Culture

How cultural differences can paralyze effective leaders

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Becoming an effective leader is challenging as it is. And when we encounter a new culture, sometimes the very characteristics that made us effective in the past can suddenly become handicaps.

Most of us are aware that culture matters, but what do differences mean for our communication on a daily basis? Here’s an example of one “aha!” moment that a client had. A Mexican executive with an MBA from the United States and multiple experiences with multinationals, he was not unfamiliar with multicultural challenges.

However, as a new Mexico country manager for a company based in the U.S., he was receiving comments from supervisors that he was too passive or weak as a leader, as reflected in his participation in meetings. His results were fine. These comments were alarming after a long and successful career as a senior executive.

Looking carefully at how he participates in meetings, he discovered the problem. He had adapted a style of meeting participation that was effective for him in Mexico, but ran counter the expectations at his new company. In Mexico, he knew that if he offered his opinion first in a meeting, out of respect for authority his team would be unlikely to offer countering viewpoints. As a result, he learned to ask everyone’s opinion first, and then offer his last.

In his new company, leaders are expected to “drive the conversation,” pose the challenging questions and be the first to participate. However, embedded in this ethos is an understanding that everyone can share an opinion, and that even conflicting viewpoints are not viewed as disrespectful to leaders.

He then understood that the comments weren’t an attack on his leadership, but rather a clash of cultures. The executive was faced with two challenges: first, adapting his own meeting management style, and second (and far more challenging), preparing his Mexican team for this enormous cultural shift and finding an appropriate middle ground. This “aha” moment allowed him to open dialogue for his own success and that of his team.

Share with us below your cultural “aha” moments!

 

Kenneth Andersen