How to work across cultures

October 17th, 2011 by Douglas McEncroe · 2 Comments · Culture, Leadership

I recently worked in Singapore making it the 20th country in which I have delivered Leadership development programmes. But you don’t have to go to another country in order to manage cultural differences for in some of the courses for Electrolux that we have delivered in Stockholm, we have groups of 24 participants that were made up of some 16 different nationalities.

There are those that say that in certain cultures you can’t deliver a leadership programme that requires people to open up and work with the emotional aspects of leadership. If this were true then we have a real problem because I don’t believe that you can build true commitment to a project, a team or indeed to a whole organization unless you touch people emotionally. This is because that commitment is partly build on trust and trust is partly built on emotions. Fortunately I have found that you can put emotions on the table, right across all cultures, however the way you do so may be different.

Commonalities or differences: what is more important?

Over the last three decades there has been an enormous focus on differences be they regional, gender, race, religion, class or cultural. There is pressure brought on people to make special allowances when dealing with people from a special group, seemingly based on the assumption that this group of adults have no ability to look after themselves. During my twenty-five years in Spain I have been bombarded with the differences between Castilians, Catalans, Basques, and Galicians. And yet I observe a collective who have shared the Iberian peninsula, been part of the Roman Empire during five hundred years, shared Christianity, the invasion of the Visigoths and the Moors, the Reconquest, the expansion and loss of the Spanish Empire, the Inquisition, the invasion of Napoleon, and the Civil war. I would have thought that having gone through all of this together there would be some commonality, but it would seem that this has no importance compared with the differences. In my opinion this notion is false.

Working across cultures

The same applies when working across cultures. I am in no way saying that you should ignore the differences between people from different countries, you should take them into account, even make them explicit, and above all respect them. What I am saying however, is that the commonalities as human beings are far more important and much more profound.

  • An extrovert in Italy will look somewhat different to an extravert from Finland and yet the basic psychological difference between them an all introverts when it comes to getting information, will be the same.
  • All people love their children and want the best for them.
  • All of us feel fear, sorrow, envy, joy and pride.
  • Everyone reacts well to kindness.
  • Dunbar’s number that refers to the maximum number of close relationships that a person can have does not only hold up in New York but also in Hangzhou .

Understanding this is the key to getting people to go to the place they need to be in order to work on their personal and professional development.

Keys to working across cultures

  • Understand all that makes us human.
  • Recognize the differences in values, thinking and ways of working.
  • Respect those differences.
  • Draw attention to the things we share, giving concrete examples.
  • Find the right path for getting where you need to go for the culture you are dealing with.

The last point for me is the key. I have not had any group anywhere that has not been capable of working with emotions as a key part of developing and exercising leadership, however the path to get there and the time it takes varies, and that’s O.K. because the important thing is to get there.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jolyn Liddle

    Hello there, just turned into alert to your weblog via Google, and found that it is truly informative. I am going to be careful for brussels. I’ll appreciate when you proceed this in future. Many other people shall be benefited out of your writing. Cheers!

    • Douglas McEncroe

      Thank you Jolyn. A year ago I moved my family to Australia, in my case, back to Australia after 30 years living in Italy and Spain. I am now getting focused on my writing again and hope to be very active. Cheers, Doug

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