KINDNESS ABSOLUTELY MATTERS. BUT IT ISN’T EVERYTHING.
In a recent engagement with a group of chief officers, I learned that one of them was having a cultural communication challenge with his team. Comprised of individuals from another country of origin, his employees were eager to please, but perceivably unwilling to collectively engage in a productive discussion with him.
It didn’t seem to matter how friendly his tone or welcoming his body language. He was trying earnestly to create a truly collaborative environment, to no avail. Furthermore, he had pure intentions to generate their ideas for a winning solution. He thought he was doing everything he possibly could to foster a strong corporate culture of trust, respect and camaraderie.
He simply could not get them to speak up when he was practically begging them to do so.
This particular chief officer did not want to command his team. He had no desire to tell them what to do. Micromanaging was not his style nor did he believe that it was the way to create a healthy workplace.
He’s right. So what does he do?
Upon listening to the details of the situation, it became obvious that this cultural challenge transcended the tried and true ingredients for a winning corporate culture. Thus, his frustration.
The deeply embedded cultural conditioning of their birthplace was overshadowing their leader’s desire to create a meaningful, engaging team spirit in their workplace.
Many US based companies have a global workforce. This becomes another important factor in creating a successful working environment . . . as if you didn’t have enough to think about these days. This can be a particularly crucial issue related to corporate mergers. According to McKinsey & Co, approximately 95% of executives cite cultural fit as a critical component of successful integration after a merger.
Additionally, in 2019 the Harvard Business Review conducted a study among thousands of their global readers and concluded that “while global teams can provide cost savings and help firms access talent from around the world, cultural differences and divergent expectations around workplace norms can be sources of friction.”
Consistently communicating a vision for the company is one way to create a sense of cohesion among multinational employees. Likewise, leading with empathy can significantly help everyone to move forward together toward that vision. Combined, these still do not preclude the importance of taking the time to understand cultural variants.
Sometimes the simple fact that you hold a big title is enough to be an intimidating factor, for example. Unbeknown to you, your compassionate style can be received with skepticism simply because your executive title is perceived as all-powerful.
Certainly if we were still in the 20th century, this might come in handy. After all, ruling with an iron fist and using intimidation as a motivational tool was an effective method from yesteryear.
This is 2022. No one can be successful for long if they are wielding power in destructive and disempowering ways. Regardless, there are still many brains wired to believe that ye who wields power at all must be feared. That is only one example of a hurdle you may not see and accidentally trip over.
The bottom line is, every one of us has cultural conditioning embedded in our operating systems, also known as our beliefs and behaviors.
Oftentimes these are unconscious. What we all become conscious of is the aggravation we feel when certain cultural norms aren’t honored. This can be the case with a global workforce in particular. What’s important is that we face the differences among us and learn how to find a productive, cohesive way forward.
Let’s circle back around to the chief officer’s situation. He fully acknowledged their cultural differences, but he couldn’t readily extract his title from the situation. He understood the cultural aggravator and had tried to rectify it. Because I had worked specifically within the country of his team’s origin, I was familiar with how their ethnicity was playing a larger role in his situation.
Upon doling out advice that gave him a renewed sense of hope, I was once again struck by the importance of my top 3 leadership tenets:
Increase your self-awareness continuously.
Meet people where they are.
Strive for the win-win, always.
In this case, he mastered one and three. It was the second one that was tricky: meet people where they are. Sure, this sounds simple enough. Just jump on a plane and meet them where they are. This isn’t about geography. It’s a trip into their headspace, where you’ll need to watch your step.
Even though it’s number two on the list, it’s the toughest one.
Learning to ‘meet people where they are’ is truly difficult for leaders to fully comprehend, much less execute effectively. It’s a harder road to navigate, but one that is filled with treasures once you get the hang of the terrain.
Since I would need to do an entire workshop to explain the full scope of its meaning and power, I will simplify my parting message about it with this:
There is no magic bullet to success as a leader.
Clearly this executive had great leadership skills and was giving it his all. He was willing to reflect, pivot, improve and be persistent and patient. Nevertheless, he was still hitting a wall. As one of my mentors used to say, “You don’t have to have all the answers. You just need to be willing to find the person who does.”
Some days may actually feel like you have the whole world in your hands. No need to feel overwhelmed. Your willingness to evolve as a leader will ensure your ability to lead effectively, regardless of the hindrances of cultural variants and circumstances.
A challenge? Of course. What truly fulfilling experience comes in life without one?! That’s what also makes it a fabulous opportunity.
You know you got this.