(An Intercultural Examination)
Part 2 of 2
In our second article, we will unpack the remaining 5 of the top 10 corporate values: Respect for Employees, Innovation, Ownership of Actions, Excellence, Safety, and Quality.
Respect for employees
Respect is such a crucial word, but a culturally unintelligent definition of respect can easily lead to disrespectful moments amongst staff.
Unfortunately, there are 1001 ways to show respect across the world. Here are some examples: is it respectful to look somebody in the eyes, or is it respectful to shake somebody's hand? Is it a sign of respect to use titles, or is it the opposite where respect is shown by addressing colleagues as equals?
What about respect for age? Is it considered respectful to promote a younger employee before an older employee with more years of service in the company, or is that not even an issue of respect?
Another challenge related to respect has to do with the sense of equality related to roles and remuneration. Recruiting has gone global and in the global recruiting game some are more equal than others. Reasonable salaries in one context might either be too high or too low in another context. We also still live in a world where nationality and ethnicity do play a role in your ability to succeed in a certain context. This is especially true when local practices make it hard for people from diverse backgrounds to be in contact with one another.
The key challenge is to manage the polarity where on the one hand you will have to be counterculture in your practice of equality while on the other hand, you must be aware and realistic about the perceived or real inequalities that still exist today.
Product life cycles are consistently becoming shorter and that requires organizations to be agile and innovative. The global pandemic has accelerated the impact of 'disruptive innovators', typically small organizations with brilliant ideas who are not geographically isolated anymore and can compete on the global stage.
Organizations tend to focus on the methods and techniques to create innovative solutions and then forget that ‘culture eats innovation for breakfast’. Only a healthy resonant culture will allow those techniques, methods, and processes to result in real innovation.
Practicing innovation with a diverse group of people has proven to be 35% more successful than innovation practiced with a more uniform group of people. The main distinguishing factor is the health of the culture they have created amongst the group (we call it 'the third cultural space').
The same four elements already discussed earlier in this article when we talked about teamwork (Trust, Communication, Purpose, and Relational Strength) are essential building blocks for creating a culture that can successfully innovate.
One practical example is how direct <> indirect communication works in the process of innovation. This is especially true when it comes to critiquing ideas and how to do that in such a way that it doesn't disable certain contributors.
Another example would be the assumption that 'brainstorming' is a universally understood and appreciated method. Brainstorming is not a customary practice in every culture and some cultures would find it a threatening and disabling process.
In other words: If you want to create an innovative organization you first must create a culturally agile space that allows all contributors to come alive.
Ownership of actions
Ownership of actions comes with the notion that if you take on a task you can and will be held accountable for completing the task.
The more intercultural an organization is the greater the need is for managers and leaders to develop cultural agility in the way they direct and delegate.
We have seen many intercultural situations where there is a strong hierarchy combined with a lack of empowerment. In those situations, the process surrounding directing and delegating often results in communication gaps between the boss and their direct reports.
The direct report might not feel free to ask clarifying questions or might be afraid to say to their boss that they don't have the skills, time, or appropriate resources to complete the task.
In other situations, it might be seen as disrespectful for a direct report to have to ask clarifying questions. Indeed, asking clarifying questions is indirectly communicating to the leader that they are not a good leader because if they were a good leader the direct report wouldn't need to ask clarifying questions.
In those situations, the direct report walks away second-guessing what their boss wants. Often going to trusted colleagues who might have worked for the same leader for a longer period and work together on how to complete the task.
The other issue with ownership is that many cultures don't see individuals as owning a task, what they own is the success of the team as a whole (Community Accountability). If individual accountability is the only way employees are encouraged to take ownership of ideas, tasks, and projects then this can result in challenges that erode relationships on the team.
In one situation a sales team was solely held individually accountable for their performance, but the sales team members mainly came from community accountability cultures. This created a very awkward situation where in real life they shared and helped one another, but at work, they had to 'play with their cards close to their chest' to not share sales lead information with their colleagues which could result in lower individual sales performance.
Creating a culture in the organization where ownership and accountability behaviors are structured so that every culture can feel at home is crucial to allowing all contributors to bring their best to work.
Values related to excellence typically have words like exceed, surpass, and go beyond as part of their descriptions. In that sense, they stay true to the original meaning of the word.
Using Excellence as a corporate value must automatically mean that the organization aspires to have incremental improvement mechanisms in place to pursue excellence.
To make this a reality, several ingredients need to be added to the mix:
Create a culture of productive feedback
Maintain healthy means of debate and conduct conflict-oriented conversations that are solution oriented
Focus on the greater good of the team and the organization.
Let me add a fourth element which is often frowned upon in intercultural organizations: for peers to hold each other accountable so that issues can be spotted early, and improvements can be discussed.
