Cultural Fluency – A Leadership Language

By Audrey Riley

When my husband and I had the opportunity to move to the UK a number of years ago, I remember feeling a number of things. Excitement and anticipation for a new adventure, sadness at leaving my friends and family behind and anxiety around finding work in a new environment. The one thing I wasn’t worried about though, was fitting in. ‘They all speak English, so how hard can it be?’, I said on numerous occasions. Well, it turns out that it was hard, very hard. Yes, they speak English – well after a fashion and accents aside – however culturally, the British and South Africans are very different. After five interesting and enjoyable years, spent in Wales and England, I was delighted to return home to South Africa.

With the benefit of hindsight, I do realise that by assuming we would easily fit into British culture, I was being incredibly naïve. After all, I knew that people from Cape Town are different from those in Durban, and those in Pretoria are not the same as those in Jo’burg, even though we’re only about 65 km’s apart. In other words, I never expected people in various parts of South Africa to be the same and therefore, why I assumed we would culturally fit into the British culture was not one of my smartest moments. In order to find out if it was just me or if this was something that others did too, I embarked on a random, non-scientific survey amongst friends and colleagues who had lived abroad for a while and then returned to South Africa. It seemed that the overwhelming conclusion was that for those moving to a country where English was predominantly spoken, there was less of a concern about fitting in, compared to those who were moving to a country where the official language was something other than English. For those moving to a place where the language was different, there was a clear expectation that culturally, things would be different and that they would have to work harder to fit in and be accepted.

Besides making me feel better, my unofficial survey led me to realise that I had committed one of the most common mistakes known to humankind. I had fallen into the trap of the ‘similarity bias’, which says that we assume that we will get on with and connect easily with those who look, sound and act like us – i.e. those that are similar to us. As with most biases, this particular one is incredibly easy to fall into and every human has fallen into it as some stage. [If you are reading this and saying, ‘no, not me’, remember the adage which says if you have a brain, you will have a bias – at least one!]. Most biases operate at the subconscious level and until they’re surfaced, as mine was by an overseas stay, they will direct our thoughts, feelings and behaviours in ways that are usually unproductive, in its mildest form and downright dangerous, in its more extreme version. Think about any genocidal or ethnic cleansing war that has been or is going on currently… Think on our very own apartheid…

The danger of the similarity bias in our workplaces is that we land up with teams and organisations filled with ‘more of the same’. Everyone looks the same, sounds the same, acts the same and we land up with groupthink. There is no scope for diversity and embracing the value that multiplicity can bring. The research on the value of diversity within teams and organisations, is wide and deep, and demonstrates the critical need for leaders and organisations to become culturally fluent. Cultural fluency is all about recognising and understanding that people from diverse cultures have different norms and perspectives and ways of being and doing. This understanding goes deeper than simply looking at the outside of a person – for example, someone looking at two Black women may assume they are culturally the same until you realise that one is Sotho and one is Zulu. Cultural fluency also means tailoring our own interactions to achieve a common meaning with someone who is culturally different to us.

So whilst most leaders are recognising the importance of developing their own personal cultural fluency and that of their organisations, actually building this capacity takes deliberate thought and effort. Some of the things that can help are:

  1. Be ever curious – about yourself. Deepen your self-awareness and make an effort to surface your own biases. Be willing to ask for feedback to help shine a light on your blind spots.
  2. Be ever curious – about others. Never assume you know someone based on what they look like. Ask questions. Challenge yourself by striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know and who looks different to you and see if you can something in common.
  3. Challenge the people within your organisation to become more culturally fluent. Lead by example by ensuring that you promote diversity. Create diverse workgroups. Look at diversity in its widest sense and not just colour, age or gender. Think also about physical diversity, neurodiversity, religious diversity and generational diversity, to name a few.
  4. Be courageous when cultural conflict arises and talk things through. Use the conflict as an opportunity to deepen your cultural fluency and strengthen connections.

Building cultural fluency can be immensely rewarding, both personally and organisationally. The world is full of interesting and intriguing characters, of which we’re one. Imagine how your team could benefit from embracing the diversity within and becoming more fluent in each other’s cultural language. How might your workplace become more interesting if you got to know one another better?

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