Leveraging Cross Cultural Differences

HSBC have captured the humour in cultural differences – a collection of their best ads.

How to get the most from cross cultural and diverse teams

By Gaia Grant

Have you thought about just how connected the world now is? An aerial view of the world at night from outer space shows a globe criss-crossed by international air travellers, and maps of internet use reveal vast intricate webs of connections across most countries and cultures

We are living in a reality that was inconceivable less than 50 years ago. In 1968 Marshal McLuhan imagined that the world would become a global village, and in 1991 German thought leaders Karl Otto Apel and Jurgen Habermas speculated that individuals would be communicating with each other across countries and culturesi. We have now well and truly entered this once futuristic vision. It is possible to cross countries, cultures and time zones with just the click of a button – often without even leaving home!

Even language misunderstandings can cause issues. Humorous Berlitz Ad.

Diversity can lead to superior solutions
Diverse and cross-cultural teams have the potential to reach far superior solutions to homogeneous teams (teams of like-minded people from similar backgrounds), but they need to be managed well. Homogeneous teams come up with solutions faster and with less friction, yet they tend to come up with more mediocre and less creative ideas. Effective leaders are able to harness the great potential diverse teams can offer.

Leaders today need to be able to deal with different cultures – whether it’s simply dealing with the diversity within their teams in their home country, or dealing with diversity across countries and through virtual team challenges. Along with emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence has become a critical leadership requirement for a number of different scenarios.

Cultural intelligence is the key
Cultural Intelligence (CQ) has been described as a person’s capacity to function effectively in situations characterised by cultural diversity.ii It is also about, “being skilled and flexible about understanding a culture, learning increasingly more about it, and gradually shaping one’s thinking to be more sympathetic to the culture.iii CQ is a useful measure that can be used to help describe and interpret different levels of cultural sensitivity.

It’s easy to ignore the potential issues or find a way to work around them rather than address them. Have you ever noticed yourself using the following tactics in cross cultural situations – either overtly or unconsciously? These approaches are all too common, and they can hamper positive culturally sensitive solutions:

  • Avoidance: denying any cultural differences
  • Dominating: imposing cultural values
  • Accommodating: giving in to others’ cultural values
  • Compromising: coming up with inferior solutions that are not necessarily mutually beneficial

Rather than trying to find ways around the issue, culturally aware leaders will instead find ways to create value through relationships. They will aim for a collaborative and ‘synergistic’ approaches, which will transcend the distinct cultures and lead to superior, mutually beneficial solutions.

Sensemaking for synergy
The GLOBE study identifies important cultural factors required for working with people across culturesiv. Some of these qualities include tolerating ambiguity (e.g. the need for stability and consistency, but also the need for progress and change), along with adaptability and flexibility (e.g. in adapting your communication style). Sense-making techniques can assist with assessing the situation and adapting as neededv. These require:

  • Considering the context
  • Learning to describe and summarise the situation as it appears
  • Interpreting underlying assumptions and values and making attributions
  • Assessing differences and finding common ground, and
  • Selecting appropriate schema to deal with the situation

By leveraging these differences, it becomes possible to find positive synergistic alternatives. There is the potential to learn to deal with both the individual mindsets of the different people involved, and the organisational goals and tasks – along with the relevant cultural factors required to make progress in this area. It is also important to balance the implicit complexities and contradictions of cross-cultural management at this level.

How do you recognise and harness diversity in your teams?

Part II of this article can be found here.


  1. McCluhan, M. 1968. War and peace in the global village. Bantam, New York.
    Habermas, J. (1991). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., & Livermore, D. 2009. Cultural intelligence: A pathway for leading in a rapidly globalizing world. In K.M. Hannum. B. McFeeters, & L. Booysen (Eds.), Leadership across differences: Cases and perspectives. Pfeiffer, San Francisco.
  3. Thomas, D.C. & Inkson, K.C. 2003. Cultural Intelligence: People skills for global business. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.
  4. House, R.J., Hanges, P. J., Jaivdan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. 2004, Culture, leadership and organizations: the GLOBE study of 62 societies, Sage Publications Inc., Thousand Oaks.
  5. Osland, J.S. & Bird, A. Beyond sophisticated stereotyping: Cultural sensemaking in context. Section 4 in Puffer, S. (Ed.) 2004. International management: Insights from fiction and practice. M.E. Sharpe Inc, New York.

Further reading:

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., and Minkov, M. 2010. Cultures and organizations: software of the mind. McGraw-Hill, New York.
Schneider, S.C, and Barsoux, J-L. Managing across cultures. Financial Times / Prentice Hall, Harlow UK.
The Hofstede Centre n.d., National Culture Dimensions. Retrieved from http://geert-hofstede.com/
Trompenaars, F., and Hampden-Turner, C. 1997. Riding the waves of culture. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston.

Gaia Grant

Gaia Grant is the author of Who Killed Creativity?… And How Can We Get it Back? and the author of a number of books and resources, including A Patch of Paradise and The Rhythm of Life. She has a BA, Dip Ed, BD (hons), Grad Dip Change Leadership, and MSc in Creative Thinking (International Centre for Studies in Creativity State University of NY). She is now completing an MPhil, leading into a PhD focusing on research into the role of culture change and transformation in innovation at Sydney University, where she is also a guest lecturer on innovation across cultures for the Business School.

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