Leadership in cross-cultural contexts (Part III)

Almost a year ago I have taken on my first formal leadership role as team lead. I have had experience from informal leadership roles (project leader, central function position) in cross-cultural contexts and some theoretical knowledge on cross-cultural management. Now I was curious about the concept of leadership in cross-cultural settings and enrolled in a university course on that topic. This is part three of a series of three posts (find part I here, part II here) describing my main learnings from the course.

The final assessment

The final assessment compared the two main books we were asked to read (as described in part II of this series). Enjoy reading!


In this paper, relevant concepts and arguments in the books Management across cultures by Steers, Nardon and Sanchez-Runde (2016) and Concepts of intercultural communication by Bennett (2013) are discussed by reflecting on parallel and contrasting perspectives. Baseline for this discussion are the manager’s notebooks from chapter 3 (pp. 72-77), chapter 5 (pp. 149-155) and chapter 11 (pp. 356-361) in Steers et al. (2016).

Manager’s notebook in Chapter 3 “Cultural Environments”

The Manager’s notebook of chapter 3 consists of general advice to managers not to group people into categories or put them into boxes as well as to be cautious about the implications of cultural dimensions. Culture is described as complex and contradictory at times (Steers et al., 2016: p. 72). Three pieces of advice (avoid cultural stereotyping, view cultural differences in neutral terms and prepare for the unexpected) are presented which might guide a better understanding in organizational settings (Ibid., p. 73). In the light of avoiding cultural stereotyping, the authors highlight the importance of understanding of cultural influences on management practises as an important first step. Bennett (2013) articulates understanding as not an end per se, rather as an enabler for a distinct experience by triggering a feeling for something (p. 22). Understanding, thus, is described as important by both authors but seen as mean to different outcomes: understanding itself, and a diverging experience of something.

Adler’s (2008) five pieces of advice on how to avoid cultural stereotyping are the backbone for the strategy of the same name presented in Steers et al. (2016). Cultural stereotyping is related to what Bennett (2013) refers to as ethnocentrism (p. 88). Experience from one’s own culture are central to ones reality. If one wanted to counter ethnocentrism, Bennett (2013) emphasizes that knowing one’s own culture is insufficient and that one has to get accustomed with “the feeling of appropriateness” (p. 21) which comes along with patterns emerging from one’s cultural background. The authors similarly argue that stereotyping or ethnocentrism should be counteracted for the purpose of developing cross cultural competence. Once again, they differ in their degree to which they value experience and feelings over mere understanding and knowledge.

One of the five pieces of advice concludes that cultural descriptors should not be evaluative (Steers et al., 2016: p. 74). Bennett (2013) accentuates that this advice could be seen as implications of a relativistic perspective on intercultural practises leading to culture becoming too simplistic (Bennett, 2013, p. 38). In other words, non-evaluative cultural descriptions could overemphasize an individualistic perspective, where only one’s own mind exist. On page 128, Bennett (2013) encourages the usage of cultural generalizations as the preferred way of combining openness to differences on individual level with cross-cultural knowledge. The theme of neutrality when it comes to cultural differences continues throughout the strategy “view cultural differences in neutral terms” (Steers et al., 2016: p. 73). Closely related and more elaborated than non-evaluative cultural descriptors is the notion of perspective taking (Bennett, 2013, p. 39). Steers et al. (2016) encourage to take perspective, or “use your expanded cultural knowledge to view situations through the eyes of others” (p. 73). Bennett (2013) extends this strategy by highlighting that in addition to getting a different perspective, the efforts are aimed at generating an alternative experience (p. 20). He warns that the notion of perspective is prone to a confusion in paradigmes, more specifically “a positivist notion with a realistic overlay” (p. 39). 

A common concept for both authors can be found in the strategy “Prepare for the unexpected”, where Steers et al. (2016) articulate six learning skills for managers with empathy being one of them is defined as the ability to understand others as “complex cultural beings” (p. 76). Intercultural empathy is a reoccuring theme in Bennett (2013) and described as an adaptation strategy where one participates imaginatively in an incongruous experience in a different culture (p. 48).  The same author highlights the importance of epistemological accuracy in a way that this adaptation strategy goes hand in hand with a constructivist perspective on culture.

