Five Criteria for Cross-Cultural Leadership


By Debbie Narver

Why is diversity in the workplace important and what do business leaders need to prepare?  This article focuses on the relationship of cultural diversity and leadership.  Let’s start with trends in Canada as an example.

While our population is aging and birth rates decreasing, immigration is increasing.  Now combine that with challenges to the Canadian labour market—particularly the shortage of specific skills in some industries.

Canadian Labour Market Trends
The Department of Finance, in their 2014 publication, Job Report: The State of the Canadian Labour Market, identifies some specific trends in this regard, including:

  1. Natural and applied science, as well as skilled trades, tend to have high job vacancies;
  2. Canada has a lower proportion of graduates in science, engineering and mathematics when compared to other developed countries; and
  3. The number of young people graduating with business and administration degrees is decreasing.

One of the recommended strategies is attracting foreign skilled workers to fill the gaps.   This targeted selection along with naturally increasing immigration will lead to much more cultural diversity in the workplace.

What Does Cultural Diversity Really Mean?
The word culture is used in many different forms.  In the case of cultural diversity, we are referring to a set of beliefs, values and customs associated with a particular population.  Consider that before advances in communication technology and travel, there was more geographic isolation between countries.  We grew up learning about the world from our parents and community.   Societies defined the behavioural norms to discern between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Moreover, while I have introduced the topic from the perspective of immigrants, let’s also consider that we have different cultures within our existing Canadian population.  For example, there are many Aboriginal cultures, each with their own language and customs.  We also have French speaking communities, many in Quebec, but also in other provinces—as well as many other cultures and subcultures.

Ethnocentrism vs. Competitive Edge
Of key importance is the fact that organizations that are successful in attracting and retaining skilled employees from different cultures will gain advantage.  This will be particularly important for those with a critical supply of specific skills such as science, math, engineering and management.  However, do you KNOW what will attract and retain people from different cultures—or are you assuming that it’s the same things that have always worked?

The latter is an example of ethnocentrism or self-reference criterion.  That is, we believe that our own perceptions and values are universal, and chances are, we are not even conscious of the beliefs behind them.  As a result, we can be very surprised and confused when others see things differently, or behave in ways that are unexpected.  We jump to the conclusion that they’re wrong and we’re right.

Embracing Understanding of Differences
Geert Hofstede is well known for his research into the Dimensions of Culture.  While we must avoid labelling cultures, I believe his work helps us develop an understanding of the range of perspectives by providing a framework of concepts and terminology for meaningful discussions.

Let’s look at an example using the dimension called “power distance.”  It describes our attitudes and beliefs towards authority.  Let’s say that Sam comes from a culture with high power distance, where the chain of command and protocols with authority figures is very important.  Chris, on the other hand, comes from a culture of lower power distance, where everyone is fairly equal and communication is open.

Individuals from each of these cultures might behave very differently, which could easily lead to misunderstanding.  Sam might think Chris is being disrespectful if he calls the CEO by her first name.  Chris may think Sam doesn’t want to contribute because he doesn’t speak up at staff meetings.

Defining and Developing Cross-Cultural Leadership
Cross-cultural leadership is more than just being tolerant of different appearances and traditions.  Managers will need to develop new competencies to successfully integrate and lead employees from different cultures.  Based on my research, I’ve identified five steps towards cross-cultural leadership:

  1. Learn how cultural affects beliefs, perceptions and ultimately behaviour: The dimensions of culture is a start to understand how others might perceive and behave differently. Consider how a person might have different motivation if they came from a collectivist (group focused) versus individualistic culture?  How might tolerance for ambiguity affect decision making?
  1. Develop awareness of your own cultural conditioning: We all have it, but are often unconscious about how it affects us. Consider, as an example, how do I feel when someone avoids eye contract? Or doesn’t shake hands? Do I assume they are dishonest or disrespectful? Leadership is founded on first understanding and managing ourselves—including our biases.
  1. Communicate expectations clearly and repeatedly: We assume that our behavioural norms are universal and everyone just knows them. But would you know exactly what to do if put in another country or culture?  So you need to explain, and perhaps give examples or demonstrate.
  1. Implement tools and processes: It will take effort for employees to learn how to work together effectively. You probably know that from managing any team, but it can be especially challenging for culturally-diverse teams.  Tools such as a team charter and/or code of conduct can be helpful.
  1. Be patient: It can take time for diverse groups to learn to work together. And recognize that your own cross-cultural leadership is like any other competency – it takes time and practice to achieve excellence.

Debbie Narver BSc, MBA, MScIB is a Strategic Management Instructor and Facilitator with NMC Strategic Manager (  She has done extensive research on the Impact of Cultural Diversity on International HR Strategy, and the Performance of  Cross-Cultural Teams.  She is the author of How to Manage Culturally Diverse Work Teams, and teaches  Cross-Cultural Leadership courses for managers.

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