Diverse Teams: the Importance of Superordinate Identity

Literature suggests that diverse teams may struggle more than homogeneous teams to socially integrate, communicate and ultimately achieve high levels of performance. Many researchers also suggest that some teams are successful due to complementary leadership, with complementarities and communalities facilitating cooperation, supporting efficient decision making processes and keeping everyone focused on common objectives.

I would argue that, while this is certainly true, a second important factor should also be considered. The efforts by the leader to promote a strong superordinate identity, or a shared in-group identity, may also contribute to explain the success of some teams. The superordinate identity is the result of members of the team being different while at the same time part of an “elite” group which operates separately from the rest of the organization, with a common objective of the highest importance, with clearly defined deliverables and short deadlines requiring intense interaction among team members.

A superordinate identity helps diverse team members feel simultaneously similar and different, which would facilitate feelings of self-enhancement, belonging and at the same time distinctiveness. Diversity within the group along a salient dimension allows group members to be noticeably differentiated from one another, this satisfying their need for distinctiveness. At the same time, the superordinate identity allows group members to categorize one another as in-group members, thus satisfying individuals’ need for self enhancement. As it is the case for communalities, the shared identity should also facilitate connections to one another, therefore, satisfying people’s need to belong.

Summarizing, in a globalized world organizations need to rapidly develop and deploy diverse teams in order to successfully establish new growth businesses. I would argue that leaders should promote a strong superordinate identity to make these diverse teams successful in achieving high levels of performance. At the same time, only leaders with vision, passion and drive will likely be able to effectively promote a strong superordinate identity.


Employee engagement in our rapidly changing business environment

How to stimulate employee engagement is the topic of a lively debate among business, researchers and management gurus. According to many researchers, telling employees what to do, without sharing objectives and strategic directions with them, is not an effective management approach in today’s business environment. As Jordan Cohen observed recently, describing the outcome and showing confidence in the experience of a skilled professional is a better path to ensure not only employees’ effectiveness, but also their job satisfaction and long-term commitment. Describing the desired outcome and emphasizing requirements, while preserving the worker’s autonomy, leads to better work quality while at the same time stimulating professional development and sense of responsibility. Moreover, an interesting research carried out by Amy Amsten suggests that lack of control causes a decrease in the cognitive function of the employees’ brain.

Due to increased pressures, frequent changes and rising insecurity in the current business environment, managers have to develop competencies like strategic flexibility, risk leverage, cultural intelligence and rapid decision making. At the same time, employees need to cultivate creativity, responsibility, autonomy and self-control.

The Towers Watson Global Workforce Study 2012 – a survey that involved 32000 respondents in 29 markets around the world – shows a significant difference between highly engaged employees and other groups when it comes to their attitude towards their employers. Highly engaged employees have a lower “presenteeism” (lost productivity at work) and are less likely to leave their employers. Further, when their company is faced with a limitation of resources, engaged employees do not adopt a dispirited attitude.

The same survey shows that only 42% of global respondents said their organization solicits employees’ opinions and suggestions and 39% see an involvement of employees in management decisions affecting them. However, results are considerably different for the group of highly engaged employees, with over 67% agreeing that their organization solicits and acts on employees’ suggestions. In conclusion, increasing responsibility and stimulating employees’ feedback and contribution seem to be the right thing to do for leaders aiming to build high-performance teams..

Global talent and diversity: is your CEO walking the talk?

I recently attended an important Human Capital Summit in Asia. The keynote speaker was the Deputy Chairman of a leading FMCG company, a very successful American executive in his late fifties. He shared with the audience, mostly Asian HR executives, his views that Asia is the future driver of the world economy. He stressed that he is based in the US but spends most of his time traveling in the region and visiting local companies and clients.  Then was the time for questions. “Why, if you believe that Asia is becoming your major market, you have only US nationals in your Board of Directors? Why no Asians?“ a smiling young Asian lady asks politely.  A long silence follows. “Well”, responds the American top executive, visibly embarrassed, ” we hold our Board meetings every quarter of the year. It would be tiring and stressful for an Asian having to fly all the way to the US every three months in order to attend these meetings”.

This anecdote tells us a lot about the gap between exposed values and reality. Research shows that diverse top teams are more creative, generate more and better alternatives to problems, and generate more and better criteria for evaluating alternatives. In a recent survey, 80% of CEOs declared that developing and promoting diversity and global talent is their top priority. However, many CEOs continue to prefer surrounding themselves almost exclusively with individuals of the same nationality and background. This gives them a sense of comfort coming from sharing language, values and cultural references with their close entourage. And this is also the case for CEOs who proudly talk about their international career and for some of the most global industries, such as Aviation.

