Cultural Intelligence and the Afro-centric Worldview

davelivermore | April 14th, 2015 No Comments

 

 

Guest Post by Buhle Dlamini

Africa has some of the fastest growing economies in the world right now. Forget the news headline like “Ebola in West Africa”, and “Violent Militants in Africa”. The reality is that these challenges pale in comparison to the amazing opportunities this vast continent has to offer.

Corporations looking for growth in emerging markets are opening offices in multiple sites across the continent. This is where cultural intelligence comes in, and in particular some understanding of the Afro-centric worldview is essential in order to succeed.

Being a native of South Africa and a Zulu raised in rural Zululand, I have an inside scoop on the different ways that Africans see the world. While not every African holds this Afro-centric worldview, most will identify with it. And we take this view for granted until we’re exposed to something different. In my cross-cultural marriage to my wife Stacey, a Canadian from Nova Scotia, I started to note the ways we held different worldviews.

Take for example the differing views when it comes to how time, family and ownership are perceived from an Afro-centric perspective.

Time
The majority of people with an Afro-centric worldview see time very differently from Westerners. Africans operate from the “Event-time” orientation, meaning the emphasis is put on the event and the person rather than an artificially imposed time. Time is negotiable. This is why events in an Afro-centric setting tend to be much longer than in other cultures.  It is considered disrespectful to allow time to get in the way of interacting with each other. If you run into a friend or family member on the way to work, surely you will take the time to greet them and ask about their family.

  • When working in an Afro-centric context allow more time for the unexpected rather than simply scheduling everything into a rigid timeframe. In a “clock-time” oriented culture the watch dictates when things start and end, whereas in an Afro-centric setting, people dictate the length of an event.

Family
In some cultures, family is narrowly restricted to focus on the nuclear family and a limited extended family. The Afro-centric definition of family is far more reaching and even extends to anyone who shares a similar surname. This can be confusing, especially because people may refer to extended family members as uncles and aunts when there actually is no direct connection in the way that other cultures would understand those terms.

  • ‘Ubuntu’ is a collective and shared identity, or togetherness, which links everyone’s humanity to the connectivity they maintain with other humans. As a result weddings, funerals and other important events tend to be a much bigger affair and open to a much bigger group. Turning down an invitation to a co-worker’s family event may be a much greater offense to an African than it would to co-workers from many other cultures.

Ownership
Ownership in an Afro-centric worldview is very collective. When I first bought a car and drove it back to my village, everyone responded, “We have a car! We have a car!” In the majority of Afro-centric contexts there is a community ownership of everyone’s resources. This often translates into ‘what is yours is ours’.

There is an unspoken expectation that when you succeed in one-way or another you have to carry the rest with you. If one owns a car and others don’t, one is expected to use it for the benefit of the rest.

  • Failure to comply with these expectations quickly earns one the reputation that they are selfish and ‘un-African’. Consider how HR policies may need to be adapted when expanding into Africa. Understand the expectations an employees’ community will have on them.

These tend to be extremes of the Afro-centric worldview and many younger leaders are beginning to adopt more Western values. But before assuming a young leader lacks confidence because he won’t look you in the eye or a staff member is irresponsible because she shows up late for a meeting, stop to consider what competing values they may be facing. Don’t too quickly judge their motives and find ways to discover more.  Most of us Africans are quite welcoming and eager to share our culture but when rebuffed in our attempts we may hold back. The key is to be open-minded and use cultural intelligence to be surprised by the rich things you can learn.

Africa awaits! Wozani Nonke—Come All.

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Buhle Dlamini is based in Canada and South Africa and is available to offer speaking, training, and consulting to help organizations develop a culturally intelligent approach for working in Africa. He’s a CQ Certified Facilitator and is founder and chair of Young & Able, a consultancy offering CQ training in Africa.

Four Myths of Global Leadership

davelivermore | March 17th, 2015 No Comments

 

Culture matters. It’s more than just a “nice-to-have.” It’s a key factor in what makes or breaks today’s global leader. As a result, organizations in every sector are clamoring to find effective global leaders. Those who can lead with cultural intelligence are in demand. Yet much of what gets talked about in the global leadership space is informed by myths and anecdotes rather than empirical evidence. Even many top-rated MBA programs assure prospective students and employers that their curriculum will develop global leadership, yet there’s little done to measure and develop global capabilities in their students. And many organizations rely most on technical expertise when looking at whom to put in charge of a new, global project. I regularly encounter the following myths when reading, listening, and talking with others about global leadership:

Myth #1: Leadership Is a Sixth Sense
Conventional wisdom among many business executives is that leadership is a sixth sense: You either get it or you don’t. You have to lead from the gut. And frankly, there’s some research that backs up the surprising strength of seasoned executives using their gut more than data or detailed analysis to make good decisions. That’s because the “gut” has been subconsciously programmed through years of experience. The problem is, the subconscious programming is specific to a culture and may not be a reliable source when making split judgments and decisions in an unfamiliar culture. This explains why some individuals have been incredibly successful leading in one context only to fail miserably when attempting to lead in another. The “sixth sense” of leadership has to be retrained and developed when the cultural context changes.

Myth #2: The World Is Flat
I have enormous appreciation for Thomas Friedman’s compelling argument that the economic playing field has been leveled globally.[1] A Filipino start-up firm can go head-to-head with a behemoth multinational company and leaders in all contexts are wise to wake up to this reality. But I often hear people applying Friedman’s "flat world" idea more broadly than it was intended. I’m regularly asked, “Isn’t there a global professional culture emerging where people are more alike today than different?”

When you observe people in airport lounges in Dubai, Sydney, and London, it certainly seems like we’re all more alike than different. And if you predominantly experience different cultures by visiting hotels and offices that are built for guests like you, it’s easy to miss the differences that exist. But when you get beneath the surface, you find we’re remarkably different. Leaders have their head in the sand if they think they can lead people the same way everywhere. Culture doesn’t explain everything. But it is one of the driving factors in how to effectively negotiate, build trust, foster innovation, and motivate people toward a shared objective.

Myth #3: If No One Follows, You Aren’t Leading
Surely a “leader” with no followers might not be leading. Or he or she might be attempting to lead in the wrong context. Leadership is not only about the values and style of the leader. As evidenced by the findings in the GLOBE leadership study, not all followers want the same thing from their leaders. The cultural values and preferences of the followers strongly influence who can effectively lead them. Some followers want larger-than-life, charismatic leaders like Bill Clinton. Others want modest, understated, practical leaders like Angela Merkel. This is explained by an idea known as implicit leadership theory, which says that whether you lead effectively is not only based on your leadership skills; it’s also a reflection of your followers’ expectations of leaders. Because culture is one of the variables that shapes what people expect and want from a leader, a culturally intelligent leader is wise to understand this before accepting a new leadership role or assigning someone else to one.

Myth #4: Matrix Models Are Better Suited for Leading Across Borders
Many companies have moved away from headquarter-centric models of leadership to matrix models. Reporting lines go in multiple directions, teams are co-located, and decision-making is more collaborative than top-down. Most of the world, however, prefers a more hierarchical style of leadership in which authority lines are clear and followers are given clear, specific directions. There’s great potential in matrix models for international growth and expansion. But a matrix model requires an additional level of cultural intelligence in order to effectively use it.

I’ve interacted with leaders at Google about this. Google has an extremely strong corporate culture and recruiters are given a clear standard of how to spot the Google DNA when searching for new Googlers. But the questions and techniques recruiters typically use to get a sense of a job candidate’s interests, personal accomplishments, and innovative ideas need to be significantly adapted based on the cultural background of the candidate. And the ability to find the right candidates who fit with the more matrixed structure of Google requires culturally intelligent recruiters.

Global leadership itself is not a myth. It is possible to lead effectively across multiple cultures. This is the very thing we’ve been studying in our research on cultural intelligence for the last couple of decades. We have growing evidence that a leader’s cultural intelligence predicts several important leadership outcomes. Effectively leading across various cultures is a capability that can be measured and improved. But it begins with a more thoughtful, situational understanding of leadership.

…This is an excerpt from the revised edition of Leading with Cultural Intelligence, releasing this week in stores everywhere. Read more about the book and download a sample chapter here.