Manager’s notebook in Chapter 5 “Communication across cultures” 

In the Manager’s notebook of chapter 5 cultural influences on both individual cognition as well as communication protocols are identified (Steers et al., 2016: p. 150). These two aspects are also introduced as cultural screens, which might represent hurdles in communication processes (Ibid, p. 130). Furthermore, the authors describe the identification of impediments in the external environment as a starting point for improved communication (Ibid, p. 151). In addition, cultural, organizational and situational factors are identified which affect communication before three strategies for adapting to differences in interaction with other are introduced. Similar to Bennett (2013), the authors stress the importance of contextual information in communication, referring to communication protocols, whereas Bennet (2013) refers to social rituals (p. 62).    

Focussing on language, Steers et al. (2016) outline that language provides symbols to meaning provided by culture and that language always represents a potential barrier to cross-cultural communication (p. 133). Bennett (2013) amplifies this notion by referring to these conclusions as obvious (p. 62). For him, language use refers to the social contexts of language, which itself is an intercultural framework. This perspective is underlined by referring to Whorf (1940) as a constructivist notion of language guiding habits of perception (Bennet, 2013, p. 151). 

Following this comparison it becomes clear that both books emphasize the context surrounding communication and that they deemphasize the importance of language skills per se. The cultural screens introduced by Steers et al. (2016), and more specifically the one of culture influencing communication relates to what Bennett (2013) describes as language guiding habits of perception. Both concepts include factors influencing each other and an implied direction. Whereas on the one hand culture influences communication, language – as a medium of communication – influences perception. Interestingly enough and potentially counter-intuitive to the outline of chapter 5, Steers et al. (2016) identify learning the local language as challenging but essential to settle in a new environment (p. 358) and as a main part of a strategy introduced for living and working abroad in Chapter 11. Bennet (2013) introduces the concept of the “fluent fool” (p. 64) which entails that even if one is capable of using a language, one might be more prone to misunderstanding of  verbal rituals. He even advices to go for learning more about social rituals first and then about language (Ibid, p. 64).

Manager’s notebook in Chapter 11 “Managing global assignments”

Steers et al. (2016) identify challenges when working abroad in the Manager’s notebook of Chapter 11 (p. 356). In addition, two processes of adapting to a foreign culture are proposed: psychological and socio-cultural adjustment. The Manager’s notebook also identifies challenges when working abroad, for example understanding the environment, difference in openness to “strangers” and the individual situation of the assignee (Steers et al., 2016, p. 357). Two complementary goals co-exist in the context of global assignments, namely performing for the company and developing personally (p. 357). The same authors outline three strategies for living and working abroad, which are understand your environment, continue to develop multicultural competence, make yourself at home (Ibid, pp. 357-361).

The psychological adjustment process describes cultivating a satisfying way of life in an alien country and relates to Bennett’s (2013) developmental model of intercultural sensitivity (DISM) (pp. 84-103). The four stages of the psychological adaptation process are Honeymoon, Disillusionment, Adaption and Biculturalism (Steers et al., 2016, p. 345), whereas the DISM consists of the six positions Denial, Defense, Minimization, Acceptance, Adaptation and Integration on a spectrum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism (Bennett, 2013, p. 88). The main difference between those two models is their perspective. Whereas the former focuses on an individual’s feelings or attitudes towards a new culture, the latter can be seen as a position of “personal experience of cultural difference at a group or interactive level” (Bennett, 2013, p. 85). Another difference is the immanent goal of the process: adaptation versus sensitivity. Intercultural sensitivity can be seen as a prerequisite for intercultural competence and manifests itself by a prevailing experience of difference (Bennett, 2013, pp. 85-86), whereas the stage of biculturalism is described as the feeling of being accommodated and feeling comfortable (Steers et al., 2016, p. 345). DISM consists of experience-focussed positions which span from avoiding seeking experience of cultural difference in general (Bennett, 2013, pp. 86), whereas the psychological adaptation process indicates a direction and goal for individual development and behaviour towards one culture. The adaption position in DISM is a precursor for empathy or taking perspective, as newly integrated information into existing constructs is able to guide cultural experience (Bennett, 2013, pp. 95). The stage of adaptation in psychological adaptation refers to an individual beginning to understand and adjust to a new culture and finally function properly (Steers et al., 2016, p. 346). In contrast, adaptation in DISM is an extension of representations allowing for the final position of integration where cultural worldviews are included in the experience of one’s self (Bennett, 2013, pp. 98).


