Business with Chopsticks

Cross-cultural competence
In this blog we will
  • demystify Cross-Cultural Intelligence
  • explore why leading people across borders requires more than learning how to use chopsticks
  • give you hacks for cross-cultural leadership
My start in Hong Kong

It is July 2010 and I am about to hold my first team meeting in Hong Kong. How exciting! New job, new country, new team, same industry! What could go wrong? The ever-empowering leader I am, I encourage my team to brainstorm like there is no tomorrow with an open agenda and open communication. A few comments from the expat colleagues. Then crickets. I don’t understand. This worked well with all my teams in Germany and Australia. I couldn’t shut people up. How disappointing. Is it them? Or is it me? A couple of questions, especially to my team members from China, helped me understand. And from then on, I prepared and ran my meetings in Hong Kong very differently.

We are domestic internationals

What has become evident throughout my time leading large cross-cultural teams is that understanding what people from different cultures and backgrounds need from us, is key to our leadership.
And I am not just talking about executives jetting from country to country. Everyone who works with people who have a different background will do things differently, communicate differently and have different expectations. In most countries and in Australia in particular, people come from very diverse cultures. One of the reasons I love living here, it’s like a cultural melting pot. At every workplace we deal with people from a different country or culture. I call us domestic internationals – where our career is in our home country, but we deal with people from other cultures through technology (think about suppliers, clients, overseas offices) or even within our own 4 walls.

What is Cross-Cultural Intelligence in the workplace?

Cross-Cultural Intelligence  – CQ or CI, is the ability to work in a multi-cultural environment that may or may not be located in your home country. The ability to have empathy and understand the values of people from different backgrounds. And the ability to understand their view to authority and how they are used to make decisions.

More than eating with chopsticks

Especially in a work context, being cross-culturally aware is more than knowing how to use chopsticks when traveling in China, how to bow when in Japan, or how to greet nose-to-nose in New Zealand. Whilst very important it is more than greeting and eating. Understanding how people look to authority (hierarchical or egalitarian) and how decisions are usually made in the culture (top down or by consent) enables leaders to facilitate better conversations and meetings. Naturally people think that in a hierarchical cultural you find top down decision making and in an egalitarian environment, decisions are made by consent. But that’s not the case. Australia, for example, is one of the most egalitarian cultures, very informal. You call your boss by first name, have open plan offices, 360-degree feedback etc. But decisions are mostly made top-down. People look to their leader to make a decision and speed is often of the essence. Also, the goalpost and with that the decision could change quickly once there is more information.
On the other hand, Germany or Japan are very hierarchical cultures, yet decision making is usually made by consent. Debate is encouraged, different perspectives are considered, status quo is challenged and decision making potentially takes longer. But once the decision is made, it is usually firm.
Erin Meyer has published some fascinating research and the Culture Map in an HBR article, which you find at the end of the blog.

The Hong Kong learning

What did I learn in my first few weeks in Hong Kong and what did I do differently? The feedback from my Chinese team members was ‘Why do you ask us such big open questions? Aren’t you the boss? Shouldn’t you know?’ They didn’t understand what I wanted from them and what was expected. Culturally people from China are shyer in nature and often stay away from speaking up in public. They also come from a hierarchical culture even in families and schools where you don’t speak up unless you are asked to.

From that point onwards, I prepared and planned my meetings better, sent everyone an agenda with bullet points of what I expected from them, e.g. think about 3 ideas of how to increase leads or share your ‘hot deals’ etc. I also asked the team to come up with and agree on their own agenda because in the end, this wasn’t MY meeting, it was OUR meeting. Then in the meeting I could call on people without embarrassing them as they knew what was expected. I added more 1:1-conversations which really helped given that some team members would be more open to share ideas in smaller settings.
Our meetings were shorter with more participation, better outcomes and way more fun.

An example

When you have team members (or clients) from China, Australia, UK, US and Germany, they will all have different views to authority (China and Germany hierarchical and Australia, UK and US egalitarian) and top town decision making from China, Hong Kong, UK, US and Australia and by consent from Germany.
Bring everyone on the same page and agree on the decision-making process and timeline. Outline what is expected from everyone in meetings and general communication. Then call on people and the behaviour during your interactions and become an empathetic facilitator. Lead your teams across borders.

Hacks when you lead people from different cultures
  • Do your research – read articles, white papers, books and podcasts about the do’s and don’ts in other cultures
  • Observe, listen and ask questions. Don’t expect to walk into the room and be culturally intelligent. There are always things you don’t know.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t take it personally when you think you have acted in the wrong way. People will forgive you and they understand. In many countries I worked and lived, people actually take price in ‘showing you the way’
  • Be open to different ways of doing things. Our way might not always be the right way. As a leader your job is to get the best out of people and that often means to communicate and lead people in a different way
  • Be empathetic. Put yourself into the other persons shoes and see the situation or challenge from their point of view and with a view to their culture, upbringing, values and habits
  • Prepare and plan meetings well. Be aware of where people come from and how they look to authority and how they expect to make decisions. If there are different cultures in your team, make sure you agree on the decision-making process, the way and pace of communication, what is expected from everyone and the planned outcome. Bring everyone on the same page

Often, we are domestic internationals. We lead across boarders without setting a foot outside our country. Cross-cultural intelligence starts with you in your own environment.

For more info and workshops on Cross-Cultural Intelligence email us on

Erin Meyer’s HBR article

Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert