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Intercultural Workplaces: A Leadership Challenge and Opportunity

Leaders in today’s business world need to have sound intercultural skills to create inclusivity in cross-cultural, remote working environments. We discuss the complexity of global teams, regional differences, and the importance of context for leadership development.

Organizations Need to Adapt to Create Diverse, Inclusive Workplaces

You may have already heard about how diverse and inclusive workplaces bring happier, healthier, and more engaged employees. How it can bring better and more varied ideas from your people, thanks to a more diverse group of people providing the ideas. You may have experienced first-hand how this brings a better understanding of clients and customers, and, done right of course, how your organization can adapt to a changing outside world quicker and with better solutions¹. Now, while creating a properly inclusive workplace may not be an easy task, it can become even more challenging in a remote working environment². Add to this, the fact that managers have 51% more responsibilities than they can effectively manage⁸, how best can you develop leadership skills to tackle this challenge?

Regional Differences Add Complexity

The key to an inclusive intercultural workplace is flexibility – the absence of limitations on how and where we work³. The degree of acceptance of remote/flexible working varies between countries. While in most Northern Europe and much of North America, it has become common to work outside of the office, in some Asian countries, for example China or South Korea, the notion of not working in a centralized office is not common⁴. In general research has shown that employees from cultures with high power distance scores (i.e. more hierarchal cultures) prefer working from the office, whereas cultures from individualistic countries tend to favor (at least some) telework.³

What all these studies show is that cross-cultural teams add a layer of complexity to creating inclusive remote teams. When team members are in different places around the world, cultural differences become even more visible². A PwC CEO Panel Survey found that interculturally poorly equipped managers can cost organizations millions⁵.

Allow Room to Build Relationships and Trust

For most cultural groups, trust is essential for successful collaboration, especially in a hybrid context. At the same time trust is built differently across cultures. Some cultures build “cognitive” trust, which is based on performance. In the United Kingdom and Denmark, people tend to trust their colleagues and leaders, that have proven their technical ability, skills, and reliability. Other cultures build what is called an affective trust, based on emotional connections. When collaborating with people from, for example, Brazil or China, aspects such as closeness, empathy, and feelings of security are rated as more important. This has important implications for hybrid teams as, in virtual settings, establishing affective trust is more difficult. Consequently, one crucial tool to create functioning hybrid teams is to give time for building relationships and trust. One possibility is allowing some time in formal meetings for free chats without an agenda to allow building emotional ties².

Other dimensions on which cultures can differ, with strong implications for collaboration, are for example communication style—for example, how much “non-task related” content is seen as appropriate in an email or verbal conversation, how directly (public) feedback is given—perception of hierarchy (preference of egalitarian vs. hierarchical structures) and how flexibly employees and leaders deal with time and plans⁶.

Context Is Key for Leadership Development

The World Economic Forum defines intercultural skills as helping “[…] employees to relate to colleagues of different and diverse backgrounds, guaranteeing a respectful and inclusive working environment. Moreover, these skills help employees to accomplish their goals successfully when interacting with culturally diverse interlocutors or audiences.”⁷

Having these leadership skills in your organization is key—awareness and understanding of the different preferences of individual team members, both personality and cultural wise makes it easier to adjust behavior accordingly to different team members.

Learn more about SHL can help with your manager and leadership development to create more effective leaders that can thrive in a global, multicultural workplace.

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Anna Sommer

Anna joined SHL as a Senior Consultant in 2022 but has been working as a talent assessment and development consultant since 2015. She is qualified as a coach and trainer and specializes in intercultural awareness training. She is passionate about delivering scientifically sound and fair assessments - both virtually and in person - enabling people to recognize and utilize their (hidden) potential and develop their interdisciplinary skills to advance their own careers. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling, sports, watching movies, and spending time with the people she loves.

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Esbjörn Johansson

Esbjörn joined SHL as a Senior Consultant in 2021. He began his career as a business psychologist in the talent assessment and development industry in 2016. He also has experience as a job-coach and trainer. He is passionate about leveraging data to solve client challenges, fully leveraging the power of psychometric tools to deliver fair assessments and to transform complex data to deliver actionable insights, helping organizations optimize performance and deliver on their strategic vision.

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