Leading with Cultural Intelligence in times of Covid-19

By April 1, 2020 June 24th, 2020 Cultural Intelligence

Cultural Intelligence is the ability to communicate and operate in a variety of cultural contexts. Our culture of origin or adopted culture will deeply impact our assumptions, beliefs and behavior. Culture influences our work patterns, the way we socialize outside of work, our approach to disagreements and conflict and the interpersonal dynamics across functions and hierarchical levels. 

A cultural group may be distinct from another due to geographical origin, generation, gender, socioeconomic background or function. A Nordic manager may approach a feedback session differently from how a Southeast Asian manager would; but a Millennial CEO might view an estimate for ROI on a project the same way a Baby Boomer would.

Culturally intelligent managers, accustomed to lead a diverse group of people towards a common goal, know to take into account team members’ cultural values and preferences and adjust their communication and feedback styles, approach to time and scheduling, and assigning of multiple tasks. During the coronavirus pandemic, nevertheless, additional factors can benefit from Cultural Intelligence. Although most of the world is dealing with the same menace, varying views will be observed. In order to maintain respect, display empathy and ensure inclusion while continuing to pursue the organization’s mission, leaders should be attentive to how Cultural Values play into how each one is perceiving the pandemic. Here are a few examples:

Individualism vs. collectivism

Team members coming from a collectivist culture (Confucian Asia is an example), in the face of newly approved remote work or additional challenges, may need more time to adjust to isolation. Understanding how the team feels about an initiative and achieving consensus is important to them, so the more opportunities to convene as a team, the better. They may also be concerned not only about the health of those in the household, but also their extended family, neighborhood or community at large, which will reflect in their state of mind. Workers more oriented towards individualism, on the other hand (most Anglo cultures, for instance), may need to be afforded more autonomy to complete their projects while working remotely: they are probably independent and value swift decision-making; whenever group consensus must be achieved, it needs to be made clear to them. But taking up their whole day with conference calls may hamper their productivity.

 Short-term vs. long-term orientation

All of us want this crisis to be over soon. But the immediacy of certain professions makes them focus on the short-term effects of the pandemic, while others may be more concerned about the scenario to be seen months or years from now. A journalist or other media professional is probably immersed in obtaining the latest data and on contagion, while an environmental engineer remains deeply focused on her research and projections on. Attorneys, economists and salespeople, depending on the industry they operate, may be viewing the current reality as deeply related or somewhat detached from their mission; in a multidisciplinary team, it is important for all to understand how the others are reacting the current reality and how far in advance their organization and its clients need a response.

Expressive vs. neutral

Some cultures are more expressive and constantly demonstrate emotions – Latin Europe and Arab among them. During a pandemic scenario, team members from those cultures may not hold back on expressing sadness or anger in face of sudden isolation; fear; concern for the future of the economy or their position in particular, or even despair over someone familiar who are ill. Their voice intonation and body language will clearly communicate how they are feeling, and it is important that their emotions are not dismissed or diminished. Managers must ensure that they feel heard, without creating a complete disruption of a virtual meeting or interruption of a task: allowing employees to be excused or to take a temporary leave may be a better option, but alienating them is unfair and inhuman. For those oriented towards neutral communication (such as Germanic Europe), suffering may be still happening, but feelings will be mostly hidden in their speech and mannerisms. In some Confucian Asian cultures, the concept of “saving face” is highly valued, and emotions are best shared in private. Respecting that non-expressive approach will avoid embarrassment – but a leader whose own orientation is neutral needs use caution not to appear insensitive. Access to company initiatives addressing grief and mental health must be open to all, and also include a knowledge of these preferences in order to be effective.

Direct vs. indirect communication

People who prefer direct communication value objective, explicit words to convey a message. Even if bad news is to be communicated, they want to give it straight. Feedback sessions and performance reviews leave little room for interpretation, but for a high-context or indirect communication-oriented person, that may sound offensive. During these challenging times, leaders must be attentive to what they may view as subliminal messages: a team member’s joke or subtle complaint may belie a feeling of overwhelm resulting from caring for family in addition to doing the work from home. When dealing with direct communicators, on the other hand, being direct and specific on what the key message is and not emphasizing silence will make them more comfortable, and clear about the exigencies of the moment. Many organizations are suddenly having to communicate curtailed hours and wages, furloughs and layoffs. Human resources business partners, diversity officers and counseling professionals may be of great assistance when crafting those messages.    

Being vs. doing (task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented)

In a time when most projects and relationships have moved online, people’s preferences between remaining busy and productive and maintaining social commitments become deeply apparent. Task-oriented people may be sad for missing out on cancelled business trips or events; but they may find that working remotely (and saving time on commute) now allows them to enroll in online courses and catch up on overdue reports. For relationship-oriented workers, accomplishing tasks and keeping relationships positive are equally important; they may welcome the flexible work arrangement, but miss the camaraderie of the office environment. It is important to understand where your team members are on that spectrum, assign responsibilities accordingly and beware of burnout. A relationship-oriented person will feel more comfortable checking in on clients and colleagues, while a doing-oriented one will benefit from a nudge when working long past business hours or neglecting time with family.

It’s about respect

There are evidently other cultural values which play a part in the way teams interact in normalcy, in times of crisis, and when working remotely.  Moreover, workers of different generations and professions will display varying levels of tech-savvy, emotional intelligence and resilience. And we must also remember that not everyone from a particular cultural group will behave the exact same way. Cultural values are a first step in understanding how each team member approaches work in face of this new normal. Cultural Intelligence is not only about knowledge of cultural differences and similarities: this knowledge can only work for good when accompanied by a genuine will to accommodate diversity and ensure inclusion. The fundamental sentiment which must be nurtured is respect. For all cultures, personalities, for each person’s journey. Regardless of culture, people don’t want to feel they are “just a number”: they want to belong.  Feeling valued, having a sense of purpose in our work is a common pursuit.