11 tips for developing cultural agility as a leader

Global leaders need cultural agility to perform effectively

Cultural agility is a valuable asset in today’s global marketplace. To some, a curiosity about cultural sensitivity and an enthusiasm for adapting to them comes naturally. Others, though, need to learn the necessary skills to operate in a global environment. As leaders lead by example, this is particularly important for those managing a global team. Here are a few pointers:

  1. Culturally agile leaders are self-aware. To be culturally agile, you need to understand your own prejudices. There’s nothing wrong with this – everybody has biases and cultural preconceptions – but it’s important to acknowledge them. Be honest with yourself. Think about cultural stereotyping and what has caused your particular views – and make an effort to undo them. Try to see other cultures first through a prism of what you have in common rather than what’s different.
  2. Learn how to adjust your own behavior to certain situations to maintain harmony. This doesn’t mean mimicking someone else, or suddenly speaking very slowly, which can sound patronizing. But as an example, if you are dealing with someone from a culture that is more expressive and animated than your own, don’t suddenly start shouting and waving your arms around just because the other person is. Be yourself. Listen and try to understand the context of what they are saying.
  3. This leads onto being authentic. Let your own culture shine through but tone it down if necessary to acknowledge the sensibilities of the other person. For example, if you are American, and typically direct and businesslike but doing business in an Arab country, be yourself but understand their way of doing business and adapt to it. Build relationships before negotiating, acknowledge the hierarchy and listen and understand their concerns. You should be comfortable with being ‘different’ but know the importance of respecting another culture.
  4. Be flexible. You and your team may be negotiating with Chinese suppliers one day and selling to German buyers the next. Developing cultural awareness means you will all be able to react quickly to different situations. In some situations, you will need to adapt to the norms of others. On occasion you will need to seek a middle ground and then sometimes you will be able to work from a basis of trying to minimize your cultural differences with the other person.
  5. If you are going to be working extensively with people from oversees you will experiences cultural differences. Learn about cultural sensitivities for example, a call center in India, immerse yourself and your own team in that culture for a while. What makes these people tick? What motivates them? What are their expectations? What is their approach to problem solving? You can really only manage a team remotely if you’ve made the effort to understand these issues. Everybody on your own team needs to buy into this.
  6. When training your team in cultural agility, be aware that it may come more easily to individuals who are self-aware, extrovert, have a degree of humility and an ability to laugh at themselves and situations. Everybody will respond differently to whatever training you put in place and it’s important to listen to them.
  7. Ask for feedback. There’s absolutely no harm in making a friend from a different culture, or asking a colleague for a bit of their time and sitting down to talk about how you can become more culturally sensitive. Most people are happy to help and act as an informal mentor. They will be flattered that you have taken the time to learn. If you are working across multiple cultures, try to have these conversations with colleagues wherever you visit.
  8. Step outside your cultural comfort zone and encourage your team to do the same. If you’re on the road, socialize with colleagues or dine out locally rather than staying in your hotel. Build relationships, ask locals about their lives and observe what’s going on around you. Think about how you react to stressful situations in this destination and how others react to you.
  9. Bear in mind your own corporate culture and that of your overseas counterparts when developing your cultural intelligence, and that of your team. When is it acceptable to step outside the corporate culture to solve cross-cultural issues? To what extent have individuals put their corporate culture ahead of their own, for example, if they work for a big multinational in a developing country?
  10. If you’re only ever dealing with different cultures remotely, pick up the phone. Talk to colleagues rather than only emailing. Learn about the way they think and react to situations. Find out if they have skills you didn’t know about.
  11. Never assume your job of becoming culturally agile is complete. You may see yourself as having a lot in common with your MBA-educated, snappy dressing, ‘westernized’ colleague in Hong Kong, which is a good start, but there will always be cultural differences. The context of their life, background and attitudes will always be different and it’s only by opening yourself to constant learning that you will discover this.

Do cultural differences impact productivity within your organisation? Our cross cultural training tool is used by 75% of Fortune 500 companies to develop cultural intelligence. It is imperative that diverse organisations support an inclusive culture where cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are paramount. Contact us for more information on how we can support your organisation to overcome cultural differences and turn diversity into your competitive advantage.


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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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