Recently I was collaborating with a team where we discussed peer accountability to speed up decision making, create micro-adjustments more frequently, and liberate the boss. Everybody was looking at the team leader and waiting for him to say what he thought about the idea. They were afraid that he might shoot down the idea because it would take power away from him... I coached the team leader through a dialogue that created the confidence and permission for the team to start pursuing this approach. At the end of the session, the team members said that "This was indeed one of the most liberating team activities we have done since our team came together!"
It is no wonder that 'the learning organization' philosophy of Peter Senge has proven to be so hard to implement in multi-cultural organizations. ("A group of people working together collectively to enhance their capacities to create results they care about")
Very often the pursuit of excellence has focused on teaching people techniques to pursue excellence together, but the foundation of excellence is not techniques, but the ability to implement those techniques in a cultural space where those techniques can succeed (creating the third cultural space).
It is counter-intuitive to first 'tool people up' to create healthy culture before you 'tool them up' with the techniques to pursue excellence together. At the same time, it is the secret to truly succeeding in your pursuit of excellence in a diverse and global environment.
Creating a healthy safety culture requires a variety of ingredients that all need to be nurtured together. This includes both transactional (processes, policy procedures) as well as relational pieces (behaviors that are defined in a culturally agile way).
Multi-cultural teams must develop their own 'third cultural space' to create alignment and diminish the impact of cultural biases and stereotypes. If this is not happening hand-in-hand with defining good processes, policies, and procedures you could end up with situations like this:
We were collaborating with a team of engineers in a high-risk environment and one of the engineers pulled me aside and said: "There was an issue with one of the valves at the plant, but my supervisor didn't notice it. I am new on the team and not from the same culture as my supervisor and I think he will get upset if I point out the fact that the valve showed corrosion, especially since he missed it..."
Korean Air experienced several accidents in the '80s and '90s that were partially contributed to the Korean language causing the crew to bring the hierarchical cultural dynamics into the cockpit. Several sweeping changes were implemented including switching the cockpit language to English and bringing more non-Korean crew into the airline. This allowed the crew to start creating a third cultural space that resulted in implementing safety protocols more effectively.
Successfully implementing a safety culture starts with creating the third cultural space. The third cultural space will equip teams with intercultural agreement on behaviors around trust, communication, purpose, celebrating & correcting, and developing strong relationships.
The pursuit of quality should both be internally as well as externally focused. The external focus (how our products/services and our organization is perceived by the world) and the internal focus (how we function inside the organization) should be given equal priority. But this can be a challenge if the organization operates in a cultural context where what is seen on the outside is more important than what is seen on the inside.
Organizations and brands with excellent products have shown to be hypocritical when you compare the effort they put into quality assurance for their end product to the effort they put into commitment to their employees. One thing we see around the world is that Millennials and Gen-Z place immense value on being listened to, opportunities for development, and care for employee wellbeing.
Pursuing quality in an intercultural environment will require culturally agile mechanisms for people to speak up. It will also require culturally agile ways to engage with (internal and external) customers to provide quality feedback and ideas.
To achieve this companies often do not know how to design culturally neutral feedback systems.
One of our clients was going through a major merger and wanted employee feedback on how the merger was going. They created an online survey (classical Individual Accountability style) and when a significant pool of the employees had responded they wanted to close the survey. We recommended them to look at the cultural diversity of the people who had completed the survey and they discovered they were predominantly "Individual Accountability on the Twelve Dimensions of Culture and "Innocence-Guilt" oriented on the Three Colors of Worldview. The survey design and methods used to harvest the data automatically shut out the voices of a considerable number of employees.
When you put together a culturally diverse group of people and ask them the question: “What is higher or lower on the priority list when it comes to pursuing quality?” you will get a wide variety of answers. In other words: it is crucial to have a conversation around these competing priorities and create a culturally agile understanding of what quality means (e.g., in a building project do we spend extra money on the façade and go for lower quality light fittings. In hospitality: do we invest in state-of-the-art rooms or do we go for investing in creating unique memories. In education: do we focus on the latest classroom technologies, or do we invest in recruiting teachers with higher levels of experience)?
The world of today requires a culturally agile approach to make corporate values come alive through tangible and doable actions. In this way, they become the behavioral code for the organization that drives strategy as well as internal and external branding of the organization.
You could say that corporate values are like the tribal code you live by. In a tribe, there is agreement on how to behave and there is an intentional process to allow you to grow into those behaviors from an early age.
The same is true in the world of sports has a similar 'initiation process'. Starting at an early age, you are ingrained in the game and everything it requires. The rules of the game, the process of micro improvement, and the thousands of scenarios become part of your (muscle) memory resulting in a higher probability of success in the game.
Let’s start a conversation to explore how you can make your organizational culture come alive in a diverse and interculturally complex context.
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