Mastering The Cross Cultural Competency

July 5th, 2012 by Celia Young Leave a reply »

A Key Quality of a Successful Global Leader

For the last 26 years, I have consulted with many major corporations that have expanded their businesses all over the world.  They have invested millions of dollars in manufacturing, sales, R&D, distributions, etc. in order to achieve their competitive advantage.  Not every company succeeded or managed to keep winning the game.  One of the significant reasons has to do with whether they have sufficiently competent people in the all the key positions to carry out their business mission.

One of the many qualities, experience and skills that make a successful global leader is their cross-cultural competency, which is the ability to successfully manage cross-cultural relationships, and capitalize on the cross-cultural advantage and achieve sustainable business results around the world.

I gave a presentation in the SHRM (Society of Human Resources Management) annual conference that just concluded on June 27 in Atlanta.  My subject was “Mastering the Cross-cultural Competency.”  One of the questions that got a lot of audience interests was “How do we assess the cross-cultural competency in our executives?”  For decades, organizations have relied on psychological tests and type assessment to gauge the hire-ability of new job candidates.  And for similar number of years, we have used 360° feedback tool to measure leadership competencies.  Since we have been sending leaders on global assignment, we also found the need to assess their ability to manage and do business cross national and cultural boundaries.   However, no assessment tool alone can help executives acquire a global mindset and eventually become globally competent.

Three days ago, you found out that you were going to China to look at possible site to build a plant that can provide the closest supplies to your client that just expanded its China market.  Now you are standing in an old abandoned weapon factory in the outskirt of Shanghai.  Nothing looks and smells familiar, your head is swelling, your jet lag just kicked in and you feel the fast moving traffic is swallowing you up.

You are in a “culture shock”.  At this moment, you have two ways to make sense of what you are experiencing.  One way, you might say, people are just people; as long as your contact in China speaks English, you don’t see how business dealings will be any different than anywhere else.  The other way, you let everything overwhelm you.  Street signs and store names are all in Chinese.  Without the ability to read Chinese, you are not sure what to order for dinner. On the streets, cars don’t yield to pedestrians.  The crowd stands too close.  You are frozen and immobilized.  You wish you could go home now.

It is between “being in denial” and “being totally lost” where the majority of us struggle to find the most effective way to succeed in the global business.  Our rate of success depends on the following competencies.

  • Curiosity

Curiosity is the ability to stay open to possibilities and surprises.  With curiosity, we have a chance to learn something new about ourselves and our environment.  Some people have very little curiosity because perhaps they were born this way, too busy or too occupied with the tasks at hand to be curious or they have decided that they already have the answers.

With curiosity, we start noticing our environment and our internal reactions.

  • Scanning and Tracking

In addition to curiosity, a potential leader must have the ability to scan his or her environment and notice what is going on.   They also need to track cultural patterns in the environment.  It is easier to find things that are familiar to us when we go into a new environment.  But once we have found the similarity, we often stop looking, assuming that we know enough to move forward.  This is when we run into trouble because we are not prepared to face situations that are not familiar or different from our past experience.  So, the more challenging and rewarding thing to do when we scan our environment is to move toward things that are different.  This requires our sharpened senses to see and experience cultural differences.

  • Opening to Multiple Meanings

The most challenging thing is when we notice differences and discover how uncomfortable and hard it is to accept these differences.  This is when we really need to withhold judgment and reactions and stay suspended till we do some further investigation and research.

The way we make meaning of any data we collect often is based on what we have learned from the past.  An adult sees a table and the child sees a building block for his or her castle.   Our cultural upbringing constantly colors our lens thus impact the way we make meaning   Often, we react to the meaning we make, not the raw data we collected.  What happens when each of us attaches our different meaning to the same business circumstance?  An effective leader has the capacity to hear and see possible different meanings.

In some cultures, “yes” does not mean “agreement”.  It just means “acknowledgement”.  Without understanding these different meanings, we might react negatively when “yes” did not turn out to be our “yes”.

