Stamp Your Emotional Intelligence Passport

The ability to act in culturally-appropriate ways can make or break a leader’s success abroad, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now.

Our increasingly competitive global economy means leaders can boost their effectiveness if they better understand what makes for high performance in different cultures. The advantage goes beyond simply adopting a leadership style in harmony with cultural norms to include choosing the best executive for an overseas post, as well as training and development for such assignments.

Emotional intelligence in general has been found to facilitate cross-cultural communication and adjustment to new cultures. But new research points more specifically to the competencies that make this possible.

A meta-analysis in the Journal of World Business examined the impact of leaders’ emotional intelligence (EI) in various cultures on how well their employees’ performed and on their “organizational citizenship behavior, or OCB.” OCB indexes the ways employees express their engagement, such as helping a coworker finish a project or choosing to develop a new, more efficient process.

Leaders’ EI had a strongly positive impact on employees’ performance and on OCB–and here’s the culture angle–particularly in cultures that value collectivism. In these cultures, performance has more to do with liking what you do as part of a group or team. By contrast, in “individualist” cultures motivation for high performance is for the employees’ own benefit, driven by a desire to be the best.

East Asian cultures tend to be highly collective, where people’s self-identity comes from the group they belong to and a feeling of interdependence. The United States and Australia are two of the most “individualist” cultures. This “we” versus “I” feeling makes a great difference in what motivates performance. (You can compare values on this and other dimensions for specific cultures here.)

Collectivist cultures encourage a belief in oneness, that everything and everyone is part of the same whole, which correlates with greater compassion for others. This recognition of our shared humanity helps leaders connect with people, even those whose backgrounds differ greatly from their own.

Collectivistic cultures also value sensitivity to social situations. The implicit demands of a given situation shape how a person will be expected to act–and a failure to act accordingly will be regarded as a sign of immaturity. This need to read interpersonal situations highlights the value of two emotional intelligence competencies, empathy and  emotional balance: leaders with strengths in these abilities can more readily have a strongly positive impact on employees in collectivistic cultures.

An effective leader would motivate people differently depending on what motives operate more strongly in a given culture. In individualist cultures, where being the best primes motivation to achieve, performance feedback can drive people onward. But in cultures with less of a focus on personal achievement, a different approach might be more motivating: building positive relationships and pride in team identity.

Finally, leaders with strengths in emotional intelligence excel in cultures where people prefer direct guidelines and want to avoid uncertainty. When people feel anxious because of ambiguities, leaders who can provide clear guidance and direction, even in the face of change, garner high performance from their employees.

While emotional intelligence is generally vital for high performance in leadership, it is particularly important when selecting and training employees for cross-cultural assignments. The ability to understand a range of perspectives with empathy and to act in culturally appropriate ways can make or break a leaders’ success abroad.

Click here to learn about Daniel Goleman’s facilitated online courses.