Use Empathy to Lead Cross-Cultural Teams

September 24, 2021

Being curious to learn, mindful about how we communicate and checking our assumptions when we settle conflict

How can organisations build a diverse and inclusive workforce? Diverse teams eliminate group thinking, and they’re collectively more creative and innovative. They are also able to connect to a wider range of consumers in culturally diverse regions like Asia. 

Many managers are now leading diversified teams and along with it, navigating the challenges of cross-cultural management—from different communication styles to motivational factors.

One way we can overcome these hurdles is to lead with cross-cultural empathy, which encourages us to be curious to learn from each other, be mindful about how we communicate, and to check our assumptions when we settle conflict.

To find out more, we spoke with Jonathan Nyst, who started his marketing career in Europe, but now leads the marketing team of BigPay as the head of marketing in Malaysia.

Being curious about differences

“The world is intertwined today, much more than it was when I was coming out of school. Because of that, you really need to have a deep understanding of cultures around the world... The thing that makes the world interesting is our differences, not our similarities.” — Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.

It’s increasingly important for modern leaders to cultivate cultural intelligence—it is the capability to relate and connect effectively with people of different cultures. A starting point for managers who want to develop their cultural intelligence is to become more culturally sensitive by genuinely wanting to learn about their team members’ cultures.

In Jonathan’s case, he recognised that there were some differences in the professional culture between Europe and Asia. There’s a general saying that in the West, the squeaky wheel gets the grease; but in the East, the nail that stands out gets hammered back down.

So when Jonathan first joined BigPay in 2018, he made his first order of business understanding the cultural climate of Malaysia and wanted to build good relationships with people in his team. As a result, he managed to build a culture of open communication, one where employees can freely share their thoughts as cultural barriers break down.

Adapting to different communication styles

“When we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we become wiser, more inclusive, and better as an organisation.” — Pat Wadors, Chief People Officer at Procore

We may have come across colleagues who prefer to be blunt and direct with saying their thoughts, or meet others who are more reserved. Whichever style of communication we might encounter, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking there should be one way of doing things and dismiss alternative solutions.

One piece of advice that Jonathan suggests to develop empathetic leadership is to “listen to understand and not to reply”. This way, managers can better understand how their team members think and make decisions. When managers are on the same wavelength with their team members, it becomes easier for them to coach each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

Checking our assumptions

Sometimes conflict is inevitable. So what can we do? In situations where conflict has arisen, it’s likely we’ve filtered information through our own cultural lens, and that could be the source of misunderstanding.

Here, it’s helpful to take a step back and check our assumptions by giving specific feedback on the behaviour we observe (e.g. “I noticed you didn’t show much interest when we had the meeting about this-and-that”) and seek clarification (e.g. “What’s on your mind?”).

By checking our assumptions, we acknowledge that our unconscious biases might be contributing towards friction to how our team performs. And by clarifying our assumptions with our colleagues, we’d be able to put ourselves in their shoes to see where they might be coming from.

Excelling at empathy

“The international manager reconciles cultural dilemmas” — Fons Trompenaars, cross-cultural communications expert

The best way for leaders to build their cultural self-awareness is to continually interact with people from other cultures.

Leaders who demonstrate empathy with their team members are able to bridge cultural differences. They excel at leading cross-cultural teams and can connect with global customers.

As we leave you with these suggestions, how might you become a more empathetic leader starting today? Check out our other blog posts for more tips on becoming a global leader: