Navigating a complex, globalised world

Vigilant global citizenship; Navigating nine minefields whilst working and living in a complex world

This briefing is from a new book in process, focusing on the tensions related to polarisation, globalisation and identity that we experience and how to navigate them


Is it true that globalisation is a good thing? Or are we all considering a move to an island to live and work with like-minded others? The world is doing better according to big data: we are more educated, healthier and wealthier on average[1]. If we did an archeological dig in 1000 years from now, our current world may seem rather homogenous – urbanisation made up of global retail brands such as Zara, McDonalds, Starbucks, and Apple phones would suggest we are becoming similar.

But for those who travel and dig deeper into the human mindset, find a key tension: people may drink Coca Cola, eat from KFC, wear jeans and t-shirts but want to express their personal identity (ex/introvert, sexuality) mixed in with their social identity (faith, politics). There are conflicting trends – we see more people expressing deeply religious values through dress (e.g., hijab) in comparison to the 1970s but equally more countries embrace same-sex marriage. Social media tells us to “be yourself” and to “pick a side”. We are asked to take perspective and realise that the ‘present’ is but a blip in history (Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow), yet we are also encouraged to live ