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Culturally Intelligent Leadership Matters

24 September, 2015 - 17:06

The first time I taught cultural intelligence principles to a group of executives in Minnesota, I miscalculated the time and distance it would take me to reach the hotel where the training was held. I did not have the conference coordinator’s e-mail or phone number, which was useless to me anyway since my cell phone froze.

When I arrived at the site, the entire parking lot was packed with cars, and so were the side streets and adjacent parking areas for at least a four-block radius. When I finally found a parking space, I hurriedly picked up the large box in the back of my car that held my training materials. By the time I reached the conference room, I was tired and sweaty from walking in my 3-inch-high-heeled pumps. The coordinator was anxiously awaiting my arrival. Even though I profusely apologized for being late, she gave me “a look” that said, “how unprofessional.”

As I entered the room, all eyes were on me, of course. Everyone was on time, and I, as the trainer, should have been there before the first person entered the room. Any reason I provided would have been a terrible excuse for this particular crowd, made up of professionals dressed in their business suits, with pens and paper in hand, ready to learn. They paid a lot of money for the conference, of which I was teaching only one half-day session.

What went through my mind as I set up my materials, quickly handing them out to the participants? I messed up. Wow, this is really bad and unprofessional. They are not bringing me back, for sure. Those people in the corner look mad. At least that woman over there seems sympathetic—or was that a facial twitch?

“Good morning,” I said. “Thank you for coming. I see you’re all early. And now that we’ve had the chance to get to know each other, let’s begin the training.” You can imagine the facial expressions I received from the audience: confusion, disbelief, bewilderment.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Is there something wrong with what I said? Let me explain. You all arrived here on time, as Americans generally would. I also arrived here on time, as a Hmong person would. You just happened to be on American time, and I’m following Hmong time. You might think I’m late, but in Hmong time, I’m actually quite early.” That broke the ice for the group, and I decided to use the experience to lead into the session about cultural intelligence.

“Since all of you were here really early, I’m sure you had the chance to introduce yourselves; find out about each others’ families, where you’re from, who you’re related to, right? No? Well, that’s not right. We can’t start the training if you haven’t had the chance to relax and just learn about each other. We better do that or else we’re going to face some problems later.”

The experience was the perfect opportunity to share and discuss the challenges involved in navigating cultural terrains. Turning my personal experience into a “teaching moment” gave the audience the chance to pause and reflect about the differences in cultural expression and behavior. The example was used to help the participants dig deeper and to draw out their Western, cultural assumptions. They learned to ask questions like the following:

  • What are the differences in time between her culture and mine?
  • How do Hmong people approach meetings and trainings?
  • Is this behavior specific to the trainer, as an individual, regardless of her national culture?
  • Is this behavior specific to her family and how she was raised?
  • Why do I care if she was “late”?
  • Can I let go of my emotional attachment for her be here “on time”?
  • What am I not seeing in this situation?
  • What is my motivation for resolving this situation?
  • How am I behaving? Do I need to change my behavior? If so, what can I do?

Why are these questions important to ask? Asking the questions that move you away from immediate reaction to positive action and reflection is necessary in cultural intelligence work. It enables you to have an awareness of the idiosyncrasies of culture, the peculiarities of its effects, and the role it plays in our lives. When you are able to accomplish this, you create a new awareness of your surroundings—you create a new picture of the situation. The practice of creating new awareness and understanding is your ability to be adaptable and flexible.

In the Tao te Ching, an ancient Chinese manuscript written by Lao Tzu and translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1 Lao Tzu explains how one can live their life in perfect harmony with conflicting forces. He writes throughout the book about the importance of a person’s ability to be flexible and adaptable. At birth, he says, we are all malleable. As we grow older, knowledge that we gain from our social and cultural environments often leads us to become rigid and blocked. Lao Tzu says that flexibility is essential to growth and evolution, and that we need to choose adaptability over rigidity for survival.

In a world where organizations must be change-focused, adaptable, and flexible in their intercultural work, leaders are being asked to help people work through, and come to terms with, the changes that differences often bring. Organizations and leaders that expect change are those that tend to thrive— they anticipate and envision different scenarios of environmental change, both internally and externally. 2 Leaders who are bound to a single viewpoint or perspective are no longer effective when leading because the perspectives narrow the opportunities for sustainable organizational growth. When leaders are change focused and embrace an adaptability mindset, they can be better informed, make the right decisions, and provide the right resources to motivate their employees to succeed and perform at their best levels.