The COVID-19 crisis has brought home the pressure on leaders to deliver clear, consistent and honest communications. But constituents also look for empathy, concern and understanding from their leaders, whether civic or corporate. As a result, how leadership plays out in different cultures has, perhaps, never been more important.
From the chief executive officer to line managers, leaders will be evaluated on how well they use communication to help their teams through these turbulent times. As Hubert Joly, executive chairman and former CEO of Best Buy, wrote for Harvard Business Review, “This is a time when performance will be judged by how a company and its leadership serve everyone and fulfill a higher purpose — and specifically how they have shown up and met the requirements and expectations of its multiple stakeholders.” While many resources are available on leadership and crisis communications, few address the unique challenges confronting the multicultural leader.
Leaders from a different cultural background can face challenges from linguistic issues (accent or articulation) or cultural behaviors (lack of eye contact), which can inhibit their impact. Furthermore, written communications with language or grammatical errors can undermine credibility.
The Role of Cultural Intelligence
Perhaps most challenging is developing an innate understanding of what is culturally appropriate: As I wrote in a recent issue of Chief Learning Officer, the multicultural leader “will have to figure out where his approach to communications may be at odds with that of the dominant culture, whether clients or colleagues, and to master appropriate, politically astute interaction.”
For example, in the U.S. workplace, while it may be difficult for some American leaders to display empathy, it can prove more challenging for a leader from a culture in which greater power distance — “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally” — is the norm. These leaders may not only need to adapt their own communications behaviors but also find the most effective ways to connect with the diverse people across their organization.
As Connie Wedel, founder and CEO of HR Without Borders, wrote for Ellevate Network, “Great leaders have high cultural intelligence, or CQ.” They recognize how their own cultural background can inform their interactions. “They understand, relate to, and can adjust to the perspectives of others … [and they] resist being ethnocentric.”
Especially in a time of crisis, leaders should have a collective rather than individualistic approach and be willing to ask for help, even if it means going outside of their cultural comfort zone. Strong leaders will not only acknowledge their own skills gaps but also any culturally formed biases they might have.
5 Best Practices for Multicultural Leaders (and others)
1. Focus on the Need to Know: Who, What, When, Why
Quickly share facts and information, honed down to essentials for that moment in time. Be direct. Don’t scare people unnecessarily, but don’t fall into overly nuanced or euphemistic language, either. Aim for transparency and openness, and find the balance between being overly comprehensive and under-informative.
2. Communicate Deliberate Calm
Portray deliberate calm — a sense of order and stability — even as you acknowledge the crisis and own the responsibilities of your role. As a McKinsey article points out, psychologist and communications expert Albert Mehrabian famously quantified the emotional context of communication as “55 percent visual, 38 percent tone, and only 7 percent what you say … In a time of crisis, we need leaders to raise their levels of consciousness and be acutely aware of how they are being perceived.”
It’s also important to take responsibility. In an article for Harvard Business Review, ghSMAR’s Chris Nichos, Shoma Chatterjee Hayden and Chris Trendler write, “The best leaders take personal ownership in a crisis, even though many challenges and factors lie outside their control. They align team focus, establish new metrics to monitor performance, and create a culture of accountability.”
Cross-cultural communications experts Melissa Hahn and Andy Molinsky say you can assess good leadership in tough times by asking whether leaders accept responsibility. “Keep in mind that most cultures don’t have one-size-fits-all rules for reacting to mistakes, and context is key,” they add. Choose your words carefully—avoid overly formal language, but also avoid idioms or culture-specific expressions that may not be understood universally.
3. Convey Empathy, Warmth and Understanding
Draw on your own feelings and experience, or bring in examples of others’ experience, to convey humanity. Invite input, and demonstrate that you have been listening (e.g., “Some of you have asked if…”).
Be inclusive; use “we” and “you” whenever possible, not just “I.” Remember the “human touch.” In a recent webcast on the coronavirus pandemic, partners in a global consulting firm paused to acknowledge the sacrifices facing so many workers across the world and to offer empathy.
4. Lean on Others — Before, During and After
“Share the stage” with other leaders to present a united, coordinated front, but don’t retreat into the background. Leverage others to bounce ideas off of and to help you prepare; ask colleagues you can count on for an objective perspective and sharp eye to review your messages in advance.
Ideally, you will have been preparing along the way, asking colleagues for reality checks and, perhaps, receiving communications coaching. As Hahn and Molinsky suggest, “Periodically check in with those you are already building relationships with, and ask them if they’ve noticed you doing anything that might be culturally inappropriate … You can even do some practice runs and get feedback before you step into the ‘performance’ setting.”
5. Confirm and Follow up to Make Sure You Are Understood
Speak slowly, pause and confirm you are understood; summarize and repeat key points; and ask for questions (also see recent tips from a voice coach). Be concise and to the point (bullets help readers scan); consider sending a series of short, topic-specific memos or emails sent over the duration of the crisis.
Ensure that multicultural colleagues feel included. As I noted in a recent blog post, “Inclusive behaviors modeled by the C-suite go a long way toward signaling a culture committed from the top down to supporting multicultural employees, whether it’s across a local office or a global enterprise.” Be aware of the role that unconscious bias can play — in both your own attitudes toward communication as a manager and in how your communications are perceived by others.
How Coaching Can Help
In my Chief Learning Officer article, I wrote, “Many multicultural professionals will have had extensive language instruction throughout their education; their communications challenges may be based more in the norms and preferences of their cultural and family backgrounds. … Individual coaching support, geared to developing leadership-level skills within an all-English speaking or American business context, is the best way to address typical concerns.”
However, we don’t see enough broad or sustained effort to better equip executive managers to deal with cultural differences. Executives should consider working with a coach to help them with specific issues (e.g., accent, projection, body language, etc.) as well as with thornier cultural challenges. A communications coach who works with multicultural leaders shares her approach: “Start by raising awareness. Let [multicultural managers] know that their biases, once they identify them, can be used at a very practical level through conscious choices about how to interact with colleagues whose backgrounds may be different from theirs.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic has presented us with a crisis unlike any other, it’s very likely that most leaders will, at some point in their career, be called upon to communicate to their team or entire organization during a challenging time. All leaders, including those from multicultural backgrounds, can use the recommendations in this article to be as prepared as possible. They should also give serious thought to the questions posed by Joly at the end of his Harvard Business Review article: “What actions are you taking to help the people around you? How will you measure your own performance? How do you want your leadership from this time to be remembered?”