The Simple Key to Cross-Cultural Leadership
I have had my share of cross-cultural experiences. I grew up in Iran, moved to the U.S. on my own when I was 16, and have lived and worked in a few places in the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia since then, and I have been married to a person of a different race and ethnicity than my own for over 35 years. If there is one thing I have learned during my extensive travels, it is that deep down, we are all the same. As the saying goes, “What’s most personal is most general.” There are tons of similarities between us, regardless of our nationality, religion, race, political persuasion, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, etc. There are also tons of superficial differences between us that really do matter and should not be ignored. The fact is, however, that all these differences between us are only meaningful precisely because they are situated within the context of an underlying unity that we all share. My experience is that understanding and accepting our sameness is the pre-requisite for sustainably and genuinely valuing and celebrating—not just tolerating—our differences.
The best way for me to quickly demonstrate this to you is to ask you to think of a close friend or significant other or colleague that you care deeply about and have great respect for, who nevertheless has completely different preferences than you when it comes to a variety of topics. Can you see that you have found a way to easily accept your superficial differences, simply because of who you know them to be deep inside? I have experienced this many times in my personal and professional life. I have friends from all walks of life that, on the surface, I have almost nothing in common with, and yet our bonds are stronger than with some with whom I merely share superficial similarities. By the same token, if you think of someone whose basic values and beliefs you consider to be diametrically opposed to yours, you would find it extremely difficult to develop and maintain a mutually enjoyable and productive relationship with them, no matter how many superficial things you had in common.
Acknowledge Sameness to Appreciate Differences
The foundation of my ability to thrive in cross-cultural communities and workplaces around the world has been my understanding that acknowledging our sameness is the key driver for sustainably appreciating our differences. This realization, more than any single thing, paves the way for mutually respectful relationships and levels of synergy that cannot possibly exist until we go beyond token efforts to merely accommodate our differences, and instead start profoundly respecting and understanding who each person is in themselves. Only then will we be able to see that each person constitutes a culture unto themselves. Without this understanding, no cross-cultural training will ever truly be sufficient, effective, or sustainable in the long-run.
If you have never had the experience of working in another country or do not anticipate doing so in the future, don’t check out just yet. Often, our greatest failures to develop mutually respectful and beneficial partnerships with others who seem different than us occur right where we have lived and worked for years. This happens because we don’t get to know them for who they are to themselves and all we are left with is the superficial stuff. As a result, we only see them and define them through the lens of their most superficial characteristics, which then become differences that irrevocably divide us. How many of us have worked with people for years and do not know a single thing about their family, their interests, or their hopes and aspirations? Some of these people we get along with because we have decided, somehow, that our differences don’t pose a particular threat to us. There are others, however, that we can’t stand because they are different than us in a way that we have deemed, more or less arbitrarily, to be unacceptable or threatening, and we often use our religious beliefs or our upbringing to justify our disdain for them.
Nothing Brings People Together Like a Crisis
Years ago, I lived in a community that was divided, in so many ways, strictly along racial lines. It took a flood that wiped out 70% of the homes for people to actually begin to see beyond their arbitrary differences and accept the truth that united them: that the members of the “other” race truly cared about every single thing that they themselves truly cared about, i.e. their livelihoods, safety of their families, the security that came from having a home, etc. For a few weeks, fueled by this glimpse of the sameness that we all share, people of all backgrounds and races worked side-by-side to help each other recover from the devastation. Of course, once the flood waters receded, things went back to “normal” for a lot of people, but it wasn't exactly the same “normal” as it was before the flood; many people’s lives were changed forever, in that for the first time, they realized those “other people” were more like them than they were different.
I witnessed a similar transformation in the level of support and empathy a woman received when her young son was killed in an automobile accident. Although she had been unpopular and not particularly well-liked, the way people approached her changed instantly simply because people woke up to the fact that beyond the façade of noticeable differences in her style and demeanor, there was a mother whose love for her child was the same as what rest of us felt for our loved ones. We all saw a side of her she had not revealed and one that we, perhaps, hadn't cared to look for before the accident. She felt the compassion that people had been previously withholding because of how they had perceived her, and that changed everything in how she was treated and how she treated others from that day forward. A whole new level of partnership, satisfaction, fulfillment was made possible by the recognition that beneath our differences, we are all the same.
