Cross-cultural communication Leader

Last week I spoke about cross-cultural communication at a big company event in Berlin, Germany. There were 1700 people in the room, from 20 different nationalities. Leader

I talked about how we all come from different upbringings, countries, cultural norms, habits and national communication styles – and how these factors color the lenses we view the world through.

I talked about how easy it is to do or say something that can be misunderstood, or to misunderstand someone else. And that when we just view others through our own colored lenses and make culturally biased interpretations, we often end up not hearing what is actually said, most probably without even being aware of it.

I told the audience that when it comes to misunderstanding, and being misunderstood, I could probably write a book about all the screw-ups I myself have made. Having worked globally for the last 20 years I realize that the biggest mistakes I’m probably not even aware of that I made. 

Typical Norwegian Leader

Afterwards the moderator asked me what was “typical Norwegian”, and I mentioned that in Norwegian workplaces you don’t automatically get respect just because you have a fancy job, title or position, but by being a good and decent leader and a good and decent person.

I said I believed that most Norwegian leaders know this to be true; that both personal and professional respect is something that needs to be earned, and that earning respect goes both ways, regardless of role, title or position.

“But… but…” the moderator continued “if someone has a position or title, like here in Germany, he or she will demand to be taken seriously. If you don’t, they might be deeply offended. What do you then do?”

“Honestly” I replied “if someone takes themselves that seriously,
I struggle with taking them seriously”.

I really wasn’t trying to be funny,
but the whole room roared with laughter!

“Are you saying that someone with the honorable title of a CEO, Chairman, Doctor or Professor will not not to be taken seriously by you?” The German moderator seemed slightly shocked now.

Cross-cultural communication

“Are you saying”Well, if someone think they are so much more important and should be taken a lot more seriously than others, just because of their role or title, I just have one thing to say” I said. The moderator looked at me with great anticipation… “And what is that?” he asked and seemed to be holding his breath, waiting for my reply. “That I think they are being silly!” I replied, and the whole room screamed with laughter.

It was a funny experience, being funny without even trying to be!

But it did make me think: The list of people I have “offended” throughout the years, by speaking and interacting with them in ways that reflect my Norwegian values, is probably a lot longer than I thought. And longer it probably will be.

But I also know this to be true: that the majority of people and leaders I meet around the world appreciate not being treated as if they are some remote and unapproachable person, but spoken to and engaged with, based on the people they are, not by the roles they hold. This attitude has given me friends in the most unlikely places and contacts I would never have had, had I made their fancy roles and titles stop me from interacting with them in a natural and informal way.

There are many leaders out there that don’t want to be taken too seriously, who want to interact and engage with their employees in an open, honest. informal and trusting way and build mutually respectful relationships for the benefit of all.

And there are many leaders who use their power and formal positions not to lift others but to lift themselves, often while stepping on – and sometimes crushing – others on their way.

The day I pretend to think the latter is ok, I hope someone stops me from doing what I’m doing.

The good news is this: science and common knowledge are catching up. Culturally biased or not, leaders who treat others with kindness and respect and create work environments where people feel appreciated, valued, safe and inspired, are the ones who innovate most, perform the best and create – by far – the best results. Science proves that when it comes to human motivation, we are on a world scale astonishing alike. People, teams, organizations and cultures that acknowledge this, and create environments where people feel respected, valued and engaged, are the ones who will prosper in the future.

We might not have gotten everything right in Norway either, but this one I think we have nailed!

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