A woman shaped by intentional decisions for international displacement, Erin Meyer not only allowed herself to become a culturally savvy leader, she narrated the dynamics of leadership that span cultural boundaries and borders in The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. From the onset of the book, Meyer identifies culture as a significant shaper of an individual’s leadership style and team-contribution. Rather than inviting the global teammate to discount differences as personality quirks, she helps the reader understand perceived differences as postures, practices, and habits that have been shaped by one’s culture of origin. To illustrate the shaping power of culture to one’s vocational and leadership style, Meyer identifies eight scales that map the world’s cultures with regard to how specific countries navigate communication, evaluation, persuasion, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling. She argues that, when understood and navigated well, these scales can unlock the potential of the individual and the genius of the team.
As I write, I find myself on an airplane that is headed to the bi-national border metropolis called San Diego/Tijuana. Within that space, my team is about to convene 140 peacemakers form around the planet for a time of rest, rehabilitation, relationship, and learning. The peacemakers that will gather come from the frontlines of some of the most severe environments of traumatic violence on the globe. They are women and men who, quite literally, are giving their lives for peace and justice because they are fueled by a hope that cannot be quelled by the acts of violence that have plagued their people for generations. A portion of them are direct teammates who have spent the last year co-creating this experience because we believe in the power of rest for the sake of the restorative revolution that we are all apart of. In order to transition this experience from an idea to reality, we have had to learn to navigate the cultural dynamics of communication, trust, and disagreement. One colleague in particular has provided me the opportunity to transfer the critical learnings from Culture Map on these three scales into my leadership.
The learning curve with regard to communication has been steep. As Meyer so aptly allude to, I have been trained as a dominant culture US-based leader that excellent communication requires the skill of speaking as directly, clearly, and explicitly as possible (Meyer, p. 31). My embodiment of this approach is evident in the crystal-clear agendas for meetings that I craft, the bullet-point emails that I draft, and the applications and software for efficient and accurate collaboration that I employ. Through and through, I am a low-context communicator who speaks in specifics and has not been given the opportunity to learn how to read between the lines as is the native tongue of my high-context, global colleagues. I’ve experienced the steepness of the communication learning curve in moments of frustration with my high-context colleagues as I’ve perceived their communication style as neither prompt nor specific much less thorough and accurate. From my perspective, their style left so much room for ambiguity and interpretation when, in my opinion, what we needed were facts, data, and decisions. It wasn’t until a long dinner with a Latin American teammate that mutual frustration surfaced. What I had intended as direct, efficient, and accurate communication was experienced by her as patronizing and disempowering. What I had interpreted as elusive and non-thorough was intended by her as an invitation to consider the impact of the decisions our team was making. By meal’s end, both of us had discovered necessary pivots to our communication style that, if employed, would benefit one another, the team, and, ultimately, the success of our project.
The shared table is one of the most powerful tools for building trust between global teammates. While the focus of our conversation that evening was on the differences in our communication styles, my Latin American colleague and I were surprised to discover how significantly trust had grown in the aftermath of the meal. My cultural disposition as a US-based leader is that collaboration on the task is the thing that either grows or diminishes trust. For me, one’s passion and commitment to the project as evidenced by energy and accuracy within the collaboration is what generates trust. It is what I expect from my teammates and it is what I intend to demonstrate in order to gain their trust as well. For her, I learned that trust is built on relationship first and that the project is not worth pursuing unless she knew that she was pursuing it within the context of friendship. What grew trust for her that evening is that, for three hours, we had forgotten about the work and had focused on strengthening our interpersonal relationship (Meyer, p. 166). In retrospect, rather than it being simply about the content of the conversation, it was the way in which each of us showed up to the conversation that resulted in a growing account of trust. Each of us entered the table intent upon both discovering what we were missing and also becoming better versions of ourselves. To this day, the two of us constantly point to that meal as the moment when the trust grew that fueled us forward toward the project’s success.
Of the many topics of conversation around the table that evening, our differing experience of a disagreement that we had carried the most emotional significance. According to Meyer’s scale on disagreement, a US-based leader typically sits directly between “Confrontation” and “Avoids Confrontation” (Meyer, p. 201). As an enneagram 8 who identifies strongly as a challenger and who views conflict as an opportunity for formation and the deepening of relationships, I would place myself squarely in the confrontational space. Less than a desire to be right, I engage conflict as a means toward shaping a more significant relationship. According to the same scale, my Latin American colleague culturally identifies as leaning toward conflict avoidant and, because of the dynamics of US/Central American relationships, she has a identified an inferiority complex within herself that shows up most poignantly in relationship with US-based dominant culture male leaders. The presence of the cultural inferiority complex exacerbates her avoidance of conflict. While harmony is a value of the conflict-avoidant (Meyer, p. 199), we discovered throughout our conversation that evening that, in the disagreement that we were dissecting, she backed off not in pursuit of harmony, but out of a habitual practice of defaulting to the US American perspective. By the conversation’s conclusion, we made two commitments to one another for the sake of disagreeing constructively: I would temper my energy for the conflict in an effort to create more space for her to warm up to the disagreement and, when needed, she would ask for space in order to collect her thoughts so that she could grow in confidence in pushing back to a US American male leader. On three separate occasions since those agreements were made, we have practiced these commitments to our own benefit, that of our friendship, the team, and, the overall success of the project.
Without diminishing the importance of Meyers’ additional five scales for cultural intelligence, my experience tells me that communication done well and in a culturally savvy way deepens trust and paves the way for constructive disagreement. My conviction is growing that the leader for tomorrow’s world is one who must grow in both self awareness and others awareness by demanding one’s own transformation. We must become women and men who learn to “watch more, listen more, and speak less” (Meyer, p. 27) The work is hard and the road is saturated with landmines, yet, the benefit of becoming one who listens long enough to the perspective that is shaped by another culture is worth it personally, for the team, for the organization, and, ultimately, for those who experience the fruit of the organization’s work.