosure of personal information, emotions, or their involvement with interpersonal conflict is not considered appropriate and is oftentimes viewed as intrusive. It would be easy to assume that their tendency to lean away from these issues makes them appear more defensive or potentially aggressive when in reality, their attitude is a natural response for them. Leaders must keep this in mind when dealing with sensitive employee relations issues that arise within their teams.
  • Cultural Stereotypes. Whether this occurs consciously or subconsciously, cultural stereotyping in the workplace happens more than we think. For example, in an article written by the LA Times, Asian Americans were considered the least likely group to be promoted into a management or leadership role at less than 1%, even though they make up at least 12% of the workforce. There’s a bias that Asian Americans are not as assertive, and therefore are offered more technical roles instead, which ultimately do not provide any ample training for leadership opportunities or skill development.

There are many challenges being a leader in a cross-cultural environment, but there are ways that allow you to continue developing the appropriate skills, awareness, and effective communication styles, which help enable your diverse team to thrive.

Become a Cross-Cultural Leader

How To Become a Cross-Cultural Leader

Leadership in a cross-cultural environment is all about learning how to improve upon your current leadership style and expanding your knowledge on the different cultures that make up your team. It’s about taking a step back, carefully examining and understanding any “mistakes” or miscommunication that may have happened, and leaning into your motivation to grow your skills as an exceptional leader. Let’s talk about how you can add to your leadership tool belt and improve how you lead a cross-cultural group:

Be open and flexible with your leadership style

One of the biggest challenges for managers is accepting that not everyone will be onboard with your natural leadership style. What you may think is working with the team overall might actually be stalling their productivity. For example, what you may consider as being supportive by instructing the employee on how to exactly respond to an issue, may in fact come across as micromanaging. If done often enough — where a manager consistently steps into a situation that the employee should be able to handle– the result will be the employee no longer feeling empowered to give you their creativity. Conversely, if you’re too hands off, the employee may feel that they cannot rely on you as a source of support. Being open and flexible with your leadership in a cross-cultural environment will help you adapt to the different work styles on your team, which will make it easier to discover what may or may not be working.

Communicate clearly

Providing context is key. When making an announcement, updating the team, or giving out recognition, try to be as clear as possible with your communication. Be focused and keep things simple. Avoid using too much slang, colloquialisms, or idioms that could lead to confusion. No matter how well-meaning the messaging was intended to be, if there isn’t any proper context, it could possibly offend some of the individuals on your team or leave them confused about the message you were trying to deliver. Your audience may understand the words on a surface level, but not the meaning behind them. In Fernandez’s TedX talk, he gave an example of this very scenario happening during a project launch with his team in India. Because the project had gone so well, he thought it would be beneficial for his team to give them the praise they deserved for the overall success. In one of their weekly calls, he recognized one of his colleagues and said, “You’re killing it out there!”

Now for those who are familiar with this phrase and hear it quite frequently, we wouldn’t think twice. This is in reference to a job well done. For Fernandez, he elicited the exact opposite response. His Indian colleague contacted him the next day and asked him. “What did I do wrong? What can I do to improve?” Fernandez was completely surprised by this reaction. He thought he was providing positive feedback that would make his colleague feel appreciated for his hard work. Instead, the phrase was interpreted in a completely different way. Same words, different meanings. According to Fernandez, the lack of context created this misunderstanding.

Remain a neutral party during conflicts

Remain a neutral party during conflicts

During any interpersonal conflict within the team, it’s the job of any leader to remain a neutral third-party. Reserve any judgments, and don’t openly take sides. Especially in diverse teams, make sure to ask questions, particularly when you’re unclear. Listen, repeat back your understanding of what the person has said, and confirm if your summary was accurate. This is how you utilize active listening effectively and avoid misunderstandings when it comes time to create a solution.

Take advantage of training

Be open to discovering and pursuing training that the whole team can participate in. Focus on development that strengthens communication and team-building. Also search for opportunities that are tailored specifically towards managers and building leadership qualities. This will help you address and resolve team issues in an effective manner as well as work on your own communication style and management, fostering your growth as a team leader. You’ll find that developing leadership skills requires you to think differently, leaning heavily towards strategic decision-making, thoughtful approaches to conflict, and an enhanced awareness of the people that make up your team.

Be accommodating of different cultural customs

In a multicultural team, awareness of the various holidays or customs that occur throughout the year is essential to being a culturally competent leader. It takes more than having the knowledge of different cultures. Leaders must work to practice genuine understanding and empathy across the different cultures that make up the team and be thoughtful and flexible enough to adapt to varying expectations.

Foster a positive work environment

If you prioritize creating a positive work environment built from trust, respect, and support, you’re building a culture of psychological safety. Your employees will feel comfortable coming to you if there are any issues within the team or if they need more clarity on assignment without fear of punishment. In a multicultural environment, you want to foster this kind of trust and sense of community in order to have the most successful outcomes. The hallmark of a culturally competent leader is the ability to bring together people with different backgrounds, motivations, experiences, and ways of thinking and guide them towards a common goal.

Regularly ask for feedback

One of the most insightful ways to gain feedback on your management style is to host regular individual check-ins with your team. Ask for feedback on their needs, what you could do better, and what kind of support is needed from you in order to be at their most successful. This is the chance to open the communication channels, get on the same page, and clear up any misunderstandings. Incorporating a QR Code into your check-in process can streamline feedback collection by directing team members to online surveys or feedback forms.

Regularly ask for feedback

Just remember that when asking for feedback, be open to their comments or suggestions. It’s not always easy to hear criticism, even if it is constructive in nature. This is also an opportunity to get to know your employee on a more personal level, which may help them feel more comfortable with you. If they feel genuinely valued and cared for, your employee may be willing to share honest feedback, rather than share vague or superficial comments. Effective leaders should be able to consistently assess themselves in order to make timely improvements.

Practice patience and persistence

Being a successful leader in a cross-cultural environment takes time and patience. To be able to see the whole picture and nurture each employee’s professional growth while building mutual respect amongst different cultures is no easy feat. It’s a nuanced practice that stretches your skills and refines them.

Think about it this way. Let’s say you have an employee from a different country who is learning how to speak English. When you have conversations with your employee, it may be difficult at first to understand what they’re saying. You may even be frustrated by the difficulties involved with communication and the misunderstandings that are created because of the language barrier. It can begin to feel like it may not be a good fit. This is where persistence and compassion for each other comes in. Leaders need to build strong bridges for their employees, support them, and practice patience. In some cases, they may even need a little extra support from a third party so that they can both improve on their communication differences.

While it may feel easier to replace the employee, you risk losing a potentially competent and productive team member. Persistence, patience, and compassion is the key to fostering an employee’s growth, especially if they’re from a different country. If leaders can’t adapt to the increasingly diverse market, it’ll be extremely hard — and costly — to grow the team, retain high performers, and meet the company’s overall goals.

Treat everyone with respect

Effective cross-cultural leadership ensures that everyone on the team feels comfortable. To help build their confidence and trust in you, show them respect, encourage them to step into their abilities, be humble, kind, and open as there is always something new to learn in a cross-cultural environment. If your employees know that their leader is actively working to understand and appreciate cultural differences, the more likely they are to feel safe and respect you in turn.

Be curious and adapt

One of the most important traits of cross-cultural leadership is being genuinely curious about other cultures that are vastly different from your own. You must be willing to respect and acknowledge that other cultures have their own unique way of working that adds an extra layer of complexity to communication and overall work output. In an Inc. article written by Beth Fisher-Yoshida, she talks at length about how cultural misunderstandings can negatively impact global deals. For example, Yoshida noted that the Japanese have a “relationship-focused culture.” In order to close a deal in Japan, your Japanese colleagues must feel comfortable with you in order to develop trust and respect. Without an intense curiosity for their culture and ability to adapt to this type of approach to business, there are many opportunities for miscommunication and loss of productivity.

The Importance of Leadership in a Cross-Cultural Environment

The Importance of Leadership in a Cross-Cultural Environment

Being a leader in a cross-cultural environment can help you grow both professionally and personally. While you may face unique challenges, leaders and managers can take the necessary steps to ensure that their team remains highly motivated, inspired, and encouraged to meet the company’s goals and bottom-line. Afterall, these are the hallmark traits of a successful leader.

To develop cross-cultural leadership skills that embrace the different ethnicities, religions, races, and cultures, you need a strong sense of persistence, curiosity, and willingness to understand different perspectives. It’s about self-awareness and self-understanding about some of our own biases in the workplace, and the work that we pour into changing how we view differences.

You can create a true sense of belonging in your team by being open-minded while allowing your team to thrive in a safe and inclusive space.


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