Reflecting on these experiences, it is somewhat strange to note that it is often people with whom we share the most superficial similarities, relative to others, with which we have the most persistent and heated disagreements. I suspect it is because we find it difficult to understand how it is that those who are so similar to us don’t share all of our beliefs, values, preferences and so on. We don’t bother with those we consider diametrically opposed to us, because we don’t see a point because they are so utterly “different.” Or maybe it is because they are so similar to us that we see things in them that remind us of negative aspects of ourselves that we want to deny, something that Carl Jung called the Shadow archetype.
Our Differences Only Hinder us in the Absence of a Compelling Reason to Unite
Whatever the true reason is, I’d like you to take just a minute and imagine how silly these disagreements among ourselves might look to an outsider. Sports fans have fierce and even violent rivalries with fans of other teams, even though most non-sports fans can’t tell them apart. Friends and family argue far more commonly amongst each other than they do with strangers. Even in my example of the flood, we have two groups of people living in the same city of the same state in the same country, whose only significant external difference is the amount of melanin in their skin, that are so opposed to each other that it takes a catastrophe to stop them from fighting each other. Can you imagine how an alien watching this situation would be utterly baffled? It might be something similar to the experience of seeing two anthills go to war.
The truth is, just like those ants, we are far more similar to each other than we are different. And it is only when we fail to recognize this that we end up identifying only with our differences. Once we make a conscious effort to stop defining ourselves and others by our differences, we stop subconsciously looking for evidence that divides “us” into “us and them.”
While both of the examples I referred to earlier are powerful, they are also more personal and involve response to tragedy. You may be wondering how this might apply in an organization where there is no crisis or tragedy happening. I’ll provide two examples of how this realization might be put to work in an organizational context below.
Dealing with Culture Can be Daunting...if you Let it Be
Years ago, when I took an assignment in Bangkok, Thailand, I heard a lot about just how different the culture was. I was both excited and more than a bit nervous about what my experience might entail. I was moving my family to a new country with such a different culture, which was very exciting; I also had to function at high levels of performance in a demanding job where 99% of the employees were Thai and a majority of them didn't speak much English at all, which was a bit scary. The company I worked for at the time put us through one week of cross-cultural training, brought in consultants to teach us about the cultural differences, gave us primers on basic phrases in the language, etc. And while I found all of that extremely helpful and educational, I remember the exact day when I knew for sure that I was going to have no issues living and working in the culture—and it had nothing to do with any of the cross-cultural training we had received!
What triggered this sense of calm and confidence was that, rather than being overwhelmed about how I was going to learn “the culture” and how I was going to effectively work with “the culture” to deliver results, I decided that I was just going to build relationships one person at a time. I was going to “eat that elephant” one bite at a time, if you will. (Coincidentally, this is an idiom that one would be advised to avoid using in Thailand).
A Culture of One
I understood, albeit subconsciously, that there was no such thing as “the culture.” Rather there was a group of individuals, each with their own likes and dislikes, preferences, and so on that had been reified into a monolithic entity called "the culture.“ But, the smallest and only meaningful unit of any culture is a single person. The reason that we have ideas of a “Thai culture” or “American culture” is because as individuals living in similar circumstances, our preferences tend to coincide in general and on average. But cultural norms are no more true for a particular individual than it is true that American mothers have 2.4 children each. I don’t know about you, but some mothers I know have less than 2 children and some have more, and I certainly have never met a mother that has 0.4 of a child!
Anyway, realizing this, I understood that when I was interacting with a Thai person, I wasn't interacting with “one of those Thai people,” as if they were interchangeable parts of a homogeneous whole. No, I was interacting with someone who was exactly the same as me, in that they were different than everyone else and had their own preferences, values, and beliefs that they wished to be respected. With this realization in mind, even if you don’t believe cross-cultural training applies to you because you are working within your own culture, the fact is that each person constitutes an entire individual culture unto themselves. We each have our own likes and dislikes, preferences, favorite foods and music, personal rituals and beliefs, expectations of others, and so on—all things that we use to characterize the culture of a group or a country. And just as we would not expect the cultural norms of a country to adapt themselves to our presence, neither can we expect that others change their individual preferences to coincide with our own. That each person is a culture of one simply means that a culture is little more than a person writ large; and to understand a culture, you have to start with the people.
