The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Cross-cultural leadership in times of crisis


The pandemic changes priorities

It takes a worldwide pandemic to focus the minds of leaders on what is really important to their employees. When individuals fear for their own lives, they are in survival mode and their priorities dramatically change. They no longer care about office politics, the next promotion or how to impress the boss. They are looking to their organisation for empathy, caring, trust, and understanding. They are judging their leaders by the way they react as human beings.

It’s not what leaders say that matters, it’s what they do. How they behave in a crisis is a better indication of their personal values and beliefs than any corporate policy or mission statement. So maybe it’s not totally surprising that we are seeing the “Great Resignation” following on from the pandemic as employees are disillusioned by the way they have been treated and are voting with their feet.

It’s not what leaders say that matters, it’s what they do. How they behave in a crisis is a better indication of their personal values and beliefs than any corporate policy or mission statement.

Faced with a major disruption to their working lives, many employees have had the opportunity to revisit the role that work plays in their existence. They have thought about the purpose of work, not just as a source of income but as something that brings satisfaction and meaning to their lives. And they have looked more critically at the organisation providing them with their work. Does it live up to their personal expectation of how they would like to be treated? Or does it espouse values that are not reflected in management and leadership behaviours?

It’s the habits of leaders that end up setting the cultural norms in an organisation. These are the visible indications of the true values of the top team, not the slogans on the website or the presentations to the staff. The true measure of organisational culture is the shared experience of the people who are living with it every day.

Is culture universal?

So, does it make any sense to try to have a universal culture that applies throughout an organisation? Can values really be set from the top and apply worldwide? And are there such things as universal values anyway? There has always been a point of tension where corporate cultures clash with local national ones. This typically happens in multinational organisations that have a culture set from their headquarters that works well in the country/region where the head office is located but is out of line with local practice in operating companies around the world.

Leaders have to be careful in deciding what are the true universal values that their organisation upholds and what are accepted practices in different local cultures. They need to test their assumptions with a wide range of people and not just share their views with their colleagues in the ivory tower. It is easy to assume that there are some universal aspects of human behaviour, only to discover that these are simply products of an individual’s life experience and that customs vary significantly across the world. Employees may be caught between corporate policies and local practices. In extreme cases, local legislation may not allow some business practices that are considered normal in the country of the headquarters.

At one extreme, leaders who hold strong beliefs about how to treat employees may choose not to operate in countries where their approach is at odds with local practices. At the other extreme is the Distributed Autonomous Organisation, where individuals are left to manage themselves and fit into the local culture. Somewhere between these extremes lies a compromise between corporate culture and local practice.

How consistent does leadership need to be?

This raises a question about how certain management practices can be applied universally. Are there rules about leadership that apply across the world, regardless of race, religion or national culture? Or should leadership look distinctly different in different regimes? Do we expect leaders in a country with an autocratic government to behave differently from those in a democratic environment?

This then leads to further questions about how much of good leadership behaviour is universal, based on human nature, and how much is dependent on circumstances. Can leadership be learned, or is there a fundamental personality type that makes someone a good leader regardless of the culture they operate in?

The pandemic has shown that there are some universal factors that govern the human race regardless of the cultural context. Individuals have been vulnerable to the virus across the world although the approach to controlling it has varied. Some countries have had very strict lockdown rules whilst others have been more relaxed – with the most obvious differences in relation to international travel. But one common impact has been to question some of the old working habits that have been around since the Industrial Revolution.

So how can leaders prepare themselves in leading organisations that will become more autonomous, flatter, and ever more global? What needs to be adapted and changed in the current structures, policies, practices and systems? What tools can leaders use? And how can leaders come to the front in a crisis?

Train your global leaders on intercultural awareness and inclusion

Leaders who are responsible for a multicultural team must be sensitive to cultural norms and ensure equity and inclusion. Many have brought in external or internal culture experts and run Diversity and Inclusion training. In one example, the talent management team in a global pharmaceutical company brought together the senior leadership from Asia to their headquarters in Germany to get to know the corporate universal culture. At the same time, senior leaders from headquarters were given a lens into the Chinese and other Asian cultures and how these influence trust, communication, and decision-making processes.