Ironically, at the time of globalization, top organizational charts continue to reflect a strong ethnocentric mindset. Of course, the problem is usually denied. “I wanted the best candidate, he just happened to be from my same country” is the frequent explanation that we hear. Sometimes, headhunters are hired by CEOs only to reinforce the impression of a truly global search when in reality the new hire– from the same CEO’s nationality – has already been identified in advance. When this happens, it is an indication that this CEO’s decisions are driven by an ethnocentric mindset.

The consequences of an ethnocentric approach to HR management can be very negative: wrong strategic decisions, missed opportunities and weaker leadership teams. Most worryingly, in ethnocentric companies we often see, among high potentials, what I call the “children of a lesser god” syndrome. This means low motivation and high turnover among the best and brightest managers from non-dominant cultures, who decide to look elsewhere for the career opportunities they do not find with their employer.

I close with a practical tip to quickly assess if your CEO is honest when he talks about diversity and global talent: look at the nationality of his direct reports, closest advisers and recent top promotions. If more than 25% hold the CEO’s passport, you are probably working in an ethnocentric organization. If this is the case and you hold the “wrong” passport, you may consider start looking for your next opportunity elsewhere…

Studying abroad develops cross-cultural perspective and global leadership abilities

The growing global interconnection asks for the development of a global mindset to help organizations and countries to face the challenges of internationalization. There is a more and more obvious need of professionals with a larger perspective, able to understand different cultural environments, global market configuration and cross-cultural settings. In the past decades, the global leadership development has been associated mostly with the global corporations or with the management of global corporations. But the present shows that global leadership skills become necessary in nearly all workplaces. Organizations have to solve problems as competition and collaboration with diverse actors from all over the world, and international exchanges are already a must in many organizations.

These tendencies on the professional market are correlated with the need to develop cultural intelligence by intensification of educational exchanges. Studying in another country can shape an international vision and a more informed attitude towards operating in a cross-cultural context. Thus, “the study abroad experience can play a critical role in developing the global mindset needed to balance local and international challenges”, as Allan Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education, emphasizes. The article reminds that, in the previous academic years, a record number of U.S. students studied abroad. Data show that an increasing number of U.S. students are choosing non-traditional destinations like China, India, and Brazil.

In Europe, the reports of the most popular exchange program, Erasmus,  show a slow, but sure increase in the number of students who study abroad: 13,663 students in the 2011-2012 academic year (25% more, in comparison with the numbers from five years ago). The statistics with host countries show that France, Spain and Germany are the most traditional destinations for European students in the Erasmus program.

The emergence of sites which rate the study abroad experience from all over the world shows the growing interest of students for non-traditional destinations. Thus, in a survey based on informal ratings of students, the „top friendliest cities” in 2012 were Seoul, Hirakata(Japan), Tokyo and Cape Town. These data show an enlargement of the educational perspective and increased possibilities to experience new educational settings. On long term, these expanded exchanges will determine the increase of cross-cultural and global leadership abilities.

Attitude to speaking foreign languages is different around the world

An ability that plays an important role in developing cultural intelligence is the capacity to learn foreign languages. More and more voices of opinion leaders say that centrality in a global context does not ensure a high level of cultural intelligence. Developing cultural intelligence and empathy means renouncing to cultural egocentric attitude and showing interest towards a foreign culture.

Thus, surveys showed that the Americans were less inclined than the Europeans to study foreign languages: only 19% speak other language than English in their households, in comparison with 54% of Europeans who speak a different language from their own. This lack of interest is due partly to the fact that English is one of the most traditional languages in the international working settings, but it’s still a low percentage.

The foreign language policies from around the world have been compared a month ago, with the occasion of the International Mother Language Day. Heather Singmaster observed that, while in U.S. there is an increasing request in learning foreign languages in the organizational sector but the answer is weak, in other countries this matter became a part of national policy. While in most Asian countries, pupils learn English as a second language from primary school, the Australian government launched a white paper on the necessity of Australians to learn Asian languages, for addressing to nearby Asian markets.