Respect People, as Individuals
I knew I had a genuine interest in people, and everyone I had come across had been more than hospitable and friendly, because I approached them each as individual people rather than as representations of a monolithic “culture,” and it seemed to be working fine. So, I set my concerns aside and began to make deposits in the emotional bank accounts of the people with whom I was working, and I saw them generously reciprocate, because they could see I was not doing this as a strategy but because I truly respected and cared about them. I put a great deal of effort into learning the language, and even though I would never become fluent, my attempts at holding conversations in Thai didn’t go unnoticed. I studied what was important to my friends and colleagues and took special care to never use my foot to open the door or point at something, or touch an adult’s head or commit other cultural faux pas. I did this, not because I particularly agreed with or even understood these cultural norms, but rather because I knew that these things were important and meaningful to my friends and colleagues, personally, and consequently they were now just as important and meaningful to me. Just as I would want someone to respect my personal preferences, thus respecting my dignity as an individual, I did my best to do the same for everyone I met.
On this last point, I repeatedly confronted other foreigners who did not care enough about the people to abide by their cultural norms. They may have reasoned that such subtle behavioral differences didn't matter and shouldn't matter when it came to business, or they may have simply been honestly ignorant, but the end result was the same: by refusing to respect the cultural preferences of their individual coworkers, they were personally disrespecting each and every person they interacted with.
In fact, I once banned a very technically skilled resource from ever coming back to support our operation, simply because he consistently and blatantly disregarded the most sacred cultural norms that were important to my team members, and refused to accept constructive feedback to rectify his behavior. I was baffled as to why someone as intelligent and technically skilled as he was would continue to put himself in trouble despite repeated requests and warnings to change his approach. I am clear that it was because, deep down, he had no respect for the Thais as people and thus refused to honor their personal preferences as valid; his behavior was a clear indication to me that he saw the locals as lesser human beings for whatever reason. I can understand a mistake here and there. I have been guilty of many of those myself but to repeatedly ignore the differences between us and be completely unwilling to respect those differences and change his behavior was inexcusable. No amount of training on differences will make a difference until you see “other” people’s cultural preferences as just as valid and deserving of respect as your own.
A few years later, on the other hand, I took an assignment in Germany and the same company that put us through a week of cross-cultural training in Thailand only provided a day or so of orientation for Germany. Their rationale was that, “Germany was a Western country and things were pretty much the same as they were in the U.S.” so there was little need for actual training to help with assimilation. That, of course, could not be further from the truth because there are all kinds of differences in how things are done in Germany than the U.S., ranging from the very specific procedures for recycling various items, to legally mandated quiet time on Sundays and weekday afternoons, to basic social and business etiquette. Germany may have been superficially similar to other Western countries, but ignoring these otherwise trivial cultural differences actually made it more difficult to adapt to life there than in Thailand. We eventually learned our way into many of these and developed relationships with people that I can call friends for life. However, it would have been easier, had we taken the time and effort to understand the differences on the front end.
The Differences are the Same
There is a lesson that both of these experiences share, beyond the need to understand our underlying sameness. And that lesson is about the pitfall of assuming superficial sameness. In Thailand, that highly skilled employee may not have had negative intentions, and may have simply reasoned that, “Since we are all the same, it shouldn’t matter what I do or don’t do. People will understand.” By doing so, however, what he was conveying was that no one else’s preferences mattered but his own, and that differences didn’t matter because everyone was “the same.” In Germany as well, the false sense of security in our superficial sameness led many of us to ignore the real differences in preferences that existed for Germans and to inadvertently commit many cultural faux pas, because we had naively been told that the “differences didn’t matter.” But the differences do matter, just as much as our sameness matters. In fact, it is only through respecting our differences that we gain access to the realization of our authentic, underlying sameness.
Whenever we resort to the idea that differences don’t matter as a way to excuse ourselves from respecting them, we are, in fact, paradoxically denying the authentic sameness that we superficially espouse. A true appreciation of our authentic, underlying sameness leads to a true and abiding respect for our differences; whereas a superficial understanding of sameness leads to disrespect for our differences and thus interminable disrespect toward each other. Thinking that our differences don’t matter is actually falling into the trap of ignoring our authentic sameness, because the essential sameness that we all share is precisely what gives rise to the myriad differences that exist between us.
