December 3, 2018

Top mistakes leaders make in intercultural situations and what makes them successful

Empowering leaders to develop Global Competence through Inter-Cultural Intelligence.

All too often we see the same mistakes repeated over and over again, so we wanted to collate some common misconceptions around working inter-culturally and the challenges it presents. This is your chance to learn from the mistakes that leaders have made time and again, and hopefully you will avoid them.

Successful here doesn’t mean successful there

Just because you were successful in one context with one cultural mix of people, doesn’t mean you will automatically be successful in another context with a different mix of people. Equally, if you have worked for an organization for many years please don’t assume that you are the authority on leadership in that organization.

Ownership of companies shift across borders, shareholding constructions change, multiple corporations from different nationalities move to own businesses. These changes change your level of knowledge and your place in the organization.

A great example I can think of is one of our clients in the aviation industry which has gone very rapidly through four stages of change where the whole identity and reach of the business has changed from a local to a boutique carrier to international carrier and now a globally operating airline. All of this has happened in a short time where some leaders have changed and some have stayed with the organization. The leaders remaining would be foolish to say that because they were leaders in the original organization they are therefore equipped to be strong leaders in the global organization.

They must have changed, adapted and grown in some context to be able to survive the transitions that they have.

Technical competence doesn’t make you a great leader

Some leaders assume that because they are technically competent that they can lead. But we see all the time that what determines truly great leaders is their commitment to being cultural learners.

People move and the environment around them changes and becomes more intercultural. To be valuable contributor to your organization you need to familiarize yourself with behaviors of critics and learners and do an honest assessment of where you stand.

Because the bottom line is that if you’re a cultural critic you will eventually create a situation where you’re not valuable for the organization. You will have a significant amount of conflict with customers, clients and within the organization.

One size doesn’t ever fit all – be context independent

Never assume that something that worked in one situation will work in what you see as a similar situation.

Ask questions and ascertain what the “real situation” is. Don’t be quick to draw conclusions because of prior experience. Intercultural changes mean that leaders often misread situations and where they thought they understood what was happening, they often get it wrong. In intercultural situations its easy to misinterpret and to try and put a band-aid you’ve previously used on a very different wound. When this happens quickly recognize, apologize and reframe.

And more importantly learn to employ holism and dance around a little longer, asking more questions for as long as you reasonably can so you can be as sure as possible that you have understood the intercultural context properly.

Marshall Goldsmiths: “What got me here won’t get me there” is a pertinent reminder that we cannot repeat success by repeating what we’ve already done. In a different context repeating prior behavior can be very damaging.

Being context independent is important too. Even if you were a very good leader back home, you must be willing to suspend what you knew there, so that you recognize that your situation is now new, that you have never led a team like this, in this season, in this context. You must learn and observe all over again.

Transactional or Relational Excellence

When things get complex leaders tend to focus on either transactional or relational excellence, but seldom on both. In reality the more complex a situation becomes, the more the leader needs to find a way to help the team to pursue both transactional as well as relational excellence and this is challenging because to pursue both at 100% is not easy.

Mission, vision, values – but where are the behaviors

Leaders need to be clearer from the onset about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior and what permissions we give each other when we display acceptable or unacceptable behavior.Mission, vision and values are frequently discussed, but the problem with intercultural situations is that even if these are defined it won’t help people to understand what they mean in terms of behaviors. And if you don’t address this early people will fill in the blanks and colleagues with the best of intentions will become a problem for you.

So when you bring a team together, be that a mature team where you take over leadership or a new team birthed as a new initiative or even new company, don’t forget to outline and give examples of these behaviors.

Spending a little time on this will ensure that people behave the way you agreed and as a result they will learn to trust each other quickly.

The only thing constant in life is change

Your capacity as a leader to lead in and through change is continuous. The leaders who speak of periods of change rather than a life of constant change live in a false reality. Change happens all the time and intercultural mixes are constantly changing. To be successful you must assume that things are always changing and you therefore need to constantly re-evaluate to be able to stay ahead of the curve. Your ability to create a third cultural space that you can operate in within this change is what makes you a truly great leader.

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