Cultural Alignment: 4 Communication Traits of Successful Leaders

Companies face the impact of a globalized market. New economies are emerging fast. Mergers and acquisitions are increasing. Traditional market positions of companies are challenged. As a result leaders are confronted more and more with new and different ways of thinking, behaviors, motivations, and habits of people. As I stressed in an earlier post, being successful in creating a sense of relatedness among people despite cultural differences, is becoming a competitive advantage for companies.

Over the past years I have worked with executives and leadership teams of different companies and nationalities, and I see a clear difference between the leaders who enjoy dealing with people and cultural alignment and those who don’t. Between those who see it as a challenge that motivates them, and those who try to avoid it. Between those who see how tangible it can be and how big an impact it has on business performance, and those who don’t … at least not yet.

Mastering cultural alignment: is it a leadership quality that you need to be born with? No, I don’t believe so. Is it a skill you can easily learn? Just follow a course on inter-cultural management skills and you know it all? No, it will probably help but aligning cultural differences requires more. Human beings are too complex creatures to be boxed in generic models and answers.

The real trick is in the actual communication between the people involved. It is in entering the real dialogue with each other that the alignment starts to grow. Successful leaders give priority to this dialogue. They know they do not have all the answers, but they believe that this dialogue is vital to creating understanding and to defining the right actions to boost collaboration and performance.

There is a specific set of communication traits that distinguish those leaders who are successful in creating cultural alignment from those who are not. Traits related to our mindset and our way of leading team meetings and discussions, especially in cases of cultural differences that hinder effective performance and collaboration. I witnessed many times how these traits changed the atmosphere and the outcomes of meetings drastically.

Based on numerous discussions with leaders, facilitating meetings with their teams, individual coaching sessions, I have filtered out 4 communication traits that stick out. I illustrate these traits below by describing 4 brief case studies (the names are not real):

  • Focus on questions, more than on answers

Every time the discussion in his team turned towards conclusions, solutions or actions, John stopped them and raised a question. Always digging deeper into the issue, as if he was deliberately preventing the team from moving forward. It sometimes even caused slight irritations. They felt being held back. He continuously challenged the conclusions and triggered people to think deeper. If there was a problem, he wanted to know the details of the problem. He wanted to know the causes. He wanted to know if everybody was looking at it the same way. If not, what did they see differently? And why? And did the others understand what their colleague meant? What did they not understand? And why?

John understood that we have a natural tendency to jump to conclusions too quickly. We hear half the answer and we have our reaction ready. It is very human, but also very ineffective when we want to come to sound decisions within a business organization. Even when his team didn’t like it sometimes, he deliberately pushed them to find the right questions, more than to find the right answer. It felt like losing time, but in the end they realized that they saved time by understanding better what they were talking about. As a result they could make better decisions which motivated employees and created team spirit.

  • Look for the deeper assumptions

It was very interesting to see how Lisa dealt with her team when she noticed some of them were not taking up the tasks she had delegated to them. The team was new after the merger and the people came from four different nationalities. Others team members complained that some were not pulling their weight. Morale was declining. Lisa did not approach it as a daily problem, as something she had to correct, maybe in a directive way. She did not choose to put pressure on those who underperformed. Instead she called a team meeting and explained she wanted to have an open discussion on how they as a team wanted to deal with responsibility. What it actually meant for them. She forced herself not to judge those who acted irresponsibly. Instead she focused on clarifying together what we expected from each other and how we could improve.

And then after a while, one of the colleagues that was perceived as showing lack of responsibility carefully expressed how difficult he felt it was to step into the shoes of his superior ….! Surprised reactions. What did he mean? Nobody expected him to take Lisa’s place? Slowly it became clear that he felt that the job Lisa had delegated to him had put him on her chair. And he did not want that. Because he believed it was disrespectful to her to take over her responsibility. That was normal in his culture: you don’t do the work of your superior because it shows disrespect. He perceived it as being disrespectful while she and others perceived it as showing a lack of commitment. Everybody was pleased that they shared this together. Because Lisa looked for the value based assumptions behind the behavior of the team it now became clear that there was no lack of commitment, only a lack of clarity on how to perceive these delegated tasks. From now on she would explain better how the delegated tasks were supporting her job (and that of the team), and the team understood that supporting your superior was not regarded as disrespectful.

  • Avoid ‘agreement discussions’

Paul has become very effective in leading team meetings. He is able to speed up the process from problem-analysis to problem solving to decision-making. Not by hurrying or pushing or putting aside certain topics for later.  But by avoiding what I call ‘agreement discussions’.

He wants his team to have an open discussion where they can exchange their ideas, concerns and perceptions. He always wants to understand why others see things differently. He noticed that every time his team tries to get agreement on things, that they tend to get into discussions about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Those hardly ever help the process forward and only create irritation or superficial compliance. Paul doesn’t want that; to him it is a waste of time. He believes that the biggest potential is in strengthening mutual understanding. That helps to improve performance. Whether his team sees things identically the same is no longer important to him, as long as they understand and accept the differences. He has learned to ask himself ‘Can I live with this, even if I do not share your point of view?’ If not, I need to explain why I can’t live with it. Otherwise, let’s do it! That is why he always interrupts discussions when they tend to become agreement focused.

  • Communicate on the same ‘scale’

Michael was having a meeting with his leadership team. The board had asked them to come up with a strategy to counter the impact of the financial crisis on the business. Seven country managers, and the group directors of Sales & Marketing / Supply Chain / Research, were all there. The discussion was lively and the atmosphere was tense. There clearly was a lot of pressure on everybody. Soon the discussion went into specific aspects of the operations to look for possible improvements. Without even noticing it the team started to argue with each other on details, trying to convince the other: we in the north manage our production shifts like this and that works, you in the south should do the same; we don’t have these issues with our customers in the south, because we arranged our teams like this, why don’t you in the north; etcetera.

After a few minutes Michael interrupted the team and said: “From now on I want everybody to use the Northern countries’ production shifts model. And I want everybody from now on to use the Southern countries’ customer service approach.” The team went silent and they all looked at him in disbelief. Did he really think that would be the solution? Of course it would never solve their problem! You can’t just approach our customers in that way. You can’t expect our people to start working in such a shifts model. Michael knew they would react like this. He continued: “Why are we here? What is our role here today? What is your role here today? Are you here to defend the interest of your country? Or are we here to defend the interest of the group? Both need to take place, but not at the same time because it is not the same. We need to decide together, before we continue, on what scale we are discussing here. Group or local country level?” Michael showed a nice example of how to bring a discussion to the same scale and by doing that creating clarity and common focus. It helped him and his team to go step by step and not to mix things. It prevented them from getting lost in details on cultural differences. And it took away a big part of the irritation. By splitting group responsibility (here we are the same) from local country responsibility (here we have differences and that is OK) it became easier to align cultural differences.


Aad supports executives and their teams internationally in creating leadership alignment and reconciling cross-cultural differences.  If you would like to know more about Aad’s services, click here.

2 Comments on “Cultural Alignment: 4 Communication Traits of Successful Leaders

  1. This is interesting – I do a lot of training for staff forums relating to Information & Consultation (work councils on the Continent), and it is more or less the same approach we teach employees. In other words, it’s great if leaders are thinking like this, and even better if staff are too, so that the mode of communication is the same, and real discussion and dialogue can happen!


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