The Role of Cultural Self-awareness in Global Leadership - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #306

The Role of Cultural Self-awareness in Global Leadership

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We are shaped by our backgrounds, by the values and beliefs that have been instilled in us since birth.  By understanding how one’s own cultural hinterland can affect behaviour in a global workplace, leaders can learn to adapt that behaviour and do better business with those around them, whatever their nationality or background.


A successful global leader is someone who can operate effectively across national boundaries and cultures, defining goals that will appeal to a diverse set of people, whether individuals in their own company or external groups and organizations. And although many skills are equally relevant to domestic leadership (i.e. business acumen, flexibility, interpersonal skills) there are others that set global leaders apart. Whether dealing with multi-cultural teams, starting a new venture in unknown territory, or growing links with other businesses, these and other such competencies emphasise a leader’s cross-cultural sensitivity and skill.

Working effectively within different cultural contexts is important, but a truly global leader needs to acquire a keen sense of intercultural understanding as well.

This research introduces the concept of ‘cultural self-awareness’, whereby leaders can increase that intercultural understanding. They can learn to recognise how their culturally-derived implicit beliefs and values drive their behaviour in the workplace and see how their actions affect others from different cultural backgrounds. As the study’s co-author, Professor Tara Wernsing explains: “We tend to use ourselves as a reference for seeing the world, but we are not objective observers…our cultural heritage has developed in us assumptions and behaviours that affect us. Forcing yourself out of that reference zone, you become less judgemental, and you start to see the world in a different way.”
Developing awareness of the effect cultural heritage has on the way one works is not a simple process – global leaders need to unlearn automatic behavioural responses and stop making automatic judgements.

Imagine, for example, that you are dealing with a multi-cultural team spread across the globe and you want feedback about your recent presentation to a potential new client. Your Russian colleagues may provide an honest but rather blunt response; your US counterparts are more interested in whether a deal has been struck yet; while your Asian people do not seem keen to pass judgement at all, for fear of offending. These are three different responses that you, as global head, will interpret best by shedding your preconceived judgements about the way different nationalities behave, and trying to understand why they speak or act a certain way. As Professor Wernsing explains: “The self-awareness approach hinges on curiosity. If you apply that to situations and events in your daily work, you will gradually develop ‘non-judgementalness’ or a less defended self-referenced approach to relating to others. In turn, this attitude results in being more open to learning through cultural differences and potentially being perceived as more cosmopolitan.” 


Understanding how your culturally-conditioned beliefs and values affect your leadership behaviours is one thing, but what steps can you take that will benefit your diverse and global workforce?

Take time for a little self-reflection. Do you realise how much you use yourself as a reference for the world? Your thinking towards issues such as religion, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social and educational background has been shaped over time and by your own background and culture. Professor Wernsing recommends: “Through self-reflection on issues related to leadership identity, interpersonal strengths, and cross-cultural developmental events, leaders can better understand their current and potential influence on others.”

Imagine you had to describe yourself, not referring to the formal details of your life (family, career etc) but to the individual that you are - what makes you tick, what you feel, how you behave towards people. Not an easy process but it can help point out your intercultural strengths and weaknesses. One suggestion is to ask for feedback concerning how you come across in cross-cultural interactions, and reflect on those situations using a journaling app (i.e., as Day or Chronicle) and incorporating that into your routine. Whether it is recording what you have learnt this week, or what insight you gained into a different cultural approach, she argues there is nothing like taking time for self-reflection through practices like writing and mindful meditation on experiences.

Forcing yourself out of your reference zone can be further achieved by embracing and immersing yourself in local customs and cultures. Take up opportunities to get involved in new cross-cultural experiences. You may think, for example, your grasp of a foreign language is not good enough to actively participate, but as Professor Wernsing suggests, “you need to push your plateaus. Resorting back to English may be easier but it won’t help you grow interculturally.”

Recognise the novelty of normality – cultural self-awareness leads to a realisation that there can be ‘a new normal’. As Professor Wernsing explains: “Immersion in a new culture helps you reference in a different way…you see that there is not one “right” way of doing things, you are able to stand in another’s shoes, and challenge your source of normal.”

Finally, get your HR team to implement (if not already doing so) the more practical aspects of intercultural activity, such as setting up language courses, or consider cultural immersion workshops to give insights into different customs, behaviours, and values. These and other offerings can enhance your employees’ own cultural self-awareness if the benefits to them are clear and their tendencies to plant themselves as the central reference point for learning is challenged.

The key to successful global leadership is having the ability to notice, understand, and and effectively navigate the territory among culturally diverse perspectives. As Professor Wernsing concludes: “Cultural self-awareness is really a development tool to help you adapt your mindset and become more learning-oriented through enhanced curiosity about sources of cultural diversity, beginning with your own beliefs and values, but it cannot acquired in a tick box way, it takes time to be developed within you.” 



Developing global leaders through building cultural self-awareness. Tara Wernsing & Rachel Clapp-Smith. European Journal of International Management (2013).

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Idea conceived

December 1, 2014

Idea posted

Jan 2014
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