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Ideas Made to Matter
How multicultural experience makes more effective leaders
New research from MIT Sloan assistant professorshows that multicultural experiences can make individuals better communicators and more effective leaders, particularly when overseeing multinational teams.
In their paper, published July 22 in Organization Science, Lu and co-authors Roderick Swaab and Adam Galinsky, explain that living and working in different countries exposes a person to different customs, norms, values, and communication styles. The person must learn to navigate the nuances of each culture, as well as listen to and connect with the people living there.
Those experiences result in a skill set that makes someone “more likely to adapt and frame their communication in a language that a contact can understand,” the researchers write. “They may also display more respect, patience, and sensitivity to others’ feelings and needs, and employ situationally appropriate words, vocal tones, body gestures, and facial expressions.”
It’s that communication competence — “the ability to listen to others and express oneself competently” — that’s at the heart of leadership effectiveness, particularly when a team is more multinational, the researchers write. They define leadership effectiveness as a “leader’s ability to influence and guide others toward shared goals.” This means better team performance and higher evaluation of the leader by team members.
“The flip side of inclusion is exposure, and those with more exposure acquire a greater competence for working across differences,” saidMIT Sloan professor of organization studies, and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. Lu and his co-authors reference Reagans’ 2003 paper Network Structure and Knowledge Transfer: The Effects of Cohesion and Range in their research.
“[Those with more exposure] do a better job of figuring out what’s in it for other people, and part of figuring out what’s in it for other people is figuring out how to express an idea in a framework they are more likely to understand and appreciate,” Reagans said.
To test their theory on multicultural experience, communication, and leadership, the researchers conducted four studies. One of them involved a COVID-19 hackathon, where roughly 750 participants from 57 countries were randomly grouped into teams and tasked with producing policy proposals on one of four topics: public health, firms and workers, trade and immigration, and financial policy.
Each team had a randomly assigned team leader, and the leaders with broader multicultural experiences (based on a pre-hackathon survey) were rated as more effective by their teammates compared to team leaders with less multicultural experience. Those teams also produced higher scoring policy proposals, partly because of their leaders’ higher communication competence, the researchers write. Leaders with broader multicultural experiences were especially effective when leading hackathon teams that were more multinational.
The other studies included:
- A field survey of about 120 corporate managers at an Australian construction/engineering company. Managers with broader multicultural experiences were rated as more effective leaders by randomly-selected colleagues.
- A 25-season archival study of the English Premier League. A team manager’s breadth of multicultural experiences (how many countries they worked in), not depth (length of time spent in a particular country), predicted team performance. On average, for every foreign country a manager had worked in, their soccer team scored an additional 3.42 points (or won an extra 1.14 games).
- A second digital health hackathon. The teams led by individuals with broader multicultural experiences (based on a pre-hackathon survey) were more likely to make it to the final stage of the competition.
“Our studies demonstrate that multicultural experiences can benefit not only individuals themselves, but also the teams they lead — especially teams that are more multinational,” the researchers write.
What does this mean for companies and their leaders today? The researchers write that communication competence — and leadership effectiveness — can be nurtured through developmental challenges and diverse experiences.
They recommend organizations:
- Ensure that expatriates are exposed to a broad set of experiences, such as global rotations programs.
- Consider exposing their employees to a range of foreign postings rather than one lengthy foreign posting.
The researchers also recommend individuals pursue multinational educational programs (e.g., global MBA) that allow them to engage with different cultures, advice echoed by leadership at MIT Sloan Global Programs.
“It is great to see Professor Lu’s research confirming that multicultural experience is a vital part of creating leaders,” said Stuart Krusell, a senior director and senior lecturer with the initiative. “At MIT Sloan Global Programs, we have witnessed this in the classroom and with our global partners. Opportunities to observe, learn, engage, and communicate are essential to building the individual and team connections needed to innovate sustainable solutions and improve the world.”
And while multicultural experiences are valuable for leaders, companies need to consider that investing in those experiences can be expensive — or in the case of the pandemic lockdown, logistically difficult.
Lu suggested companies leverage their existing resources, such as promoting intercultural friendships among employees and encouraging employees to attend multicultural meetups outside of work.