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Amid the intense form of globalisation we have seen over the past 20 to 30 years, corporates have unlocked many previously undreamt-of opportunities. But within the local populations of the far-flung markets they have gained, fears have grown of a loss of cultural identity.

Now, as the world becomes seemingly ever more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), we can no longer count on globalisation proceeding at the same rate. And indeed, in some cases (just think of how many big Western brands have pulled out of Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine), it is actively backsliding.

Even so, multinationals’ hunger for new turf is unlikely to abate anytime soon. So, leaders must strike a tricky balance between pursuing opportunities in increasingly challenging conditions, and upholding and maintaining respect for local cultures, ways of working, leading, communicating – and living.

Values and perspectives.

There are several layers on top of that foundation of complexity:

1. The explosion in virtual workplaces and ways of working.

Amplified throughout the pandemic and carrying significant momentum ever since, digital dispersion is challenging leaders to manage hybrid and remote teams with ever larger geographical footprints. It’s no longer a question of whether your team members are in the same building – but on the same IT network.

While that opens up opportunities for leaders to make valuable connections with smart, capable people, it also requires them to be more aware of diversity and the need to adapt how they communicate. Leaders can no longer rely on bumping into subject-matter experts at the water cooler to discuss technical hurdles – so, how do they build the sort of trust culture that will provide ease of access to dispersed expertise when needed?

2. Generational differences.

With Millennials’ careers advancing at pace, more and more people from younger generations are entering the workforce, bringing with them a range of often starkly different values and perspectives to those held by their older colleagues. They also have an innate flair for using technology – so, navigating their values systems to earn their trust and harness their talents is a mission that leaders must take seriously.

3. Sociopolitical factors.

Undoubtedly the biggest signifier of today’s VUCA world is that we are living against a backdrop of two, raging wars. Those conflicts are changing operational dynamics not just in the regions where they are taking place, but in a global context, too. At the dawn of the war in Ukraine, one of the most urgent priorities for governments was the need to shift energy-supply networks to compensate for fuel shortages. Since then, pressure has mounted to move away from fossil fuels altogether and harness alternative forms of energy, so we are less dependent on traditional fuels and the nations that supply them. And let’s not forget the cost-of-living crisis that has stemmed from domestic political crises and the Ukraine war’s economic effects, affecting employees' livelihoods, making them poorer and widening social divides.

All of these factors are adding significantly to organisational stress levels.

4. Language barriers.

As someone with a multilingual and cross-cultural background, this is a huge area for me. I draw upon both my mother’s German background and my father’s Egyptian heritage. At the same time, I do lots of work with non-native English speakers, professionals and teams who benefit from my cultural integration coaching and training programmes.

From a leadership perspective, knowing how to build empathy with people who don’t share your mother tongue is critical. British leaders must be mindful that there are classic, English idioms, phrases and expressions that colleagues from other cultures won’t necessarily grasp. Taking their understanding for granted won’t work. You must be far more intentional in the way you communicate – and you must check whether understanding has been achieved. That’s something that all leaders must be aware of when they want to be inclusive and sensitive to cultural differences.

Dispelling Assumptions.

To begin the process of overcoming those complexities, you need a foundation of cultural awareness. If you don’t make a concerted effort to understand the backgrounds of your non-English or overseas workers, how can you as a leader ever hope to usher those individuals into your work setting – whether physical or virtual – and make them feel like they belong?

As Peter Drucker famously put it: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We as leaders are responsible for creating the cultures that will help our organisations flourish. And if we want to know where to start, then we have to plug into cultural training. Not only does it equip organisations with the flexibility to operate in unfamiliar markets – implementing it also has a hugely positive impact on the health of their internal cultures.

Much of cultural training involves dispelling assumptions. That certainly resonates with me: in the early part of my career, when I worked in the German media industry, I assumed that the ‘business English’ I’d learned had equipped me to take my first job in the UK – but I was wrong. It wasn’t just the social form of English that surprised me – I also felt unprepared for the use of banter in the workplace: lots of chatter about personal topics in a sort of crossfire with all the work-related conversation.

In Germany, we have a phrase: “Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps” – which literally translates as, “Work is work, and booze is booze. (Or, “Work while you work, play while you play”). German work culture places a high priority on goals, tasks and competencies, while keeping personal matters to the minimum, out of concern that people could misuse them.

German work communication is extremely direct – often to the point where Brits take it as brusque, abrasive or even rude – because it makes no room for small talk. On the other side of the coin, Egyptian work culture is quite the opposite. Everything is based around warmth and welcoming – when you have an important meeting, for instance, you might have around 10 minutes of introductions and greetings before you get started.

From a German perspective, Egyptians would be ‘running late’ by default. But Egyptians would say that they’re making an effort to develop relationships, because that’s what everything else flows from.

Indeed, Egyptians would tell Germans: “You have the clock – but we have the time.”

Leveraging talent.

Without cross-cultural competency training, your organisation will very likely struggle to work globally – certainly when it comes to emerging markets – because it will be trying to use its successes in familiar territories as templates. In particular, your leaders will need to be fully conversant with how different types of leadership are preferred in different locations, in order to unlock and leverage the performance of your local talent. For example, Egyptian work culture has high power-distance, which manifests in command and control leadership – whereas German leadership is much more consultative and competency based, encouraging everyone to bring their advice and recommendations to the table.

Cultural intelligence training will also help you to cultivate local ambassadors: employees who have an intimate knowledge and understanding of the cultures in which you are seeking to work, so they can inform you about the relevant customer behaviours. Those insights will help you to build mutual trust – which, in turn, will provide you with insights for enhancing your connections to new markets and audiences.

In the quest to become truly intercultural and inclusive, your organisation must harness three, invisible forces:

1. Motivation and drive: A desire to learn, contribute, and accomplish things. Everyone is motivated by different drivers. These are:

  • Mastery Feedback enables a person to get better at what matters.
  • Autonomy A desire to be self-directed, which increases engagement over compliance.
  • Accountability The obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or account for one's actions.
  • Purpose The desire to do something important and meaningful. Businesses that only focus on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.

Leaders must recognise the different drivers that motivate people in different cultures – otherwise, they will miss out on opportunities to bring their teams together or improve their performance.


2. Psychological safety: In high-performing teams, this is the belief that the group can take risks, learn, and contribute. This consists of:

  • Courage The ability to confront danger, fear, uncertainty or difficulty with fortitude.
  • Vulnerability The willingness to show up and share your authentic self, while knowing that you have no control over the outcome of your interactions.
  • Inclusion Being respected and connected to others where differences can be turned into synergies instead of painful liabilities.
  • Collaboration To be willing and able to collaborate for a common purpose to achieve a defined and common goal.

What’s important here are expectations – and people from different cultures expect different things from their colleagues and leaders when it comes to psychological safety. In order to foster creativity and innovation, psychological safety is vital for ensuring that all employees feel heard, valued and understood.


3. Cognitive diversity: Creating a visibly diverse workforce is relatively easy, turning them into high-performing teams is challenging. In most cases, work problems are caused by conflict between values, personalities – and leadership issues. Those problems are all rooted in the same, underlying issues: lack of cultural intelligence and cultural agility, plus an inability to understand why people behave and think differently – and how to frame those differences as a source of synergy, rather than pain.

Only when people are able to turn differences into synergy instead of painful liabilities can they stop wasting time, money and energy on self-sabotage and clashes with others. Consider creating an inclusive culture of opportunities that will make you an attractive employer where everyone feels respected and valued.


Voices from our community: Marina Ibrahim is Cultural Agility and Inclusive Mindset Coaching and Training Consultant at Globility Coaching.

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