Skip to content

How Cultural Competence Makes You More A Effective Leader, Manager and Operator

2021 November 28

When I first moved to Kyiv about 20 years ago, I met my friend Pavlo, who is from Belarus. Eventually our talk turned to that country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, and an incident in which he turned off the utilities at the US Ambassador’s residence, as well as those of other diplomats. It seemed totally outlandish and crazy to me.

“But he won,” Pavlo countered. I was incredulous, until he explained. “Lukashenko knows he’s a bastard and that the world will never accept him. In that situation all you can win is your freedom and that’s what he won.” It was a mode of thinking so outrageous and foreign to me that I could scarcely believe it.

Yet it opened my eyes and made me a more effective operator. We tend to think of empathy as an act of generosity, but it’s far more than that. Learning how to internalize diverse viewpoints is a skill we should learn not only because it helps make others more comfortable, but because it empowers us to successfully navigate an often complex and difficult world.

Shared Identity And Dominant Culture

We naturally tend to form groups based on identity. For example, in a study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to outgroup members. Similar results were found in a study involving five year-old children and even in infants. So to a certain extent, tribalism is unavoidable.

Evolutionary psychologists attribute this tendency to kin selection. Essentially, groups favor those who are most like them are more likely to see their own genes passed on. As Richard Dawkins famously pointed out, what we traditionally consider altruism can also be seen as selfish genes conniving to perpetuate themselves.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that organizational and institutional settings sustain our penchant for tribalism. Managers will tend to hire people who think and act in familiar ways. Those who reflect the preferences of the higher-ups will be more likely to get promoted and, in turn, recruit people like themselves. This all leads to a level of homogeneity that provides comfort and confidence.

We rarely welcome someone who threatens our sense of self. So those outside the dominant culture are encouraged to conform and are often punished when they don’t. They are less often invited to join in routine office socializing and promotions are less likely to come their way. When things go poorly, it’s much easier to blame the odd duck than the trusted insider.

How Success Leads To Failure

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, author Thomas Kuhn describes how paradigms have a life cycle. They begin as an insight that succeeds in helping to solve a certain class of problems. As their usefulness grows, they rise to dominance and they are rarely questioned or scrutinized anymore. People use them almost reflexively.

Yet over time certain anomalies arise in which the paradigm doesn’t quite fit. For example, in the 1970s and 80s, the minicomputer industry in Boston reigned supreme. Yes, there were some small startup firms out in California, but they were no match for giants like DEC, Data General and Apollo Computer. The California firms were gaining traction, but weren’t considered threats.

Unfortunately for the Boston firms, paradigms were shifting in a way that was extremely disadvantageous to them. They had built strong, dominant cultures that could execute plans efficiently, but weren’t sensitive to outside information. The Silicon Valley firms, which were more diverse and interconnected, were much more able to adapt to changing market realities.

The truth is that the next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all. That’s why we so often miss it. If it was obvious, everyone would know about it and it wouldn’t surprise us. That’s why it’s so often those odd ducks, the anomalies that don’t quite fit with the dominant culture, that end up disrupting industries.

Acknowledging Difference

Organizations crave efficiency. It’s easy to measure, evaluate and compensate for. That’s why managers tend to favor cohesive cultures. If you hire and promote likeminded people they will tend to be able to achieve consensus quickly without much deliberation or debate, and move quickly to action.

At the same time, inserting diversity stirs things up and makes people uneasy. For example, in a 2003 study involving 242 members of sororities and fraternities at Northwestern University, groups of students were asked to solve a murder mystery. The more homogenous teams felt more comfortable and confident, but were also much more likely to be wrong.

Real world data suggests that these results are the rule, rather than the exception. A McKinsey report that covered 366 public companies in a variety of countries and industries found that groups that were more ethnically and gender diverse performed significantly better than others. Many other studies have shown similar results

What’s crucial to grasp is that diverse teams don’t perform better in spite of discomfort, but because of it. When people expect people to think like them, they look to build an easy consensus. However, when they expect a range of opinions and perspectives, they need to entertain more possibilities and scrutinize information more skeptically.

That’s why it’s so important to acknowledge differences. If we see the world as homogeneous, we are more likely to see dissenting opinions as hostile challenges instead of new possibilities to be explored. It is through acknowledging diverse viewpoints that we can best catalyze the kind of creativity and innovation that helps solve complex and important problems.

Building Shared Identity Through Shared Purpose

Living as a foreigner for 15 years forced me to acknowledge viewpoints very different from my own. Many seemed strange to me, some I found morally questionable, but all forced me to grow. Perhaps even more importantly, I made friends like Pavlo, all of whom helped shape me and how I perceive things.

Our identity and sense of self drives a lot of what we see and do, yet we rarely examine these things because we spend most of our time with people who are a lot like us, who live in similar places and experience similar things. That’s why our innate perceptions and beliefs seem normal and those of others strange, because our social networks shape us that way.

The purpose of an education is to help us see beyond our own experience, but that is in no way a passive skill. We need to continually renew it. Diversity only has value if we appreciate difference; are willing to explore and learn from it. It is only then that we can glean new insights and apply them to some useful endeavor

It is at this nexus of identity and purpose that creativity and innovation reside, because when we learn to collaborate with others who possess knowledge, skills and perspectives that we don’t, new possibilities emerge. Make no mistake, however, breakthroughs are never truly serendipitous or random, but the product of a prepared mind.

And you prepare your mind through building cultural competence.

– Greg


Image: Pixabay



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS