Here is a method for helping leaders reduce organizational tension.

Have you ever heard the phrase “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country about of the boy?” You probably have, or at least a variation of it. It's a common saying, because of the truth behind it: We all have a cultural upbringing and background that cannot be easily ignored or changed.


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?“

Culture is influential and inevitable in shaping every single person in this world.

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, friends. It all has an impact on how you see the world and how you lead.

Last week, I was at a conference speaking about leadership and the impact our emotional intelligence has on performance. Questions about the clash of cultures came up in our group discussions. Some of the participants observed that the culture of their company didn't completely align with their cultural background. The company, for example, values expression of emotion as a way to show vulnerability and authenticity. This created tension as the individual who raised the issue grew up in a family culture that valued performance without emotion, “just the facts." The young lady said when she was a teenager there was no empathizing with how hard a class was, just deliver the “A."

This young lady felt trapped between the successful model she was taught as a young person and the new 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.

What we talked about as a group is the fact that the impact our formative culture has on our behavior is not something can easily change without full awareness and willing intention. In fact, it may not be a full-on change that is needed, but more skill in navigating between the two cultural dynamics. This is a real value for the discipline of Emotional Intelligence.

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 a culture, and even affect a culture with good leadership and team cooperation.

There is a lot that can be learned here 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 there is a 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 can not be tolerated, all sorts of negative consequences are possible. If the stress is managed, then adaptation to the new culture is possible. Learning the emotional intelligence skill of emotional expression, for example, will allow 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 have grown as a leader without having to give up core aspects of who she is as a person.

Our theme for this month is going to focus on organizational culture issues. We look forward to a deeper conversation about the positive outcomes that may be achieved when you use emotional intelligence in any cultural situation.


Is there some place where you are feeling stress in your organizational leadership? Examine your culture of origin and compare it to your culture of destiny. Is there a place where growing your emotional intelligence could help you see the stress in a different light? Could you gain skills to help you adapt and grow? Look for places of friction in your work and see if it might have something to do with the clash of cultures.