Globalization is defined as “the increased interdependence between nations” on economic, social, technical and political fronts (Northouse, 2016, p. 427).” Increased globalization in recent years has created new leadership challenges as well as the need for leaders to increase their understanding of different cultures and diverse work forces. Overseas assignments and working abroad has been happening for decades, however. De la Garza (2009) indicated that the 1980s saw many studies focused on identifying the characteristics of leaders and business executives best suited to lead in multicultural contexts. This lead to a term in international business known as cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is defined as being skilled and flexible in understanding cultures, learning from multicultural interactions and then adjusting personal thinking and behavior to interact appropriately with other people from different cultures (Thomas & Inkson, 2004 as cited in De la Garza et al, 2009).
Cultural intelligence is critical now more than ever with increased globalization. According to Northouse (2016), leaders also have to become more competent in diverse, cross-cultural awareness and practice. Adler and Bartholomew (1992, as cited in Northouse, 2016) suggested that leaders had to develop five cross-cultural competencies. Amongst them was the need to be highly skilled in working with people from many cultures, as well as being able to adapt to living, communicating and relating with people from other cultures from “a position of equality rather than cultural superiority (Adler & Bartholomew, 1992 as cited in Northouse, 2016, p. 428)”.
Research on cultural intelligence indicated that it has three components: cognitive, motivational, and behavioral components. Trevino (2017) summarizes this and provides a version with two parts: the cognitive part, which relates to the person’s knowledge about the new culture, and the action part, which is the ability to translate that knowledge and motivation into an action. This supports what Northouse suggests in saying that leaders need to be more competent in both behaviors and practice. These cross-cultural competencies, however, are not only critical for leaders, they are also important for spouses and families who accompany them to assignments abroad.
We see this all too often in the military; in fact, it is essentially a way of life for many of our military families. Studies indicate that diversity and cross-cultural training for spouses and partners of employees working abroad is equally important for them as it is for the employee. Trevino (2017) suggests that the higher the position of the employee, the more likely it is that their partner also has functions or roles of “ambassador” for the company. This suggests that adapting to a new culture is critical for everyone, including families in global positions or jobs. Fortunately, our families do receive the necessary training to assist in overcoming potential cultural barriers when we move to locations overseas.
Research indicates that there are some barriers, however, that are not explicitly presented and that there are factors that affect intercultural communication. This is particularly relevant in negotiation processes or between implicit and explicit communication. For example, in countries like the United States, it is very common for people to say what they think explicitly, clearly and unambiguously. On the other hand, in other countries such as Japan, people use more implicit languages and communications that are less clear. For example, a person can answer the following to an unacceptable offer, “Thank you … I will consider your request very carefully.” For an American, this can easily mean that the discussion will continue and that the matter will be reconsidered in the future. However, in Japanese culture (and in other cultures in which it is a common practice to avoid direct conflict), the message is clearly a “NO”. My spouse and I received cross-cultural training when we first arrived in Japan, and I vividly remember when our host said, “In Japan, we don’t say NO, we just don’t tell you YES”. We all laughed as she smiled modestly.
I would suggest that as leaders, we have to be familiar with the cultures, countries and places we operate in, but we must also be highly skilled in interacting with diverse groups. According to Northouse (2016, p. 430), “a skilled leader needs to find ways to negotiate with followers from various cultural backgrounds.” With increased globalization, this is critical now more than ever, and we must ensure that our organizations are implementing the right training strategies to assist us, other employees and families in overcoming diversity and cultural challenges.
De la Garza, M., Guzmán-Soria, E., Hernández-Soto, D. (2009). Cultural and personal considerations in international negotiations. Journal of Globalization, Competitiveness & Governability, vol. 3, pp. 64-89
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.
Trevino, L. (2017). Managing Business Ethics: Straight Talk about How to Do it Right (7th edition). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.