Global literacy has become a leadership requirement, and not just for those running multinational organizations. To leverage the collective intelligence of your peers, customers, partners, vendors, and consultants leaders must appropriately navigate intercultural environments. This cultural competence is what fuels creativity and innovation.
Cultural competency is a force multiplier making your organization more likely to achieve above-average results. Research shows that culturally diverse teams are capable of innovating and solving problems at the highest levels when the right conditions exist. Best of all, you can tap into the benefits intercultural teams offer without acquiring new infrastructure or buying software.
To generate these benefits you’ll need these three things:
#1 A Diverse Team
Having a team that varies in diversity along a range of dimensions such as nationality, ethnicity, gender, and religion is the first and somewhat obvious requirement. Increasingly organizations are seeing diverse teams as tools for collaboration, creativity, and innovation.
From Pixar and Walmart to NASA and Siemens, each is creating and training culturally diverse teams for competitive advantage. What they know is that the different experiences of individuals on their teams generate new perspectives, increasing the number of solutions available to be considered. This is where intercultural competence plays a role in the performance and outcome of these teams. A team able to effectively manage conflict, ambiguity, and the cultural preferences of their teammates,
#2 Flexible Leaders
Leading an intercultural team requires competencies broader than the typical leadership qualities or technical skills associated with good leaders. Flexibility is the most important requirement for those leading intercultural teams. Leaders who are flexible in their behaviors, strategies, and tactics are best able to recognize and facilitate new opportunities available via their diverse networks.
Flexibility in this realm also refers to the tolerance for ambiguity. Initially, when effective intercultural communications occur things look and sound quite different, even messy. The ability to know when and how to appropriately support the team in a way that doesn’t dampen the dynamics needed to activate their creativity is an important skill to develop.
#3 Awareness, Knowledge, And Skill
To effectively enhance cultural competence the experience needs to develop three things: Awareness, Knowledge, and Skill. This three-stage development process provides everyone with the context, understanding, and capabilities to work effectively in intercultural settings. Each capability plays an important role in ensuring the benefits of intercultural teams.
There are many behaviors exhibited by individuals from a culture other than our own that we are not capable of seeing, or more accurately, that technically we may see, but that we do not recognize as having any significance or meaning. -Connerley & Pedersen, Leadership In A Diverse and Multicultural Environment, 2015
An Awareness of intercultural attitudes and beliefs provides the basis for developing accurate opinions, attitudes, and assumptions. Often when awareness is lacking, knowledge and skills are based on false beliefs. Similar to walking down the street while talking on the phone; we are less likely to notice the bird in the tree or person riding a unicycle. Without awareness, we’re walking around with blinders on missing the things right in front of us.
Knowledge builds on awareness, it helps people know where to find information and which sources are reliable. It acts as a change enabler providing access to the facts that give us a better understanding of other cultures. Think of it like buying a car. Relying on the insights of a person who has never driven a car doesn’t make much sense. You want to connect with knowledgeable resources like car owners and mechanics to get the most reliable information. Without knowledge, efforts to improve are wasted because the information used isn’t accurate or trusted, resulting in ineffective changes.
Skill is the culmination of the process; it builds on awareness and allows you to apply knowledge to affect positive change. When I first started cooking I had to watch others cook, read cookbooks, and practice recipes until I developed skill or competency. Individuals skilled in cultural competence can assess the needs of other cultures better. They can plan, conduct, and evaluate the intercultural contexts in which they live and work. This enables the generation of more ideas, better problem solving, and higher levels of performance. Skill is how intercultural innovation and problem-solving are realized.
Cultural competence is a game-changer. As many organizations attempt to find new ways of working and increase productivity and innovation, enhancing cultural competence is a high-return investment. Leaders able to walk with their teams on this journey will be rewarded.
To better understand your readiness to lead an intercultural team take our Innovation Leadership Assessment below.