That might be getting a little “murky,” so let’s break down what it really means that our sameness is what gives rise to our differences, and an easy way to do that is by using the Platinum Rule. We all know what the Golden Rule is: “Treat others as you would want to be treated.” But not everyone is familiar with the Platinum Rule which speaks to the spirit of the Golden Rule and goes something like this: “Treat others as they would like to be treated.” It doesn't matter what your race or nationality is, what your gender or religion is, or, heck, even what planet you’re from, we all want to be treated the way we want to be treated, and we all want to express ourselves in the way that we want. In that respect and at that deep inner level, we are all exactly the same. “So,” you might object, “where do the differences come in?”
Just to Go a Little Deeper
While it is true that, deep down, we are all the same, the fact remains that, no single person in which that inner sameness resides has been born at exactly the same time and place, or with the same body or mind, as anyone else. Consequently, each person that has ever existed has had an entirely unique life experience, which resulted in an entirely unique combination thoughts, beliefs, likes, dislikes, and so on. Again, each person constitutes a culture of one, unto themselves. Since we are always only ever the children of our times and places, our inner sameness is expressed, in accordance with the different circumstances into which we were born and raised, as apparent differences between each other. We all know this on an unconscious level, but we all also act and feel as if our own particular set of likes and dislikes, beliefs and views are somehow special or privileged above everyone else’s—just another way in which we are all the same—perhaps because the origin of our preferences remains inscrutable to us. We all like our favorite things, but our favorite things are all different, and since none of us can ever really figure out why it is that we like what we like, we find it next to impossible to understand how it is that others could have different preferences at all.
In fact, to miss this point, and insist upon superficial sameness, i.e. outward conformity to some ideal, is to betray and belie our inner sameness, while at the same time affirming that each of us is solely defined by our individual differences. This is what some misguided leaders do, with intentions of ensuring equality for everyone, although the outcome is more often to stigmatize those who refuse or are unable to conform. For many leaders, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of favoring those that we feel are similar to us, i.e. those that share our preferences or beliefs, while being unconsciously prejudiced against those that we feel are different to us. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. We all naturally like people that we consider similar to us, something which is so common that it even has a name: the propinquity effect. This can be a good thing when we focus on the ways in which we are authentically the same and thus arouse compassion for one another, or it can be a bad thing when we focus only on our superficial similarities and insist on conformity at all costs.
No matter what the case, however, whenever we insist on denying or ignoring or erasing our differences, we are denying our authentic inner sameness and achieving the opposite of what we set out to do. Don’t fall into that trap; the elimination of difference is the almost exclusive domain of tyrants and cult leaders. A world where superficial sameness is the norm is a world where it doesn’t matter who you are, it only matters who you appear to be. Your dreams and hopes and thoughts and feelings—which we all have and desire to express—don’t matter as long as you pretend to be like everyone else. This is what it means to be defined by your differences, rather than by who you are to yourself. While this outward conformity is sometimes comforting to those seeking to escape the world, such as those who fall prey to cults and dictators, the only way it can be sustained in the long-term is be either destroying oneself or destroying the world—and the world generally comes out on top in that case.
The Bottom Line
The key in thriving in cross-cultural communities and work environments is to recognize our sameness and acknowledge the value and dignity of those who seem to be different than us. It is not enough to value people who are different. You must also take the time to understand the differences so that you can express your respect in ways that are received as such. However, no amount of respecting differences is enough to make up for the failing to value each person as an individual. If you view someone else as less than yourself, the traditional diversity training that is aimed at understanding and respecting our differences is like icing on a mud pie. My experience in Thailand was that my friends and colleagues forgave me for my mistakes much more easily than they would forgive those who clearly didn’t care enough to try. As they say, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.” The truth is that, even when everyone seems the same, each person is like a miniature individual culture all on their own. Although we are all different, it is precisely these differences that are a testament to the inner sameness that we all share. To respect and appreciate our differences, rather than insist on external conformity, is the only way we can respect and appreciate each person as an individual in accordance with the Platinum Rule.
For related discussions on this topic, see the following blog posts:
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