In this picture, the European citizens still have a special place, even if the openness to foreign languages is still “internal” and refers mostly to cultural exchange inside of Europe. The last Eurobarometer from 2012 says that the five most widely spoken foreign languages in EU remain English (38%), French (12%), German (11%), Spanish (7%) and Russian (5%). In the cited survey, among the 54% of Europeans who are able to speak foreign languages, 69% are likely to use them only occasionally, and only a quarter (25%) uses them every day or almost every day. Around two fifths (44%) of Europeans are able to follow TV channels and read newspapers in a foreign language, and almost 39% can use a foreign language to communicate via online. Thus, Europe is an area with a marked interest for increasing cultural intelligence.

Global leadership development and training: the enhancement of CQ

Cultural intelligence (CQ) can be enhanced through a systematic and integrative global leadership training program such as IATA’s Intercultural Leadership Engagement and Development program (I-LEAD). Global organizations have a substantial return on investment from such programs. For example, the I-LEAD program can achieve real financial benefits for the organization by incorporating high-stakes, real-life global projects that not only help participants develop their CQ, but also contribute to the financial bottom-line of the organization through additional revenues and cost-savings. As an example, over the past four years, an average of 40% of the projects submitted by I-LEAD change agents and their teams were approved at IATA, resulting in a financial gain of between one and two million dollars every year. This benefit far outweighs the program costs of approximately half a million dollars.
As the I-LEAD model suggests, the target audience of global leadership training should go beyond the traditional focus on expatriates. Given the globalization of the workplace and business, cross-cultural training is critical for a much bigger group of employees – those who may not leave their country, yet will work closely with companies and people around the world. Hence, organizations should expand their selection criterion.
Although I-LEAD has been used to develop high potential employees at the middle and upper-middle level of the organization, the I-LEAD integrative model can be successfully used to develop CQ across industries and virtually at any hierarchical level of the organization. Similarly, the I-LEAD cross-cultural training model can be used for different programs such as induction, leadership development, diversity or preparation to assignments abroad. The model can also be adapted in terms of duration of the program and can be used for activities conducted at work or off-site.
In terms of the training methodology, the traditional approach to cross-cultural training followed by many organizations, which consists in offering either didactical activities (lectures or films) or some isolated experiential solution, has serious limitations (Gannon & Poon, 1997). The example of I-LEAD shows that CQ can be developed by offering participants a wide variety of didactic, developmental and self-awareness activities and that providing employees with learning methods designed to enhance reflection and awareness, foster their motivation to interact across different cultures and enhance behavioral flexibility would be a major step forward for many organizations.

The global talent acquisition: the direct assessment of CQ

Although organizations have long recognized the importance of the recruitment and selection, this key HR process remains fairly unsystematic in many firms. Whether it is staffing for long-term expatriates or short-term travelers, organizations tend to rely on informal and low-utility selection techniques (Shaffer et al., 2006) and focus on technical skills and domestic track record as the most important selection criteria. But, by doing so, some other necessary skills remain outside of the evaluation picture.

Moreover, where there is awareness for the need to look out for global leadership capabilities, a prevalent criterion used by organizations is candidates’ international experience (Carpenter et al, 2001).The justification is that individuals with past experiences in inter-cultural settings are assumed to have honed in on relevant cross-cultural skills and knowledge, and hence, are more effective in dealing with inter-cultural encounters. But this assumption may be wrong, considering that the candidate could have been selected in international work positions.

My experience in over 100 countries and findings of in my research reinforce the importance of going beyond technical skills and qualifications when organizations recruit and select employees. In particular, CQ should be a key selection criterion that organizations look out for, and assess in their candidates, in addition to cognitive abilities, technical skills and expertise. Appointments in key positions should be made based on a clear assessment of their cultural requirements as well as of the CQ exhibited by both internal and external candidates. Moreover, given that existing CQ research shows only a modest relationship between international experience and CQ, it is recommended that CQ capabilities should be assessed directly through structured and rigorous methodologies, such as situational judgment tests or assessment centers, rather than assessed purely based on biomarkers such as past experiences in international assignments.

Cultural intelligence and global human resources systems

Global human resources systems have several challenges to respond at. Adapting the process of selection and recruitment at organizational change which act with high speed, creating new systems of evaluation and assessment (valid at a global scale), implementing effective training models at an international scale, or replicating the systems of performance assessment in corporations acting worldwide are only a few of them. Several attempts to deal with these challenges made obvious that cultural intelligence must become an important factor to be integrated in the organization’s human resources routines.
As an effect, modern global organizations seriously consider integrating cultural intelligence (CQ) in the key human resources processes. First of all, CQ should be integrated in the process of talent discovering and acquisition, for increasing of the effectiveness of recruitment and selection. The second area where CQ should be integrated is performance management and reward systems. And finally, cultural intelligence should be integrated in global leadership development and training.
Only by systematically integrating CQ in the various HR routines will organizations be able to develop and retain the global talent needed to help the organization maintain its competitive advantage in today’s business environment.

