Recently, a culturally-savvy Swedish client, who had just started to lead a team based in several Central Asian countries, was facing challenges building credibility with her team. She shared how she had to quickly adapt her leadership tactic. Her team members’ expectations of a more authoritarian style were incongruous with her egalitarian approach and she was perceived as weak. Additionally, remnants of the Soviet era mentality of caution and suspicion placed her at a disadvantage as an outsider. She immediately invested extensive time to get to know each member of her team, was careful to avoid any perceived sense of favoritism, and organized a series of teambuilding exercises and a retreat to help build trust by showing her long-term commitment.
Conversely, an American participant in another workshop struggled to understand why her Brazilian colleague did not take an operational error at a client site in Brazil more seriously when the American called to report it. She was frustrated when her Brazilian colleague spent the first few minutes talking about non-work matters instead of seeing the urgency of dealing with the issue. Even after I suggested that perhaps her Brazilian colleague prioritized the relationship and didn’t necessarily consider that a few minutes of polite discourse would negate the importance of the problem, the American still had a hard time grasping what she perceived to be a nonchalant attitude. Ultimately, this impacted her confidence in her colleague’s efficacy.
These two examples, and many more that I have heard over the decades working with teams and leaders globally, demonstrate how having—or not having—a global mindset can determine how successful we are at work. Today, we often hear of the importance of acting “glocal” – meaning we need to consider both global and local factors in our work. However, many staff working on multicultural teams don’t have firsthand experience in the cultures with which they work to effectively communicate and build the trust that is essential to getting things done. Developing a global mindset that provides cultural awareness, knowledge and skills is therefore vital to succeed in a culturally-diverse and globally-dispersed environment.
A tool I often use to help clients develop a global mindset often reveals that many people get stuck either polarizing or minimizing cultural differences. When we polarize cultures, we espouse an “us vs. them” mentality in which we regard our own culture as superior while denigrating how things are done elsewhere. When we minimize cultural differences, we apply a universal approach to doing things to just get by without recognizing how the dominant culture may impose its practices on others. Ultimately, neither approach is sustainable for long-term success.
So, what characterizes a global mindset and why is it important in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing workplace? A global mindset begins with:
- A curiosity and openness to differences. This includes first acknowledging that there is not one way that is most effective to getting things done but proactively exploring how others may perceive them. Observing our environment and inquiring broadens our perspective and demonstrates to others a keen desire to learn.
- Cultivating self-awareness of our own cultural preferences and the ensuing behaviors allows us to begin to reflect on what we value and how we may be perceived by others. Since so much of culture is invisible, we don’t realize that our way of doing things may not be shared universally. When we’re able to articulate our preferences towards hierarchy, risk, time management, etc. we are better equipped to recognize how they impact our leadership expectations, problem-solving and decision-making.
- Understanding others’ cultural preferences that may differ from our own and recognizing that while our way may work best for us, others may have a diametrically opposite point of view. When we steadfastly adhere to a “my way or the highway” approach, we end up sabotaging critical relationships and de-motivating others.
- Listening actively. In our busy days, many people multitask during team meetings, particularly virtual ones, and therefore often miss the nuances of what may be said. For example, someone with a direct communication style might easily take her indirect colleague’s comment “that’s an interesting point” at face value. However, if she is culturally attuned to realize that her colleague might actually be saying “no” in a face-saving manner, she can reframe what she says to minimize the risk of misunderstanding.
- Expanding beyond our comfort zone. When we interact across cultures, we often experience discomfort about how to behave. Having a global mindset is not about leaving our comfort zone but rather exploring ways to expand it. This includes standing on the precipice of uncertainty and navigating how to behave authentically while simultaneously trying on a new behavior that would be culturally appropriate.
- Negotiating an acceptable path forward. Depending on factors such as hierarchy or a client’s demands we may need to accommodate our behavioral style to be successful. In other situations, where both parties may have sufficient self and other awareness, engaging in a cultural dialogue may be key to exploring a mutually agreeable outcome. This dialogue creates a more inclusive space to figure out a new approach to resolving a problem while fostering a deeper understanding of the different perspectives of both parties.
Like any new skill, cultivating a global mindset requires patience, flexibility, practice and acceptance and we may not always get it right, especially at first. Yet the benefits of adopting a more “glocal” approach to work will help us avoid many cultural mishaps while enabling personal and professional growth and success.