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Leading in a Small, Small World of Cultural Differences

An attraction debuted way back in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair that literally sang the promises of global peace. It originally was called Children of the World, but the name was quickly changed to match its iconic song, It’s A Small World (After all). The iconic Walt Disney ride went on to become a staple at every Disney theme park in the world.

You can thank brothers Richard and Robert Sherman for the tune that’s now stuck in your head – and for the reminder that the concept of globalization is nothing new. It’s been a force on the economy for at least 50 years, which means it’s a reality rather than a trend. And while there’s been a rise lately in isolationism and nationalism, business leaders still can’t think in a regional or national silo and expect to make progress.

We met regularly, often face-to-face, and worked hard to express, understand and accommodate cultural differences.

The challenges globalization presents today, however, are very different from those leaders faced in the 1960s, or even just a decade ago. The interactions between workers from different cultures and with different cultural norms happen more regularly now and at more levels of an organization than ever. In short, the global workforce is a melting pot.

When I was the CEO of Prologis, we had a few foreign nationals working in some of our locations around the world. But for the most part, each country was staffed by people from that country. Most of our cultural challenges occurred as those different teams worked with each other. At the top levels of leadership, this seldom created a problem. We met regularly, often face-to-face, and worked hard to express, understand and accommodate cultural differences. We had more issues in the lower levels of the company, where there were fewer cross-cultural interactions and fewer people who spoke multiple languages.

More and more companies today employ a multi-national, multi-cultural workforce that regularly interacts with each other, either in person or by using remote technologies. This makes it more important than ever to provide cultural awareness and training deeper into an organization.

Maya Hu-Chan, writing for Inc.com, recently provided a good example of why this matters. Many Asian workers, especially those who are older, struggle with the idea of “empowerment,” she said. They expect a boss who tells them what to do so they can do it, not a boss who wants to brainstorm decisions. They don’t expect to be empowered to make their own decisions, so they are uncomfortable when it happens.

This is why organizations need trust that’s built on something far deeper than a policy or managerial style. It has to be built on a relationship. In a relationship, there’s an emphasis on the why as well as the what. There’s a shared empathy and mutual respect. There’s room for questions and discussions. There’s a sensitivity to the unspoken questions that take some work to draw out so they can be answered. And there’s an effort to recognize, acknowledge and work through the uncomfortable times that can come when differences are placed on the table.

Strengthening trust throughout an increasingly more diverse workforce isn’t easy, and there’s no silver-bullet program or solution for dealing with this small, small world. But any solution leaders use has to promote authentic, empathetic relationships. This doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, it just needs to be simple and memorable – sort of like a certain song you can’t get out of your head.

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