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In Business and Politics (Usually), Cultural Sensitivity Goes a Really Long Way

Mar 10, 2016

Whether you seek to become President of the United States, interview for a job, woo customers, lead a team, or run a university, your success may depend on your level of cultural sensitivity.

Donald Trump's disparagement of Hispanic people may not affect his ability to win the presidency because he may not need their votes. Although Trump receives high negatives, he seems to have enough die-hard supporters to insulate him from the consequences of his divisive remarks.

But cultural awareness has been critical to both Democratic presidential hopefuls this year. Early on, Hillary Clinton's campaign knew it needed to be "culturally competent," according to a report by Fortune. Bernie Sanders' strong showing in Nevada with Hispanic voters was due in part not only to his mobilization efforts but also to a video he released there. The video, in Spanish, demonstrated the campaign’s keen awareness that home, family, and spending time together are important values in Latino culture.

Understanding cultures and values are important to leadership and business success, Miguel Basáñez Ebergenyi, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., told me. In his new book A World of Three Cultures: Honor, Achievement and Joy, Basáñez defines and explains the history and significance of each of the three major world cultures in the areas of economics, politics, and society. His findings are based on results from the World Values Survey and are complemented by Basáñez’s own personal experience, which includes 20 years in marketing research.

Some CEOs grasp how important it is to understand culture and values. “The first thing you have to do to succeed in another country is understand that you don’t understand that country,” Sylvain Toutant, president and CEO of Davids Tea told the Globe and Mail last month. “There is quite a culture of humanism at DavidsTea, among the employees, and it’s important for me to clearly grasp that culture. It’s really different from what I’ve known, for example, at the SAQ or at Réno-Dépôt,” he said.

There's a wide range of cultural attitudes within the U.S. Large parts of the northeast U.S. tend to be achievement-oriented, while in the South, there is an emphasis on honor, Basáñez says. This differs from the coasts in California and Florida where he says cultures of joy predominate.

When U.S. executives want to gain a board seat overseas, many recognize the challenges of cultural and language differences and adjust for them in the interview process. But when looking for a board seat in the U.S., those same executives may fail to apprehend important regional distinctions. Well-qualified northeasterners, for example, have lost board seats and CEO positions because their manners and style did not play well to boards in the Midwest or South. They lose out, not because of skills, but because of what the existing board members call “cultural fit.”

In the run up to the Iowa caucus, Ted Cruz recognized the importance of U.S. regional differences and tried to use those distinctions to his advantage by accusing Donald Trump of exhibiting “New York values.” Some say that attack back-fired.

For business people, one of the most important insights in Basáñez’s book is how each of us may be a composite of multiple cultures, made up of different values and beliefs, that we have inculcated unconsciously throughout our lives. Being aware of our own cultural influences and how they affect our motivations can make us more effective leaders and better decision makers. When I help people prepare for board service, for example, I often ask leaders to describe where their definition of success comes from and why they believe it.

Every culture has its value, Basáñez says. He told me that when he taught at Tufts University's Fletcher School, he would ask his students what was best—a knife, a fork, or a spoon? He said the students would ask, "Why are you asking us this? You cannot make a decision on this – it depends on 'related to what.'"

Basáñez says he would then tell his students the same is true for culture. You cannot choose which of the three cultures (of achievement, joy, or honor) is the best.

To appreciate the value of each kind of culture is a success in itself.

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://www.thevaluealliance.com), an independent board education and advisory firm she founded in 1999. She has been a regular contributor to Fortune since April 2010 and is the author of two books on corporate governance and valuation.

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