Cross-Cultural Leadership: How Misinterpretations of Dishonesty Can Destroy Team Alignment

Sun Flower with the word Honesty

When leading change, for instance in post merger integrations, leadership teams are very often confronted with cross-cultural differences. These can be corporate or national culture differences. Not dealing with these cultural differences effectively can have a serious impact on leadership teams. As executive and leadership team consultant and facilitator I have seen many situations over the years where mutual distrust seriously hindered a team’s alignment and performance. And almost every time this lack of trust was related to perceptions of dishonest behavior of fellow team members.

Honesty and dishonesty are clearly very important to us. The feeling of being confronted with dishonesty blocks our openness and decreases our level of trust. But what if our perception of another person’s dishonesty is based on misinterpretation? What if the other person is not trying to harm us at all, but simply has a different perspective on the situation? Unfortunately misinterpretations occur rather often! They can hamper leadership teams in such a way that the negative effects spread out over the whole organization.

How to avoid these false interpretations? How do they start and how can you stop them in time? Apparently they grow in a subtle way, sometimes unconsciousness. Two real life examples I witnessed:

A leadership team launched a number of transformation initiatives to improve the cross-regional collaboration between Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Each member of the team was responsible to sponsor and steer one of the task forces and to present progress and results in the monthly leadership team meeting. After three months an open clash took place in the meeting. European executives accused their South American colleague of not sharing the real facts with them. They received inside information from his task force members, information that was not in line with what he presented in the meeting. They felt he was not honest and tried to cover up facts so he could push through his plan for a new design process that he knew would not completely fit the European needs. There was a lot of emotion in the room and the atmosphere was deteriorating rapidly. Finally and luckily one of the people around the table raised a question: “Please explain once more to us why you are not sharing all the information here, why do you keep it to yourself?” After some hesitation the reply came: “I don’t want to feed information to you of which I am not sure it will stay valid. I still remember last year when I showed my reorganization plans for the plant in Argentina and you blocked it because you believed my work was not thorough enough. I for sure will prevent that from happening again. I will tell you my plans when the task force has all details figured out. Not before.” This confession turned the meeting around. Instead of distrusting each other, the team should maybe focus more on exchanging expectations and maybe support their colleague a bit more.

Another example: an executive team that was newly formed after an acquisition (Japanese acquirer taking over a European/American company). After a few weeks the first signs of tension and distrust were showing. Western team members clinging together and forming a block against the Japanese invaders who didn’t share any of their plans and only attended meetings to be nice and friendly, but did not explain anything of the changes they wanted to roll out. When I had meetings with each team member to figure out what was going on I found out that cultural differences in how to establish relationship and openness were hindering the team. Clearly the Japanese culture was much more following the path of ‘establishing relationship first and then gradually show more openness and sharing’, where the more Anglo-Saxon oriented culture of the Western leaders was more following the path of ‘openness and sharing as prerequisite for creating a trust based relationship’ (read my earlier post on how relationships and openness can be experienced differently from culture to culture). Discussing this with the team did of course not solve the problem at once, but created a better understanding of the cultural difference and allowed the team to let go of a big part of the negative energy. They realized the situation was not caused by bad intentions, and that allowed them to discuss the way forward as a team.

These are just two examples of how easily wrong perceptions of dishonesty can lead to team conflict that will hinder the leadership team’s performance with all its negative impact on the organization. How to avoid this from happening? First of all by creating a stronger individual and team awareness for these potential misinterpretations. By developing as a leader specific cross-cultural antennas that help you to detect situations where miscommunication, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, derailment of the team, is taking place. To be able to spot these moments early enough. The following questions can maybe help as a kind of checklist for you and your team.

When dealing with perceived dishonesty and distrust, how is our team reacting?:

  • Do we by default want to believe the following two principles (until proven wrong based on hard facts)?: I believe that nobody in this team is deliberately trying to harm the others. I believe that this team consists of reasonable and intelligent people. Or do we unconsciously believe the opposite? How is this affecting our contribution to the team?
  • Do we raise open questions to better understand why and what others are saying or doing? Or do we make statements and use leading questions trying to prove our point?
  • Do we try to learn from other’s interpretation of honesty or dishonesty? Or do we believe that our perspective is the only right one?
  • Do we base our judgments on real facts? Or do we judge dishonesty mostly based on feelings and interpretations?
  • Do we believe we can be wrong in our judgment, that we missed something and misunderstood the situation? Or do we blindly trust our own judgment regardless the consequences?
  • Do we focus on the impact it has on us as leadership team and how it affects the organization? Or do we tend to focus on our personal feelings and interest?

How do you interpret honesty or dishonesty? I look forward to reading your comments.

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Photo: kkimpel/Flickr (Creative Commons)


As international business consultant, change leader, leadership team facilitator and executive coach Aad supports executives and leadership teams of multinational companies. Over the past 25 years he has acquired a vast experience and expertise in leading complex change, cross-cultural leadership, and post-merger integration. Find out more about Aad and his services. If you would like to hire Aad, contact him here.

2 Comments on “Cross-Cultural Leadership: How Misinterpretations of Dishonesty Can Destroy Team Alignment

  1. Pingback: DISHONESTY 不誠實 « The One Short Memories in Life Everlasting BLOG~

  2. Pingback: The Sun Dial and the Dentist – The Story of a Conflict « communicating.across.boundaries

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