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Transitioning from cultural awareness to intelligence

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Globalisation for many project management professionals is likely to require interaction with people from different backgrounds and cultures, possibly involving virtual teams, organisational collaboration or complex matrix structures where hierarchy and positional power count for little. 

When cultural differences arise in this complex arrangement who should concede and to whom? You can no longer rely on the old adage of “when in Rome do as the Romans do?”. When working with a global team who should adapt and when? Is it reasonable to expect everyone to behave in the same way? What, if any, allowance should be made for cultural differences?

Years ago I was expected to be culturally blind. The intention was to treat everyone the same regardless of creed, colour or culture. When visiting overseas some elementary cultural awareness may be called for to avoid those stereotypical foibles of Brits abroad.

While many capable individuals are awkward and struggle in a multi-cultural environment, others appear to excel. Management guru Dan Goleman’s research into emotional intelligence clearly indicated that the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically was a greater indicator of future performance and success than traditional IQ. Cultural intelligence is a key sub-set of emotional IQ.  This is a core competence that can be taught and measured.

Contemporary research suggests relationship centric leaders are more likely to secure emotional commitment from their team. This creates more ‘pull’ (inspiration) thereby necessitating significantly less ‘push’ (coercion). Being emotionally engaged is likely to achieve higher levels of commitment and productivity. The term ‘boundary spanners’ has been coined to describe leaders who appear to operate comfortably across cultural lines. These individuals demonstrate competences with particular emphasis on relationship building, negotiation, managing ambiguity and complexity. I believe greater emphasis should be placed on these skill sets.

A recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 90% of executives from 68 countries cited ‘cross-cultural management’ as their top challenge. This comes as no surprise as between 70 – 80% of collaborative ventures are likely to result in failure. When this collaboration is of a multi-national nature the risks increase even more. The message is clear, we all need to raise our game and develop our cultural intelligence. To quote the uncompromising words of Nancy Lee (academic and author):

“To succeed you need ideas coming from every perspective and background.  PERIOD”.



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  1. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 22 January 2018, 01:25 PM

    Great article. Compelling stuff. It's one thing to say that that we entertain 'ideas from every perspective and background' ... and another thing to do so in practice! This is about leading by modelling appropriate behaviours. Merv