  • Empathy

To have empathy is to put ourselves in someone else’ shoes.  We won’t be able to do this until we have fully understood others experience.   For decades, Japanese auto makers studied their customers’ personal habits when they are in the car and for what purpose they used the car.  They basically put themselves in their customers’ daily life and discover what would make their life easier and build these conveniences as standard features in the car.  When China first opened to the West in the 80’s, majority of its populations lived and worked on the farms.  In order to keep most of the then one billion people employed in the countryside, the last thing they wanted to do is to replace manual labor with machine.  So, I noticed many families rode their John Deere tractors on the country roads instead of using them in the field.   If we want to be responsive to the market needs, we must have empathy for the social and cultural factors impacting the market condition.  This ability to empathize starts with our leaders.

  • Managing Ambiguity

The higher we go in the organization and the farther we journey into the global world, the more complex business problems we will encounter where there is no one best solution or one right answer. Every choice we make, we will have intended and unintended consequence.  Around the world, business is being conducted very differently because of different cultures or different business norms.  We cannot possibly have all the necessary information or explanation to help us make that one best decision.  The market is full of ambiguity.  The most effective leaders are the ones who can manage the dilemma and live with the “not knowing” and make the best decision they can.

  • Marginality

When I first migrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, I knew I was 100% Chinese.  Then one day after 12 years here, I realized that it did not matter how hard I tried, I would never be a native-born American.  At the same time, I could not go back to be that 100% Chinese again, especially after I started to think, to dream and even to feel in English.  I vacillated between the two worlds and felt genuinely lost.  Then after the next twelve years, I learned to embrace the marginal part of my “self” that did not belong to the U.S. or China.  This marginal part of me has become my third identity that helped me navigate smoothly in and out of different cultural environment.  I have truly become a global citizen.   Successful global leaders need to stop struggling between their two worlds, discover their marginal self and claim their global citizenship.

  • Reconcile Differences through Dialogue

After we have recognized and understood that there are cultural differences among people in this world, so what?  We still need to find a way to work together in order to achieve business results.   For too long, we tended to see differences as “right” and “wrong”.  We would spend too much energy and resources to defend our “rightness” and to silence or beat down anything that is different.   This is a very costly power struggle where we might win the war, but will not win the “peace.”  If we accept the notion that “it is not right and wrong, but right and left”,   we might find a new and more mutually beneficial way to deal with our differences.  Global leaders must have the ability to help reconcile cultural differences.  The way to do this is through Dialogue*.

Buddhist practice has taught us that if we want to be understood, we first have to understand.  So the first rule of Dialogue is Inquiry before Advocacy.  Historically, we tended to have done too much of advocacy before inquiry.

If we invest enough time and effort to truly understand other cultural point of view, we may find that others have good ideas that we can incorporate.  At the end, we will have found a win/win solution to an otherwise very complex business problem.*”  On Dialogue” by David Bohm, 1990

  • Reaching Common Grounds

By going through the above seven-step struggle in managing our cultural differences, we can finally build the true common ground where real global collaboration and innovation can have a chance to sprout and grow.

When we optimize our global leaders’ cross-cultural competency, we can uplift human lives on earth while achieving global business success.




Celia Young develops and coaches global leaders to optimize their cross-cultural competency.  Learn how Celia Young & Associates can help you succeed in the Asian Century by visiting here.



  1. Sonia Nevis says:

    What makes this blog so good is the very practical competencies that you make so clear for a consultant who wants to learn to bring differences close to each other.

    Your description of the feelings when you have not learned how to begin even the connecting process will be very helpful to those who want to jump into their unknown.

    Good work.


  2. Judy Issokson says:

    Nice article. You should come to july’s OD net and meet(and challenge) Namita..she will be talking to similar issues and competences. Judy

  3. I can relate with the ideas in your article. I am of Asian decent but much of my mental and emotional make up is American (I grew up in the Philippines). I was relating your article to experiences I had when I returned to the Philippines after more than 10 years of absence having fully embraced the American culture.

    A video of you discussing this articles would be very interesting. Even better if the video was filmed in China! Your personality comes through in your writing and might be even more impressive on video.

    Thank you for your article.

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