In a recent coaching session I had with an executive I will call Henry, we reviewed the results of 360-degree feedback interviews I had conducted with over 12 of his stakeholders (e.g., his boss, direct reports, internal and external customers) as well as the results of an anonymous survey. Like many very successful managers, Henry believed he was pretty self-aware, yet was surprised at some of the feedback he heard, especially from his direct reports in several Asian countries. While Henry saw himself as a “straight shooter” and open about his opinions, his Asian direct reports had a different impression. They described him as intimidating and as someone who argues too much without listening.
We know that self-awareness is an important component of emotional intelligence and for becoming an effective leader. For global managers, I would add that cultural self-awareness is also an important key to their success interacting with and getting results through others from various cultures. In psychological counseling over the past twenty years or so, there has been a strong emphasis in making sure that therapists are aware of their own assumptions, biases and values. Various assessments and training have been introduced to enhance therapists’ competence and their effectiveness (Roysircar, 2004). As Royscircar notes:
“Therapists must put their assumptions, values, and biases to scrutiny because they will resort to these anyway. They need to ask themselves how U.S. sociopolitical issues, such as prejudice against minority groups, communism, Islamic fundamentalism, immigration to the U/S., bilingualism, or those with visible physical differences and disabilities have affected their social views of people and whether these social views may be related to their theoretical orientation in professional practice.” (p. 660)
Similarly, global managers (especially those from the Western world) must also put their assumptions, values and biases to self-scrutiny since otherwise, they will resort to these unthinkingly. Their unconscious biases when dealing with others who don’t speak English very well, whose attire might not fit with what might be considered appropriate in a corporate setting, or whose physical mannerisms might be inappropriate in a Western setting will certainly affect their interactions with and judgments about these individuals.
According to Eurich (2017), there are two main categories of self-awareness: internal (understanding yourself) and external (understanding how other people see you). Her distinction is actually based on self-concept theory; psychologists in this field use the term objective self-awareness and subjective self-awareness respectively. Eurich argues that the two are not necessarily correlated but there is some evidence that these might be influenced by culture.
Cultural self-awareness is first of all about understanding your own culture, and acknowledging that part of your behavior (as some anthropologists claim, as much as 25 percent) may be due to cultural influences. This may difficult to achieve, especially for those who have never traveled, or who have not been exposed to cultural diversity. Hall (1973) and Adler (2008) have used the analogy of a fish that cannot imagine what it is like outside the water because it has been swimming in that environment all its life.
The second aspect of cultural self-awareness is recognizing the differences between your culture and other cultures, especially when it comes to behavior in the work place. Gina, a manager for a global financial services company whose parents were Puerto Rican, recalled the excitement she felt when her company asked her to move to London for two years: “In my mind, London was just like New York. I had travelled internationally before and of course spoke English; I was set. I came to New York as a young child and growing up, thought it was the center of the world. I really subscribed to the cliché that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I expected the world to conform to my beliefs.”
She remembered some of her initial impressions of her British colleagues at the F/X desk where she worked. Most of them spoke more than three languages, and she met one colleague who spoke seven languages. When she mentioned to him that she wanted to learn another language, he commented, “You do not speak English, you speak American. We speak English.” Rather than taking this remark as an insult, Gina reflected on her lack of cultural self-awareness, and her arrogance in thinking that coming to London would be easy because she already knew the language. Adler (2008) makes this insightful comment: “Although we may think that the biggest obstacle to conducting business around the world is understanding foreigners, the greater difficulty actually involves becoming aware of our own cultural conditioning.” (p. 81)
A third aspect of cultural self-awareness includes understanding of different gestures and other non-verbals, which are important in building our intercultural competence. This ability to understand cultural rules and codes has been shown to be a predictor of positive interpersonal outcomes. In an interesting series of studies, Molinsky and his colleagues (Molinsky et al, 2005) developed a measure which they called the Gesture Recognition Task (GRT). This was made up of a series of 15 real (e.g., a shoulder shrug) and 13 fake non-verbal gestures (e.g., twirling the right finger in front of the body from chest level to above the head). Several hundred U.S.-born and non-native-born students participated in the study. In their first study, they also developed a measure of intercultural competence, and they found a positive relationship between performance on the GRT with self-ratings of intercultural competence. In a second study, performance on the GRT was also positively associated with ratings of observers who rated the students on their intercultural competence, reinforcing the importance of the ability to “read” cultural non-verbal behaviors.
Even e-mail communication can be influenced by cultural differences. Holtbrugge and his colleagues (2013) did an interesting study of a sample of professionals in the IT and services industry of large multinationals. The sample, which was obtained from professional social networking sites such as LinkedIn, consisted of 235 participants from 28 different nationalities, including India, Finland, Germany, USA, and China. According to the authors, 75-80 percent of virtual team communication is done by e-mail. They constructed a 23-item questionnaire measuring such dimensions as directness, promptness, preciseness and task-relatedness. The researchers found significant differences between respondents coming from high-context (e.g., Argentina, Brazil, China, Italy, Pakistan, and Uruguay) and low-context (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the U.S.A.) cultures in their e-mail communication styles, with high-context, polychronic cultures preferring more formal but more fluid e-mail communication, and low-context, monochronic cultures preferring more precise and prompt e-mail communication.
The following are several strategies to enhance your cultural self-awareness. One, find out what managers’ impressions are about your own culture. Of course, some of their impressions may be based on simplistic and even outdated stereotypes. However, they can provide some insights into the cultural influences that impact workplace behavior in your culture. Some might not be willing to express their opinions directly for fear of being “politically incorrect” (although in my experience Europeans seem to be more candid than Americans about expressing their impressions of different nationalities). In conversations, therefore, you might have to probe and ask different questions. For example, you might ask them to compare and contrast two managers they know who are of the same nationality.
Two, learn about the successes and failures of managers from your country who have worked in other cultures. For example, Brad, a British manager of a multinational identified several British colleagues who had been sent overseas on expatriate assignments. Through his contacts, he found a few who were successful and others who were less successful in their assignments, and reached out to them. Learning about the experiences of individuals in both groups gave him valuable insights on his own cultural self-awareness and important lessons to apply.
Three, look for opportunities where you can immerse yourself in a different culture. You might ask, how can I do this unless I actually travel to that country? Nieto (2006) has described a practice called a cultural plunge that professors in San Diego State University have been using over many years. A cultural plunge “…is individual exposure to persons or groups markedly different in culture (ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and/or physical exceptionality) from that of the ‘plunger’.” Examples he gives are attending services or religious ceremonies of a group with a different ethnicity (e.g., African-American) or language (e.g., Vietnamese), or interacting with homeless people or people with disabilities. The plunges don’t have to be that long; to help with cultural self-awareness, however, it is important to reflect on the experience in a structured or organized way. Adapting Nieto’s suggestions, I would suggest that after whatever “plunge” you undertake, make sure that you jot down or type the following right after your plunge: what you experienced, your emotional response, whether the plunge reinforced or challenged your stereotypes, lessons learned and implications for your role as a global manager or leader.
Adler, Nancy J. 2008. International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, Fifth Edition. Mason, OH: South-Western Publishing.
Eurich, T. (2017). Insight. New York: Crown Business.
Hall, E. (1973). The Silent Language. New York: Anchor Books.
Heine, S. Positive Self-Views: Understanding Universals and Variability Across Cultures. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology, 2: 109-122.
Molinsky, Andrew. 2007. Cross-Cultural Code-Switching: The Psychological Challenges of Adapting Behavior in Foreign Cultural Interactions. Academy of Management Review 32(2): 622–640.
Nieto, J. (2006). The Cultural Plunge: Cultural Immersion as a Means of Promoting Self-Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity Among Student Teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter: 75-84.
Roysircar, G. (2004). Cultural Self-Awareness Assessment: Practice Examples from Psychology Training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35 (6): 658-666.