The need for a new generation of global leaders: the “cosmopolitans”

The search for global talent is not a recent phenomenon; it appeared since the multinational organizations looked for solutions when managing their offices around the world. Traditionally, two staffing approaches were used to solve this problem.  The first was the extensive use of expatriates – mostly from the organization’s Headquarters – to run local operations in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America (this form of deployment was considered as reflecting an ethnocentric orientation).

The second common mode of deployment is the use of host-country nationals to manage foreign subsidiaries. This form of deployment routine relies on locals with in-depth knowledge of the local culture to manage the firms’ foreign operations. Usually, organizations that adopt this adaptive or poly-centric approach exert only limited control from the parent organization, allowing the local subsidiaries to formulate their own management policies and practices. These two approaches, however, have important limitations in today’s context.

The problem with the use of expatriates is their cost and their lack of local knowledge of the culture, which not only impedes the organization’s acquisition of local knowledge in service of its global operations but also poses major difficulties for the expatriates’ adjustment and performance (with a high rate of failure among them). On the other hand, while the use of host-country nationals enables organizations to acquire diverse local knowledge, many of these host-country managers may be unable to share their knowledge of the operations because of their lack of knowledge of the organizational culture, as well as the lack of operational and social networks in the parent company.

More importantly, both approaches are predicated on the assumption that business interactions occur predominantly between the home country (where the parent organization resides) and the host country (where the subsidiary resides). While this may have been true two to three decades ago, it is no longer tenable in today’s highly diversified and complex business environment. The international business environment has shifted from a collection of principally bi-cultural business relationships, to a more genuinely integrated intercultural one. Managing cross-cultural interactions is no longer the sole concern of a small group of employees, namely the expatriates. As organizations compete to expand their business operations and networks across the world, more and more of their employees will be exposed to working with other cultures. It is therefore increasingly clear that for organizations to become world-class in today’s economy, they must develop a new breed of global managers to replace the traditional “expatriate”, the “cosmopolitans” – individuals who not only have lived and worked in several countries but also at the same time possess the capabilities that enable them to be effective in dealing with diverse cultures. Evans, Pucik and Barsoux (2002) distinguish the global leaders required by today’s business environment from expatriates from the past with the following quote: “Expatriates are defined by location, as managers who are working in a different country from their own. In contrast, global managers are defined by their state of mind”.

In search of global talents: the challenge of crossing cultures

Globalization has made the world smaller and flatter. According to a recent estimate by Colakoglu and Caligiuri (2008), there are about 850,000 subsidiaries of multinational corporations operating globally. Crossing cultures can create a number of formidable challenges for individuals and organizations; for multicultural domestic and international teams; for leaders of multinational entities; and for those in overseas professional assignments. This is because individuals and organizations situated in different cultural environments have different norms, values and ways of doing things. These challenges can be costly to organizations. For instance, according to the International Labor Organization (2009), 70% of cross-boundaries business ventures fail due to cultural differences. Likewise, estimates of failure rates of expatriate managers go as high as 65% and costs of a failed expatriate assignment are estimated at five to 10 ten times the cost of a local hire.

To survive in today’s global business environment, organizations need leaders and employees who are able to navigate the complexities of the global market. Unfortunately, such global talent is short in supply. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a survey of 1.000 senior executives across forty nations identified the lack of high-quality talent who can operate in multiple cultures as the top challenge faced by their organizations (EIU CEO Briefings, 2006, 2007). It is therefore not surprising that companies around the world are experiencing a lack of effective international planning, inconsistent project management across cultural and geographical boundaries and rejection of global tools at the local level, delayed delivery worldwide and inadequate global and local response.

What are the best ways to adapt to such diverse and multiple challenges? Where can an international leader find the talented managers he needs, during the intercultural journey? And how could these global talents be not only discovered, but developed? The debate on this blog will be carried, on one hand, on the multiple pressures that action today on and in intercultural organizations (and on global leaders, implicitly) – and, on the other hand, on the means to develop the cultural intelligence.