Guest Post: The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

cover FlexNote from Art: I’m excited to feature author and global leadership strategist and consultant, Jane Hyun, on this highly relevant topic of managing and leading across differences. Jane’s latest book with Audrey S. Lee, Flex–The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences, offers a practical and powerful guidebook on this important issue for managers and leaders at all levels.

The Art of Cultural Fluency in Leadership

by Jane Hyun

The face of the global workplace has changed forever. Chances are good that your company is already comprised of workers from around the world as well as multicultural employees in North America; more women are in the workforce (about 50% in the U.S.) than ever before, and millennials are entering the workforce in increasing numbers.  No matter where you are headquartered, you are likely doing business with at least one partner or supplier in another country. Yet, despite this increasing diversity of our workforce, we have yet to unlock the keys to fully leveraging this rich talent pool.

Our Tendency to Minimize Difference:

When it comes to navigating across differences, managers tend not to have the conversation.  We recruit diverse people into our organizations and expect that they too, will figure out the rules. But goodwill and positive intent alone is not sufficient for tapping the potential of your multicultural talent.  Too often we expect that cultural outliers on the team will assimilate into the dominant workplace culture, and figure out the behaviors for getting ahead. Some companies even adopt a “sink or swim” mentality for new employees, and  managers who only see through one cultural lens (their own) force employees outside of the dominant culture to change. As a result, workers from other cultures have to adopt Western notions of acceptable behaviors and mannerisms, even those that clash fundamentally with their cultural values.

Without a more nuanced understanding of the differences between people, as well as tools to bridge the communication gaps, managers will be at a loss to bridge the distance between themselves and those who think differently.

Questions for Self Reflection:

  • How comfortable am I with people who are different from me?
  • What perspectives do my diverse employees bring to our business?
  • Are there management practices that I have been using that may be hindering my team’s development?
  • How have previous diversity training or the stigma of talking about differences impacted me as a leader?

 Talking About Differences is Hard

If left unattended, diversity can negatively affect team cohesion and increase miscommunication and conflict. Having a culturally adaptive leader at the helm can encourage diverse viewpoints in decision-making and give voice to the unique perspectives that will drive innovation and growth for your organization.

But talking about difference can be hard. We become so afraid of making the wrong statements that we end up not initiating the dialogue at all. We need a shared vocabulary for discussing differences in a productive way. The solution? To add “fluent leader” skills to your leadership tool kit. A fluent leader adapts his own leadership style in order to work more effectively with colleagues who are different from himself (culturally, generationally, and across the gender divide). He investigates, without judgment, the differences in order to achieve the optimal result.

Here are the stages that we’ve identified when managing people across differences of culture, generation, and gender:

The Blindsided Leader– To you, no news is good news. You are sometimes blindsided when things don’t always go the way you expect. When direct conflict or difficulty arises from differences, you may avoid it completely.

The Judging Leader – You find individuals who relate differently from you annoying.  You might resent a Millennial employee for over-using social media at work, and prefer that people should relate to each other the old fashioned way, or find that your colleagues in Japan tend to be too indirect. You tolerate some differences, but when push comes to shove, you have the right way of doing things and expect team members to conform to your style.

The Golden Rule Leader-  Diversity training has taught you that it’s probably safest to treat everybody the same. You de-emphasize differences and believe that most people will respond positively if you treat them the way that you would want to be treated.

The Fluent Leader -  You accept and are curious about differences across cultural, gender, and generational lines. Instead of resorting to stereotypes to judge these differences, you explore the differences on a one-to-one level.  You can adapt your style to be more effective with colleagues who are different from you.

 A Fluent Leader Creates Connectivity:

Kristin, a VP of Finance in the publishing industry, exhibited fluent leader traits while working with Rosa, one of the accountants on her team. While other team members actively contributed their ideas during their weekly in-person meetings, Rosa seemed hesitant to speak up, even though her written presentations were excellent. As a result, colleagues from other departments began to perceive her as ineffective and even disengaged. Kristin decided to investigate. She took Rosa to lunch and provided feedback about the impact of her meeting behavior.  Through that conversation, she learned that Rosa had been brought up in a traditional Mexican American family.  You show respect by letting your superior have the floor, and these values were deeply embedded from a young age. Since Kristin often led the weekly meeting, Rosa did not feel it was appropriate to interject. With Kristin’s guidance, Rosa shared her opinion once at the next meeting.  Over the course of the next 5 months she contributed her views gradually more each time, turning around how others perceived her in the organization.

The Wrap-Up:

Hiring diverse teams and then hoping for the best is not sufficient.  Motivating people who have divergent viewpoints and cultural styles requires an active dialogue to unearth optimal strategies for engagement. The fluent leader adapts his approach and management style to meet his team members partway to help bridge the gap between them. He is willing to re-think conventional ways of managing others instead of expecting newcomers to adopt the organizations’ norms. And the leaders who become adept at interacting across differences will ultimately win the global talent war.

Jane Hyun is a global leadership strategist and coach to Fortune 500 companies, MBA programs, and nonprofits. To learn more, visit her website: Hyun Associates.

She is the co-author of the book Flex/The New Playbook for Managing Across Differences (March 25) and the author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. She has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and NPR to discuss leadership, authenticity, and culture. To learn more about Flex, visit the site: www.flextheplaybook.com

 

Comments

  1. Dave Dobson says:

    Great post! Over the years, I have had many opportunities to work within and lead cross-cultural teams. The story about Rosa is particularly applicable in many cases when working with certain cultures. As a leader, it is not only important that YOU understand the different perspectives on the team, but that you work to educate all the team members on these differences in order to promote mutual understanding.

    One case I remember quite well centered on a software development team. Developers from some countries are used to being told by the team leader what to work on, almost on a day to day basis. Here in the U.S., we tend to set direction and expect team members to establish their own task list. The result – developers from the U.S. complain that their team members from outside the U.S. are not doing their share of the work, or need constant direction.

    It’s very important to establish the ground rules and behaviors expected of the entire team, and not just assume that someone with many years of experience will just know how to fit in.

    • Dave,
      Glad you found the post helpful. Yes, we need managers to educate all team members on the importance of differences. Cultural differences exist everywhere but i think it’s easy for most people to miss them, especially in today’s fast-moving deadline-oriented business environment. I appreciate you sharing your experience with the software development team; it touches upon the importance of understanding the power gap–up, down, and across, exactly the dimension you touch upon when you discuss the dynamics of your team.

      Look forward to more exchanges. My twitter is @Janehyun

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