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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Nov 4, 2022


This week we consider the challenges of cross-cultural leadership.



Welcome to episode 162 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we consider the challenges of cross-cultural leadership.

How have you found working across different cultures? Perhaps you’ve travelled to other parts of the world, or maybe the business you work in has a broad cultural representation. Sometimes it can be challenging to figure out what’s a personality difference and what’s a cultural difference.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of cultures, yet I’m still surprised by cultural differences. Given the global audience for the work we do, I’m always conscious of cultural assumptions that might creep in to the way we think about leadership development. It can be challenging working across cultures. There are core assumptions in our cultural world view that we may not even recognise.

Researchers have built various frameworks to try to understand how cultures differ. One of the better know frameworks is the Lewis Model of Cultural Types. As someone who had travelled the world and spoke 10 languages, Richard Lewis realised he was in a good position to explore cultural differences. His book “When Cultures Collide”, first released in 1996, brought together a framework to understand how cultures can differ. His model is based on a triangle, with the points of the triangle being linear-active, multi-active, and reactive. Lewis then plots countries at each of these points and along the edges of the triangle.

Linear-active cultures are about doing one thing at a time. He saw linear-active cultures such as those in Germany and Switzerland as cool, factual, decisive planners. The UK and US are also close to this cultural type. Multi-active is about trying to do multiple things at once. Multi-active countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico have cultures that are warm, emotional and impulsive. Parts of Europe including Italy and Greece, and sub-saharan Africa are also near this cultural type. Reactive cultures are about responding to others. Reactive cultures like Vietnam were described by Lewis as courteous, accommodating, compromising and polite. China and Japan are also near this cultural type.

It’s clear how these cultural types can create conflict and confusion when we bring them together.

So how do we tackle these cultural differences. Here are six ideas:

  1. Be aware cultural differences exist. Keeping this in mind as you work across cultures will help you be prepared.
  2. Don’t fall back on to stereotypes. This is a risk in Lewis’ work - that we end up stereotyping millions of people just based on where they live. In any cultural group there can be a very broad range of expressions and approaches.
  3. Be actively curious about other cultures and people. Questions are always a great place to start. Be actively curious about people and their cultural background.
  4. Talk about culture. If your team works across cultures, help them to step back to reflect on effectiveness.
  5. Clarify expectations. Cultural differences and conflict can be amplified when there are unclear expectations.
  6. Discuss how we can best work together. This is a great levelling questions that allows everyone to contribute.

Next time you’re working across cultures or in a culturally diverse team, take a few moments to review these points and apply them. Have a great week.