It has been shown that companies with happy employees on global teams are more likely to have culture experts. Erin Meyer, the author of The Culture Map and Professor at Insead, works with senior leaders across the globe to map out themselves, their teammates, and dozens of world cultures on a “Culture Map”. Using her methodology, corporate culture can be plotted on the Culture Map dimension to build, maintain, and enhance a highly innovative global culture.

Leaders and managers need to also be retrained to be aware of the impact of their behaviour and be sensitive to how backgrounds and situations are different. With the crisis, it is becoming even more important to understand how work and life situations have changed for employees due to the pandemic, potential threat of war and the shift to remote work. There is also a need to also re-evaluate how this could have an impact on performance evaluations. A manager’s expectations and evaluation of their team’s trust and commitment may have been established previously from face time in the office. How has this changed moving into a hybrid work environment? How can the metrics of success and high performance be re-focussed on deliverables, milestones and KPIs?

In an SHRM global employee report: Diversity of thinking, creativity, and access to talent anywhere are top benefits for global teams. By building competencies for intercultural leadership globally, organisations can then at the same time leverage the opportunity to access remote talents from different corners of the world.

Embed aligned purpose into your internal talent continuity selection processes

With the increasing focus of businesses on Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) goals, senior leaders from different cultures are being challenged on their purpose, values, and next career steps. Partners in the FutureWork Forum who advise senior leadership have seen that even prior to the pandemic, potential internal or external candidates for Global Executive Board roles are being asked during interviews: ‘What do you stand for?’ Our evidence from workshops shows that many mid to senior leaders are stumped by this question. They have rarely been asked for their purpose and values and are not used to these being considered in their performance evaluation process. This reflects the fact that the majority of people have difficulty answering this question, as mentioned in Sabine Hoffmeister’s article in this magazine (‘Purpose: The Key to Personal and Professional Growth’).

So how can leaders help their employees build clarity of purpose? In one example, a global technology company organised a well-being week for their employees during the pandemic. One of the FutureWork Forum Partners delivered a virtual career clarity and development session for more than 200 people across Germany over Zoom. The objectives were to provide a space for participants to clarify their purpose and at the same time align their purpose with their next career steps and the organisation’s goals. One of the frameworks used was the ikigai, loosely translated from the Japanese as ‘the reason for being’ (also mentioned in Sabine Hoffmeister’s article). This asks four universal questions:

  • What are you good at?
  • What do you love?
  • What impact would you like to create?
  • What can you be paid for?

Through these sessions, individuals build deeper understanding and friendships with each other through discussions about the individual’s values and culture, aligning these with the corporate purpose.

Build your culture bottom up

In times of crisis, in a pandemic or in war, employees look to their leaders to lead by example and to provide them with a sense of security, aligned purpose and action. At the same time, leaders can leverage this opportunity to provide a space for employees to share their challenges, new realities and activate a joint call for action.

In addition, trust also needs to be established through clear lines and channels of communication. Leaders need to redesign workflows and structures that support cross-cultural collaborations and leverage technology for more effective hybrid global teams. Regional or local teams need to have a say in the organisation and ownership of decision-making where diverse voices are heard. Another example from the FutureWork Forum is a food and beverage company which acquired local businesses. They mapped out business processes and took time to ensure that the local leaders were able to share their cultures and values together with the global leadership team. This helped to ensure the universal corporate culture was aligned as part of the post-acquisition integration process.

Leaders must be prepared to have their views challenged and ensure that employees will not face negative consequences. History has taught us that leaders who surround themselves only with those who hold the same views tend to move away from reality. Leaders need to have the open-mindedness to recognise change and react to it.

Sources remote-work-might-force-us-to-be-better-cross-cultural-managers/ covid-19-returning-workplace-boards.html 


See more articles from Vol.16 Issue 02 – The lived experience, working life in the 21st century.

Peter Thomson is a speaker, author and consultant on the future of work.

Carolina has close to 2 decades of experience in driving talent management initiatives across Europe, Asia, US, Middle East and Africa. Prior to starting her entrepreneurial journey, Carolina was the Head of Human Resources Middle East, Global Talent Acquisition and Managing Director of Odebrecht (a Engineering & Construction conglomerate) Austria. Prior to the stint at Odebrecht, Carolina led the implementation of various HR Projects at AB-InBev (world’s largest brewer) in China and at their global headquarters in Belgium.

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