Leading with cultural intelligence

Valerie Berset-Price

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Valérie Berset-Price, owner of international business consulting firm Professional Passport, is the expert behind the Vancouver Business Journal’s advice column: Going Global: Business insight on an international scale.

Dear Valérie,

For the past twelve months, my company has been involved in cross-pollination exercises with our Chinese and Brazilian partners. As such, we receive engineers from those two countries in an effort to share best practices and understand each other’s culture better. While the engineering skills of our guests are very good, they never speak their mind and remain mute while in meetings, which tends to defeat the purpose of having them around. Could you give me some pointers on how to change the dynamics around and find a way to benefit from their views?


Dear Karl,

Ah, if only those engineers would come with a barcode that one could scan to discover how to operate them! All jokes aside, your challenge summarizes well one of the biggest obstacles companies worldwide face: how to interact effectively with people who come from different cultures.

My recommendation is to get some training for you, your visiting staff and your local staff on how to lead with cultural intelligence. This will give you the tools to understand how to clearly communicate across cultures and develop a global voice. In those classes, you will learn that Brazil and China are cultures where a strong hierarchy prevails. As such, people are taught not to speak unless spoken to first, never to disagree with a superior, and not to take the floor unless you can develop on a subject and answer any question that may be thrown at you. 

In contrast, in the U.S. from a very young age people are taught to speak their minds, to brainstorm, not to be afraid of being wrong or of asking a question that might sound stupid, etc. It is a flat, egalitarian culture where everybody has a shot. It’s a unique culture that differs from the one your Brazilian and Chinese engineers grew up in; and even though they may appreciate the opportunity to speak up, they don’t automatically know how to do it. Changing their cultural lenses requires an environment in which they feel understood, safe and supported. There must be some demonstration that there will be no professional or personal repercussion for criticizing a process or questioning a decision. 

We’re all products of the culture in which we grew up; recognizing our own cultural DNA and being able to examine how our culture shaped our behavior, expectations and wants is a mesmerizing exercise that will greatly assist your employees in developing some key and useful skills for the 21st century.

Hope this helps!


Do you have a question for Going Global? Email Valerie@vbjusa.com. Please note that the Vancouver Business Journal and Valerie Berset-Price reserve the right to publish your letter or an edited version in all print and electronic media.

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