Cultural agility is the ability to bridge the gap across differences. Here’s how to start.

A commonly used American idiom has the power to completely ruin an otherwise strong professional relationship.

I witnessed this myself with Steve, an American executive within a global tech company. His team includes Ken, a senior executive from Singapore. I coach Ken, and on a recent call with him, I could tell something was off.

“I just had a call with Steve,” Ken explained to me. “I pitched him several of my ideas for a new marketing initiative, and he said I was stupid.” I was shocked. I have worked with Steve as well, and know him to be thoughtful, conscientious, and respectful. I asked Ken to elaborate — what exactly did Steve say?

“He said my ideas were a ‘no-brainer.’ I’m so humiliated. No one has ever called me stupid before,” Ken said.

Now the situation was clear. After I explained the positive connotation of “no-brainer” to Americans, Ken was relieved.

Ken would have likely never communicated his feelings to Steve. In most Asian cultures, hierarchies are respected. Workers rarely confront or question their superiors. People are also group-oriented and socialized to maintain harmony in relationships rather than cause conflict. Ken would have kept his thoughts to himself, and their relationship would have suffered.

As the leader of a global team, Steve could have had greater awareness and adjusted his language to not include American sayings or idioms that confuse others at best or cause harm at worst. This awareness is called practicing cultural agility — the ability to understand multiple local contexts and work within them to obtain positive business results.

For today’s global organizations, cultural agility is the new competitive edge. Leaders who understand cultural differences and nuances are more adaptable and inclusive. They can more successfully navigate the complex dynamics of global, multicultural teams — and clients.

Here are some crucial points to think about as you develop your own cultural agility:

The first step is awareness — of yourself
We don’t often “see” our own culture and tend to assume everyone else is just like us and speaks the same language, laughs at the same jokes, and understands the same idioms and slang terms. To build awareness, get off autopilot and think of communicating cross-culturally as driving in a foreign country. The car may feel the same, but the traffic laws and signs are different. If you don’t pay close attention, you could get into an accident.

Understand that culture is complex
We often think of culture in terms of the things we can hear and see, like language, clothing, music, food, and behaviors. But much of what makes up culture lies below the waterline if we are to think of culture as an iceberg. Some of the most impactful elements are things we can’t see, like perceptions of time, problem-solving style, approaches to decision-making, attitude toward risk, concepts of logic and trust, dynamics of business relationships, and other assumptions, beliefs, and values.

Culture also goes beyond nationality. There can be cultural differences among identity groups, geographic regions, and even within departments of an organization. Cultural agility is a useful skill for anyone leading people different from themselves. As you learn about these differences, seek to understand them, not judge them. Adapting an open, curious, learning mindset can help with this step.

Bridge the gapBridge the gap
After you’ve built self-awareness and understood the cultures of the people you work with, it’s time to bridge differences by adopting new behaviors. In the example of Ken and Steve, because Steve was unaware of the impact of the situation, it was up to Ken to bridge the gap. This required him to do something that was a new behavior for him: confront a superior. I coached him on how to have that conversation in a positive, constructive way, and Ken was able to do just that. In turn, Steve was able to expand his own cultural ability with this new area of awareness.

Leaders who develop their cultural agility can effectively navigate multiple sets of cultural norms and build positive relationships. When leading across differences, remember to reflect on who you are, embrace a learning mindset, identify the gaps, and ask yourself, how can I adapt?

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