A while ago, I was at a conference speaking about leadership and how our Emotional Intelligence impacts performance. In the group discussion, questions surfaced regarding the clash of cultures. One participant observed the culture of her company did not align with her cultural background. Her company valued expression of emotion as a way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but this created tension as it was the opposite of her family culture which valued performance without emotion. “Just the facts," the young lady said. No empathy was expressed with difficult classes as she was growing up. “Just deliver the ‘A’ grade.”
This young woman felt trapped between the performance model she was taught as a youth and the new professional culture of empathy and connectedness. I have to tell you, the tension in the room was palpable and the struggle for learning to navigate this dynamic seemed unyielding.
The culture we grew up in is a foundational part of who we are and provides much of our leadership frame. The culture we are exposed to as infants, children, and young adults forms the values, beliefs, and social norms we carry around as adults today. This cultural development is so integral to who we are that it can cause us to behave in ways that we see as entirely normal, but others may look at and say, “What planet did you come from?“ How can one deal with the stress of valuing their culture of origin, yet pressing into a different culture that requires an increase in Emotional Intelligence?
As a group, we discussed how the impact of our formative culture has on our professional behavior. This is not something easily changed without full awareness and willing intention. In fact, it may not be a full-on change that is needed, but skill in navigating between the two cultural dynamics. This is a real value for the discipline of Emotional Intelligence.
According to Michael Polanyi (my favorite science philosopher), “…as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a center lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse.” Everything we do as leaders is culturally situated by our entire human experience: race, sex, economic class, family of origin, family dynamics, teachers, coaches, and friends. It all has an impact on how you see the world and how you lead. Culture is influential and inevitable in shaping every single person in this world.
Emotional Intelligence encompasses your ability to create space in a situation and make a behavioral choice rather than acting impulsively. Being Emotionally Intelligent equips you to assess the cultural tension, adapt to an unfamiliar way of life, and even affect an environment with good leadership and team cooperation.
Much can be learned from Young Yun Kim’s cross-cultural adaptation theory of "stress-adapt-grow." For example, the higher a leader's Emotional Intelligence, the more equipped they are to recognize the impact that the cultural stress is having on them. Self-awareness to understand the difference allows the leader to be able to feel the stress and deal with it rather than ignore it and let it mount.
If stress mounts to a point that cannot be tolerated, all sorts of negative consequences are possible. If stress is managed, then adaptation to the new culture is possible. Learning the Emotional Intelligence skill of healthy emotional expression will empower this young leader to value both her culture of origin and her culture of destiny. When she adapts, she can grow to a place where she can feel less stress about the cultural differences. She will grow as a leader without having to give up core elements of who she is as a person.
What would help you see the tension between your culture of origin and culture of destiny in a different light? Look for places of friction in your work and see if it might have something to do with the clash of cultures. If there is potential for improvement in Emotional Intelligence take some healthy strides toward understanding the differences between the cultures and grow as a leader.