Last update on March 11, 2019

We discuss the importance of cultural awareness when working abroad or managing international teams.

Globalisation is not new to business, and has advanced considerably over the past two decades due to evolutions in technology and quick, cheap transportation.

Working globally greatly complicates managerial functions, with huge implications for leadership as employers must consider the internationally varied backgrounds of employees within their expanding organisations. Cultural and social differences must be understood to avoid viewing actions as ‘incorrect’ or ‘unacceptable’.

There are numerous leadership traits that should be avoided (and adopted) to ensure organisations have the greatest chance of global business success. Cultural awareness can ease the difficulties leaders face when transitioning to global leadership.

Here are three leadership traits to avoid when working abroad:

1. Dismissing cultural differences

One of the biggest challenges for leaders in global organisations who manage cross-cultural teams, is understanding the extent of intercultural differences. Leaders should steer clear of making the assumption that culturally diverse individuals will operate identically to them, and will respond in an exact, predictable manner.

For example, understanding how different people perceive authority is crucial. In some cultures, particularly the USA and Europe, if a team member challenges a managerial decision, it’s considered acceptable behaviour. In other cultures, especially Asia, leaders are not to be challenged. Asking for feedback from Western employees is likely to elicit more response than asking non-Western employees. Cultural awareness can help leaders learn how to best to address such challenges, then communicate and manage culturally different teams effectively.

2. Ignoring business etiquette

Even in relatively small geographic areas such as Europe, business practices and customs differ significantly, particularly between northern and southern countries. As a general rule, building personal relationships is important to solidify business between people in southern European countries, such as Greece, Italy and Spain. It is not as relevant to northern cultures.

While many northern European countries might consider having a lunch meeting in the office and order in sandwiches, most southern Europeans may consider it more appropriate to have the meeting at a restaurant. The impression drawn from either approach could affect the success of the meeting – some northern Europeans might view such an approach by their southern neighbours as ‘lazy’ or southern professionals view northerners as ‘uncaring’.

So leaders must pay attention to how international partners do business to improve their chances of success.

3. Refusing to change

Closed-mindedness is a leadership trait that will cause failure in global business. Believing it’s ‘my way or the highway’ is hugely damaging. Different nationalities think in different ways, so being open to a multicultural team’s fresh perspectives is advantageous. It can be especially useful for encouraging innovative working methods and can provide competitive advantages.

Applying the same managerial approach to all situations will not produce success. Global organisations must develop local approaches (leadership, marketing, sales techniques etc.) to suit partner countries and regions uniquely. Understanding and harnessing those needs leads to more effective, and critically, more profitable business.

Ultimately, globally successful leaders are those who are willing to understand the complexities of international commerce, learn, and adapt.