Cultural Intelligence For Leaders

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Pharm. Sesan Kareem

Today, if you are a business owner, an executive or someone working in a multinational company, there is a high probability that you will have other nationals in your company, or as a business partner or an associate. However, even if you are one of the few people who have always worked with only Nigerians, I strongly believe they will have different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and ways of life. Therefore, there is need to develop cultural intelligence, in order to have a successful and strong relationship with people from other cultures. This will enhance our job and business performance, as well as help us in our career advancement.

Culture and cultural intelligence

Culture encompasses the values, customs and norms that a group of people share. In other words, it is the way of life of people that determine the standard of their behaviour.

Cultural intelligence is an outsider’s ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures in the same way the person’s compatriots would.

Culture determines the parameters of the socially acceptable behaviour in a society while individuals in the society determine their behaviour. This is the major reason why individuality shapes behaviour in the society, and not just culture.

Understanding cultural differences

There are remarkable differences in how people from different cultures think, communicate, relate, make decisions, solve problems, build trust and give feedbacks.

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For instance, when it comes to power distance, Nigeria, China and Russia are high-power distance countries, while America, United Kingdom, and France are low-power distance countries. Power distance is the extent to which a member of a culture expects and accepts that power is distributed unequally. In other words, the relationship between a boss and a subordinate working together in Lagos is quite different from their counterparts working together in Los Angeles.

Decision shapes destiny.  Different organisations have their process of making decisions. Also, different cultures have different ways of making decisions, independent of power distance. Some cultures value consensus in decision making, others operate top down decision making process.

In America, a boss maintains a low-power distance with his workers; however most decisions are top-down. In Japan, there is a high-power distance relationship but decision making is consensus.

The time it takes to make a decision is also important. A Japanese conglomerate will painstakingly plan its decisions and once made it is final and implementation is pretty fast. An American start-up will make quick decisions but subject to continued adaptation during implementation.

Let’s look at how people from different cultures think. We have specific thinkers and holistic thinkers. A specific thinker analyses a problem or an object by isolating it from his environment.  Europeans and North Americans are specific thinkers. Cultures that think specifically are either principles-first thinkers or applications-first thinkers.  The French and the Russians are principles-first thinkers; whereas, the Canadians and the British are application-first thinkers.

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A holistic thinker analyses a problem or an object by considering the environment in connection to the object. Asians and Africans are holistic thinkers. To make this practical, the way you prepare your presentation for a Japanese should be different from the way you prepare your presentation for an American, due to their different ways of thinking.

What about effective ways of building business trust with people from different cultures? In Nigeria, personal relationships are at the core of business relationships. In other words, for you to succeed as a business leader in Nigeria you must developed excellent interpersonal skills.

A typical successful Nigeria business leader knows the importance of attending social functions, being a member of a prestigious club and attending lunch or dinner with a client. For Nigerians to trust you, knowing you is more important than your competence. On the other hand, a German will trust you sorely based on your past performance or quality of work.

Communication is the cornerstone of business. Inability to effectively communicate can harm productivity, performance or profitability. However, different cultures have different ways of communicating. Most Americans and Europeans use low-context communication, where what they mean is conveyed directly in their words. On the flip side, most Africans and Asians use high-context communication, where most of what they mean is conveyed in facial expressions, body language, and gestures, not in words.

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The major take home based on the above is the fact that people are different, cultures are different and there is no one-size-fits-all in cultural adaptations. We must learn to adapt.

How do you improve your cultural intelligence?

Become aware of your own relative cultural biases:  It is easy to have biases when it comes to our culture compared to others. However, the first step towards cultural intelligence is to be aware of our thinking when it comes to other people’s cultures.

Respect and value cultural differences: Appreciating other people’s cultures for what they are will open our mind to learn about them.

Adapt to accommodate cultural differences: We must develop the ability to adjust to other people’s cultures.

ACTION STRATEGY: Identify your relative cultural biases. Start to respect and value other people’s cultures.

AFFIRMATION: I adapt to other people’s cultures. I am blessed and highly favoured.

Sesan Kareem serves as Co-founder, HubPharm, www.hubpharmcarescom and Principal Consultant, Sesan Kareem Institute, www.sesankareem.com.ng.

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