[1] Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005).

Culturally Intelligent Leaders Know When it's "Cultural" ... and when it isn't.

davelivermore | February 20th, 2015 4 Comments

 

 

You’re talking to someone from a different culture and he won’t look you in the eye. Is it cultural? Is it a personal quirk? Or is something else going on? How do you know? And what difference does it make?

“A problem is a problem, regardless of the source.” But getting at what’s behind the problem and knowing how to interpret the communication you receive is a critical part of leading successfully in today’s multicultural context. In fact, few things more quickly demonstrate your cultural intelligence than whether you can sort through what’s cultural and what’s not and how to respond.

I spend many of my waking hours thinking, writing, and talking about culture. How does culture influence the way someone is motivated? To what cultures is a leader’s style best suited? And what cultural values shape the way an organization images itself?

Culture lurks at every corner, influencing how we see the world. But culture doesn’t explain everything. Sometimes the behavior you encounter is more a reflection of someone’s personality than his or her cultural background. And sometimes you’re being played. “Cultural differences” are sometimes used as a disguise for something else.

How do you tell the difference? When is it cultural”? When is it personality? And when is it some other factor?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you sort through this:

1. How does the “unusual” perspective or behavior you’re encountering compare with what research indicates about the norms for this culture?
Find out whether empirical evidence supports that this behavior is something often utilized by individuals from this culture. This is where some of the most widely recognized work in the intercultural field is helpful, whether it’s Edward Hall’s work on communication norms or the cultural dimensions from Hofstede, Trompenaars, or the GLOBE leadership study. For those unfamiliar with this work, a few places to begin are:

2. What are other possible explanations for this perspective and/or behavior?
Rather than just assuming culture is the only explanation, stop to consider the variables you should include when understanding any unusual encounter or situation. Go through the following categories and consider whether these shed light on what’s occurring in addition to or instead of culture:

  • Personality: To what degree does this reflect a pattern of behavior from this individual? When have you seen this among others? Might this be an idiosyncratic behavior?
  • Circumstances: What else is going on that might explain this? I was recently interacting with a senior executive whose behavior seemed unusually bizarre to me. Only later did I find out that just before we met, he had learned of some devastating news regarding a family member.
  • Organizational Factors: What pressures exist within the organization? And in what ways might the individual be primarily representing a dynamic that reflects more on the organization involved than anything else?
  • Power struggle: I recently walked into a situation where I was told there was a cultural conflict; but the more I learned about the situation, the more it became evident that two managers separated by several time zones and cultures were vying for the same senior leadership position. There were certainly cultural aspects to how they approached the power struggle. But the cultural difference wasn’t the primary thing causing the conflict.

3. How do others who have experience and understanding with this culture perceive the situation?
I always want a safe person with whom I can ask unfiltered questions about whether my experiencing aligns with their understanding of the culture. Particularly when the situation involves a culture with which you have limited experience and familiarity, a cultural interpreter is essential. One time I thought I was being deceived by a West African leader but when processing the situation with a trusted, West African colleague, I learned that my approach was making it impossible for the leader to give me the kind of input I wanted.

4. Consider whether confirmation bias influenced your interpretation.
If you’re convinced all Millennials are entitled and all white guys are sexist, you’ll be predisposed to find examples that support your premise, something described as confirmation bias. So before you decide what explains a behavior, stop to consider whether you really sought to understand the situation and put your assumptions at bay.

With enough information, any behavior begins to make sense. Sorting through what’s cultural and what’s not is a critical part of leading with cultural intelligence. With the insights you gain through improved CQ, you know whether a customer complaint stems from an isolated situation or whether it’s something you need to address for an entire market segment. Heightened CQ helps you know when a negotiation tactic is playing dirty versus a cultural norm for doing business. And you can more quickly discern whether the absence of eye contact means respect, insecurity, or deception. Those insights separate the culturally intelligent from the culturally naïve leaders.

[The second edition of Leading with Cultural Intelligence releases next month. The new edition features brand new research on cultural intelligence, case studies, and leading practices from executives and organizations using cultural intelligence around the world.]