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  • audreybevan

Could poor performance have something to do with cultural intelligence?

Performance assessments are often culturally biased. Unless managers have learned to adapt to different cultures, their reading of their team’s performance will inevitably be aligned to their own culture. What is good performance in one culture can turn into poor performance with a manager of a different cultural background. Let’s take an example.

A manager from a European – white background is working with a team from across Asia. She has made it clear what the objective is, why it’s important and has given a deadline. She has learnt that communication styles vary across cultures so she took different approaches: in a team meeting, in individual one to ones, in emails, she has specifically asked for input from all team members to make sure everyone had a chance to ask questions. In her mind everyone is crystal clear and the work is being done.

The deadline arrives and nothing is done. The manager’s immediate assessment is that these team members performed badly and that this will be reflected in their performance assessment.

The next day she gets the team together and asks why the work is not done. A team member says “you never told us who was doing what and in what format. I was waiting for your instructions”.

In the manager’s mind this confirms the team member’s poor performance – they lacked initiative. But then she reflected. In their culture it is expected that the manager will divvy up the work and give clear instructions on how to complete the work. The team’s behaviour was also a sign of respect towards the seniority of their manager. In the manager’s culture behaving that way feels like micro-management and disrespect towards the team member.

So what to do? How about giving the instruction to the team to take initiative! The manager could say something like this:

1) This is the objective

2) I (the manager) expect you (the team) to speak to each other and agree on who will do what and what format you will use

3) I want you to tell me how you will complete the work by this date

4) This is the deadline for this objective to be reached

And then check through multiple communication channels that the above is clear and seek input from each team member.

And just like that the team started to take initiatives!

The assumption that some cultures don’t take initiatives is a biased assessment, as was this manager’s performance assessment. All cultures are capable of taking initiatives, and of performing highly but it depends on the context, who asks and how it is asked.

This is one of the many reasons why it is so crucial for managers to develop their cultural intelligence.


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