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How Culturally Aware are You?

Don’t dismiss it as PC posturing. Recognizing the varied backgrounds of your team and accommodating those differences in positive ways can help maximize any group’s output.

You’re a Dane leading a new product introduction for a global company. Your product manager is American, your tech team is mostly Indian while your marketing head is Brazilian. The issue is this: when work groups carry out complex tasks in multinational, multicultural settings, leaders must be especially aware that a project’s design and management are critical to its ultimate success. Cultural aspects may influence, in subtle but critical ways, what is effective in terms of team leadership, structure, and process.

When teamwork spans multiple countries, or brings diverse nationalities together in one local project, cultural dimensions will indirectly determine how effective leaders are. Globalization be damned: based on who they are and where they come from, team members likely differ in how much they value leadership that is self-sacrificial, face-saving, bureaucratic, empathetic or participative in style. To be an effective leader, you have to recognize cross-cultural differences and then adapt your approach to the team’s expectations and demands of the project.

Suppose a company embarks on scenario planning, meaning that the team members have to envision diverse futures. The aim is to test how well the current strategy or plan will fare in each scenario, develop flexible strategies where uncertainty is high and track early indicators of external change. As with any complex management process, some crucial design decisions must be made upfront, such as:

WHAT: What is the time frame and scope of the scenario planning exercise?

WHO: Who participates within the organization (across levels and boundaries) and from the outside?

HOW:How formal and detailed should the process be in studying the key external and internal issues?

WHY: Is the aim primarily to learn and change thinking, to test current strategic plans, or to build support and buy-in? And how much do other goals matter?

WHEN: Is the process to be conducted over a period of many months or concentrated in a few weeks?

WHERE: Who owns the overall process and its output and how does it connect with other planning activities?

STYLE: What leadership style would be most effective to use during the scenario planning process and during the implementation stage?

SHARING: Which stakeholders should be kept apprised of the results of the scenario planning process as it unfolds and with whom should it finally be shared?

The answers to these questions depend on what leaders hope to accomplish as well as the organization’s culture and customary management approach. Below are some well-researched cultural diminsions that can help identify the best project approach.

Cultural DimensionsDefinition in Terms of Group Values
Power DistanceThe degree to which members of a group or collective expect power to be distributed equally.
Uncertainty AvoidanceThe extent to which a society, organization, or group relies on social norms, rules, and procedures to mitigate unpredictability of future events.
Humane OrientationThe degree to which a collective encourages and rewards individuals for being fair, altruistic, generous, caring, and kind to others.
Institutional collectivismThe degree to which organizational and societal institutional practices encourage and reward collective distribution of resources and collective action.
In-Group collectivismThe degree to which individuals express pride, loyalty, and cohesiveness in their organizations or families.
AssertivenessThe degree to which individuals are assertive, confrontational and aggressive in their relationships with others.
Gender EgalitarianismThe degree to which a collective minimizes gender inequality.
Future OrientationThe extent to which individuals engage in future-oriented behaviors such as delaying gratification, planning, and investing in the future.
Performance OrientationThe degree to which a collective encourages and rewards group members for performance improvement and excellence.

The national culture of a country or a leader will indirectly influence how the project is managed and if the leader’s style will be accepted by the team and others. Some leadership characteristics are nearly universally embraced across cultures, such as charisma, integrity, dynamism, team-support, clarity, administrative savvy, and being visionary, inspirational and concerned about team members. A few others traits are universally negative, such being dictatorial, non-explicit, a loner, non-cooperative, or egocentric. But many other leader behaviors are judged quite differently across cultures, such as being cunning, status conscious, ambitious, risk-taking, procedural, individualistic or elitist. For example, in the West it may be frowned upon if a leader is status conscious or assertive but not necessarily in Asian or Middle Eastern countries where privileged and strong leaders are often admired.

For a scenario planning project to succeed, it is critical to consider the acceptable levels of power distance between the leader and all those involved, the project’s future orientation (how far to look ahead) and the organization’s aversion to uncertainty (preferring to focus on the here and now). In our own experience, a scenario exercise conducted in the US, where the prevailing culture is future oriented and moderately egalitarian, the leader can safely stretch people beyond their comfort zones and normal planning horizons. But that same scenario project in Japan or Russia may run into limited tolerance for ambiguity and cause frustration if the task, process and expectations are not clearly defined.

Lastly, the leader’s own management style, which can range from inclusive to distant or from hands-on to big picture, will matter in the ultimate quality of the project. The aim is to find a good fit between the demands of the project, the cultural expectations of the organization and the leader’s own preferred style of management. Without sufficient congruency among these three components, the project is bound to encounter choppy waters and feeble team commitment.

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