Mark Twain Quote on travel (interculture)

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
Thanks to Mark Twain Quotes

About cultural types, European culture and intercultural competence

ImageLooking again at the Lewis Model of Cultural types[1] or at any other definition and model of culture, I cannot help asking myself, into which category I would actually fall. This is quite a funny question as I grew up in Belgium, went to a European School, have German parents, lived in different countries and continents and now call Switzerland my home. Can I consider myself more as a Belgian because my roots are there (and not only because I like strong beer), or should it be more as a German as I like things to be organised and clear, or could it even be European, although there is no such category… for most of the people I know, things are clear: when football (soccer) championships are on, they know exactly which team or which country to support; when the Olympics or Paralympics are on TV, it is very clear who has to bring home most medals. For me, nothing is clear. As long as I can think, this has always caused some confusion; for example as a student when watching the Eurovision contest with other nationalities. Whereas everybody was eager to see their own country win, I was rather clueless and decided instead to morally ‘support’ the musicians who seemed to have the best chances to win.

For some people this situation might seem rather strange, for some others quite common, always depending on their own background. For me, it has the effect of feeling like a chameleon, ‘changing colour’ whenever necessary and fitting into any environment. But: is there something like a European Culture as opposed to a North-American or any other culture? Searching on the Internet as well as on different pages from the European Commission and the UN, although “European Culture” is mentioned very often, nobody really seems to know what it actually means and views differ.[2] This is indeed very interesting because our world becomes more and more global, people also become more and more mobile and study/work abroad but at the same time roots are more important than ever and the country of origin (in many cases the nationality) is the place where a deep feeling of belonging is connected to.

Whereas ‘belonging to Europe’ or more precisely ‘Western Europe’ is not really something precise and does not help me with identifying into which “type of culture” category I fall into, one thing is for sure: whatever it is that I come with, gives me access to the three dimensions of intercultural competence – affective, cognitive and communicative behavioural – as discussed in my last blog entry.[3] It is true that by growing up with a multitude of languages and people of different nationalities, I see my capacity of being emphatic, free of prejudice and stereotypes, understanding intercultural communication processes and building up social competencies enhanced. Well, being a mindful leader working in a multicultural environment, this is actually of outmost importance for what I do and what I believe in. And, who knows: maybe some high ranking official will ‘invent’ a European Passport one day… I am ready! And until that day arrives: I actually like being a chameleon.

[1] See the Lewis Model: for example

[2] Compare for example the Special Eurobarometer 278: European Cultural Values, page 63 onwards.

[3] See “Mindful leadership in a multicultural environment – Part III”

Mindful leadership in a multicultural environment – Part II

Before looking into the different aspects of what it means to be a leader in a multicultural environment, what problems can arise and how to solve them, a commonly used term has to be defined. The word ‘culture’ is used in so many ways today but do we really know what lies behind it?  In fact, many different definitions exist, depending on the context the word is used in. Geert Hofstede, a well-known Dutch researcher in the field of organisational studies, says the following: culture is “(…) the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another”. The ‘category’ can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or the genders.”[1]

For my purposes, a definition I find most useful is that of the ‘onion-model’ of culture from Trompenaars. It describes something complex as culture with a simple image, that of an onion, where the outer layer represents behaviours, language, food, clothing etc. of a person; looking more to the inside one can find norms and values. The inner core layer finally, is made of “basic assumptions”[2] like routine actions and beliefs that are deeply rooted inside. ”Onion Model” of Culture[3]

What this model really shows is that we cannot judge or pretend to understand a person simply from his or her behaviours, clothing and food. There is much more to culture than what we can actually see. Acknowledging this fact and being mindful when being part of or leading international teams, will actually help avoiding misunderstandings and bring clarity. “The first step for leaders is to help all players recognize that there are cultural differences – to recognize their importance and impact”.[4]

Let me give you an example: a simple question at the end of a workshop or meeting like “does everybody understand what the next steps are, i.e. is everything clear” can have a different impact on people with various cultural backgrounds. Whereas in some cultures people are used to ask questions, seek clarification and understanding, in some other cultures admitting that things are not clearly understood is actually considered as ‘losing ones face’; hence there won’t be any questions or signs that some information was missing which for the workshop or meeting leader will be very confusing as he/she will be expecting a certain output. In order to avoid this particular situation, it can be very helpful to have a look at cultural type models, like the “Lewis’ model” to give one example:[5]Although it appears difficult to categorize every single person, this model provides a helpful approach and can already solve many problems before they appear.

Specialised coaches can of course help navigate the uncertain waters of intercultural management. Part III of this article will look into the difference of intercultural coaching versus coaching in an intercultural management environment as well as highlight the difference between measures on the job and measures off the job. Stay tuned!




[1] From:

[2] See also: F. Trompenaars and P. Woolliams: „Transcultural Competence through 21 Reconciliations“. In: 21 Leaders fort he 21st Century – How innovative Leaders manage in the digital age. Editor. F. Trompenaars and Ch. Hampden-Turner. Oxford 2001, p. 397-398.

[3] In alteration from H. Blom and H. Meier: „Intercultural Management“ (=International Management. Editor. H. Meier). Page 40.

[4] Trompenaars/Woolliams: Transcultural Competence, p. 397

[5] R. Lewis:; see also: R. Lewis: “When teams collide – Managing the international team successfully”, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London 2012, p. 13.

Mindful leadership in a multicultural environment – Part I

Leadership|Jenny Ebermann|Services|Everybody knows that our world seems to spin faster every day; distances become ‘smaller’ and suddenly a student in Norway can interact directly with peers in New Zealand through Social and other Digital Media. Space and time are not important anymore. Information and images can be transferred instantly. You want to know what a hotel is like in one part of the world: no problem, you will find all you need on the internet where many people already left their feedback on what you are looking for. The same applies for goods, products and other services which can rapidly be ordered, delivered, exchanged from one country to another. For the humans living in this world, remote spots on the planet suddenly moved directly into their living rooms through TV, PC or other supports. Nothing seems to have a secret anymore. Even travel has become affordable, meaning that everybody nowadays can visit any location for a correct price and in nearly no time.

The same principle applies to today’s workforce: nobody is bound to employment in their country of origin; applications and CVs can be posted everywhere on the net and connections made to recruiters worldwide. As a direct consequence, people from very different nationalities and backgrounds find themselves coexisting in one and the same office or workplace, not only in multinationals but also in SMEs and elsewhere. In the sports world for example, successful teams around the globe host players from various countries. Only one criteria counts: to be the best in the relevant discipline, no matter where the candidate comes from.

But: what at first glance seems to be exciting and simple, can become rather difficult in the day-to-day practice. Even though continents, languages and people have become ‘closer’ to one another, every single human being has its own culture, behaviour, pace and habits. As a result, business relationships have to take the cultural background of the different partners into account in order to ensure a fruitful collaboration. In short, nowadays a successful and mindful leader has to have much more competencies than social and technical skills. Intercultural competences are equally important and represent a huge challenge in multinational teams. Results are often affected and even hindered by irritation, embarrassment, resentment and conflicts within a team, problems emanating directly from cultural misunderstandings. How can such “disturbances” be overcome in order to establish a  friendly and effective work environment? How can international business be smoothly
conducted, even though people from different cultures are involved?

Leaders and HR often call upon specialised coaches to help them navigate the uncertain waters of intercultural management. How intercultural coaching and coaching in an intercultural management environment can be differentiated and how teams can be trained and coached to efficiently work together will be discussed in the next articles. Stay tuned!