A common theme across the comparison between the authors’ perspectives is the diverging views on how to integrate epistemological and theoretical considerations. Whereas Bennett (2013) argues for a constructivist perspective on culture, Steers et al. (2016) see these nuances in differences in definitions of culture as not useful for managers but rather for academics (p. 49). From my perspective, and as opposed to Steers et al. (2016), being well versed in epistemological perspectives and their implications for cross-cultural managerial practise is an important starting point in developing cross-cultural competence and in successful cross-cultural management approaches. There is a difference in a relativistic perspective and a constructivist perspective on culture, as in the former different views on reality are described and in the latter it’s different perspectives that construct reality.  Epistemological perspectives will always colour advice. Advice might differ in how much emphasis is spent on understanding different perspectives versus integrating those different perspectives in existing cognitive constructs.

One key theme is “understanding” which itself is deeply rooted in ideas on knowledge and education in the western hemisphere. Steers et al. (2016) emphasize the importance of understanding, exposing a culturally coloured approach to management across cultures in their book. From Bennett’s perspective knowledge can be insufficient for developing intercultural sensitivity, as it is the experience which guides openness to different cultures. In my opinion, focussing on understanding or on experience should be guided by the backgrounds and preferences of managers in cross-cultural contexts. Training programs can for example combine both approaches and emphasize understanding if participants mainly tend to value understanding over experiencing. Also, training programs can foster reflection on both approaches by introducing experiencing as a concept to participants valuing understanding and triggering reflection over these differences. In the end, developing cross-cultural competence for management practise demands both – understanding and experiencing a different culture.

Advice might even contradict each other. Taking language as an example, Steers et al. (2016) see language learning both as inferior to learning about communication protocols and at the same time as an important step for living and working abroad. Bennett’s (2013) position regarding language is the same throughout the book. Within cross-cultural management, a fundamental discussion revolves around if learning a local language enables one to be more culturally versatile. In my opinion, learning the local language is an advice in cross-cultural management one has to be met with caution. There are several social rituals besides language which affect effective cross-cultural communication. Learning the local language can enhance communication, but it is misguided to say that communication is the local language. The focus should be on being able to understand basic aspects of the language and to engage in basic social rituals. The latter can be faced in any other language or an easier form of the local language, which highlights the rather decentral function of language.  

There is a difference between psychologically adapting to culture in different stages and developing intercultural sensitivity. As we have seen, Steers et al. (2016) view cultural adaptation as understanding and function properly, whereas Bennet (2013) views it as an extension of representations. Culture, when seen from a constructivist perspective, will influence experience and thus the experience of oneself. Adaptation might not happen in different stages but rather in positions depending on openness to culture. 

Taken together, to develop cross-cultural competence, you should define a firm epistemological ground and engage with a new culture by understanding and experiencing it. Also, you should focus on engaging in social rituals and less in learning the local language. Finally, cultural adaptation should be seen as an extension of representations, that is not as a psychological process of stages but one’s own position based on openness to culture and empathy. 

Reference list

Adler, N. J., & Gundersen, A. (2008). International dimensions of organizational behavior. Mason, Ohio, Thomson/South-Western.

Bennett, M. J. (2013). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: paradigms, principles, & practice. Boston, Mass, Intercultural Press.

Steers, R. M., Nardon, L. & Sanchez-Runde, C. J. (2016) Management Across Cultures: Developing Global Competencies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whorf, B. L. (1940). Science and linguistics. Technology Review, 42, 229-231.

Recommended further resources

I have really enjoyed watching a series of a recorded seminar by Milton Bennett (“What All Interculturalists Need to Know”). It supported me in understanding his book even better. See below for the first part of this series.

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