The value of intercultural flexibility - how to win and increase it

The value of intercultural flexibility - how to win and increase it

Our world is becoming more and more networked, information and goods flows are becoming faster, time intervals smaller, international interpersonal contacts more frequent and closer - and yet there are still differences between cultures. Differences in worldview and philosophy, but above all in countless everyday actions. This is often interesting and exciting, but can also lead to difficulties and misunderstandings. This is particularly noticeable at the level of internationally operating companies. The more a company is spread across different countries and regions, the more important intercultural competence becomes. This is true for every employee who works in an intercultural team or interacts with colleagues abroad, but above all intercultural flexibility is a neuralgic point for managers.

If you are an intercultural boss, employees automatically feel valued and understood by you, which in turn creates trust in you. In a lived interculturality and a constellation of trust between the management level and the employees, a general culture of acceptance and tolerance also develops among the employees, and as a result, significantly better results are usually achieved. Studies have found this connection between intercultural competence in management and the financial success of companies.

Cultural flexibility does not come overnight with the simple decision to show cultural openness from now on. But cultural flexibility, if not already anchored in certain character traits of a person, is still learnable and can be developed successively. The following steps can be a start.

1. Self-diagnosis
A first step is to take a look at yourself and your own (intercultural) abilities. However, every human being has at least one blind spot somewhere - with which he cannot see a part of his self. Therefore, it can be helpful if you develop a self-image together with a stranger who has a neutral external view and who evaluates your cultural competences with regard to personality, working method and organisation. You can find this out in discussions with a coach or through established tests such as the IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory).

Once you have identified the topics that you can develop and improve, you can at best get to work together with a coach and sharpen your intercultural competence with a practical case study. One such topic could be that you develop a method for motivating intercultural teams in which each individual team member is activated regardless of their background. Another topic could be the development of a communication model for employee appraisals, with which in the future less emphasis will be placed on culturally conditioned differences, but rather the focus will be placed on the creation of value for each individual employee within the company.
It is important that you do not remain in theory, but rather take practical leadership tasks to a new level together with the coach. This will help you to identify gaps in your knowledge, but also the options that lie in yourself and ahead of you to increase your intercultural flexibility.

2. Curiosity and openness
As a manager with experience, you have in most cases acquired a certain style of leadership. This style originates in some way from your educational background, but also from your social and cultural background. Conversely, this means that this style may not be welcomed by employees with different cultural backgrounds or in other countries and may not even be effective.
If you lead an intercultural team or hold a leadership position abroad, the motto here must not be to expect employees to adapt to your own style, but to think for yourself,

  • what you can do to get the best possible contribution to the department or project from each individual team member, and
  • what you can do so that every employee feels comfortable in his department / team and therefore does a good job.

This learning process, which you also go through as a manager, has a lot to do with communication. Less with speaking than with listening. An open door policy is a good approach to showing that you are available, tangible and interested to your employees. However, it does not help if people have not learned to approach their superiors on their own initiative, or if the cultural framework sets an inhibition threshold between employee and boss.
So listen elsewhere, too. Let employees speak at meetings, team lunches, and in the hall, instead of first expressing your own opinion on a topic. You will learn how your employees think and feel, what ideas or problems they have at work. You may also be able to deduce how your colleagues interact and function with each other. If statements, ways of thinking or patterns of behaviour seem unclear to you, ask your employees about them and ask them questions. You will find answers and explanations that take your intercultural flexibility much further than your own assumptions and speculations.

3. Neutrality
No matter whether it is about things that you perceive in others for yourself or about direct disputes with an employee: It is important that you always try to remain neutral and not judge. People tend to think that their own habits are right and to devalue or even reject the habits of others. In an intercultural context, however, valuation is not a helpful guide.
If, after a conflict situation, you enter into a conversation with an employee from a different cultural background, they must not feel that they have already been assessed (negatively). Start the conversation openly and convey an atmosphere of neutrality. Make it clear that it is not a question of right or wrong based on cultural interpretation, but of progress that you all want to achieve together for the company. Here you need to keep an eye not only on the employee whose way of thinking and acting you want to understand, but also on yourself in order to reflect and control your own actions, reactions and sent signals. Try to put yourself in the position and role of the employee, what they may feel and think, what drives their actions and behaviors. On the basis of these considerations, you will find a way to best build a basis of trust through your own behavior.

The aim of all such considerations and efforts is to make cultural diversity a normality in the professional environment, to remove obstacles and to establish a form of interaction that is relaxed and respectful. Cultural flexibility and agility are essential elements which, on the basis of faith and trust in difference, remove the breeding ground for stereotyped thinking, minimise stagnation, but in return promote creative approaches and innovation. A gain that is priceless for both employees and the company as a whole.