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It’s A Small World After All

It’s A Small World After All

Cultures vary, but the fundamentals of leadership remain constant wherever you sit.

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It’s A Small World After All
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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

There’s an app called Radio Garden that lets you listen in on the airwaves of cities and towns all over the world. Simply spin Radio Garden’s globe to any location, zoom in on one of the bright green dots, and tune in. You can hear country music on Brazil’s Radio Vôo Livre, talk radio on Lagos’s 91.3 FM, or club music from Amsterdam.

Listening to the discussions, music, and advertisements of communities oceans away quickly reveals the variety and diversity across our planet. But time spent zooming around the world’s airwaves also reminds us how much we have in common. No matter where we call home, we listen to the same radio formats, music genres, and often the very same songs.

For the decade-plus that I worked in Europe, I regularly found myself in executive team meetings that felt a lot like the equivalent of a Radio Garden concert—with one Brit, one Swiss, one French, one German, one Italian, or some other multinational combination. They say that in every stereotype there is an element of truth. In Europe, I repeatedly found that to be the case, as I watched executives from different cultural backgrounds approach issues in their own particular way.

I recall once, in Zurich, trying to explain some complex change management concepts to a traditional Swiss CFO by launching into a colorful presentation of various metaphors to help bring the ideas to life—images like a “beach,” a “spine,” and a “sponge.” These explanations had worked so well on many occasions with other audiences, but this time all I got was a confused look and a rather stern-sounding response: “Dave, I have no idea what you are talking about.” I should have known better.

Japan, where I live now, is famous for having its own unique business culture. It is full of norms, mostly unwritten, explaining how business is to be conducted: the proper way to exchange business cards, who speaks in a meeting, where one sits in a conference room or stands in an elevator, which things are decided before the actual meeting. Luckily, as a foreigner, I am accorded a certain degree of latitude.

In an article titled “When Culture Doesn’t Translate,” published several years ago in Harvard Business Review, INSEAD professor Erin Meyer examines the impact going global has on corporate cultures. “People in different countries react to inputs differently, communicate differently, and make decisions differently,” she writes. As companies move beyond their original geography, “miscommunication becomes more frequent, and trust erodes.”

It’s true that what you see in a boardroom in Tokyo won’t look exactly like what you would encounter in Paris or New York, and that can make globalization challenging. But it also brings intellectual stimulation and creative intrigue to doing business internationally.

So, the question becomes, how do we overcome the challenges in order to unlock those benefits? How do we work past these issues without becoming impossibly bureaucratic, and retain what made the enterprise a success in the first place?

For me, it starts with tapping into the universal principles of leadership and managing people. These principles are based in fundamental behavioral science—how human beings act, and why. 

Generally speaking, most people want to feel heard, understood, and valued. This holds true whether you are direct in your communication style or not; whether you shake hands, kiss, or bow during a greeting; and however you define the burden of analytic proof required before taking action. As a leader, if you are able to engage both the minds and the hearts of an organization, you’ll get much more innovation and productivity in return. If you treat people with respect, honesty, and authenticity, you’ll usually get that back too.

Whatever language your university psychology class was taught in, the underlying science is the same. How people react to change—whether it’s perceived negatively or positively—is similar, whether they are in Rome or Beijing.

This is true in both the business world and our personal lives. I recall an early training on executive coaching in which I learned about the Karpman drama triangle in transactional analysis. The session was designed to help us better support CEOs, but afterward I found myself saying to the lead trainer, “I need to talk to you about our son.” Apparently, we are all human, as parents, as spouses, as friends, and, yes, also as business executives.

At its simplest, effective leadership relies on the universal human ability to connect with others, to empathize, and to inspire. The rewards can be significant, even magical, whatever city or country you are in. As the song goes, it’s a small world after all.

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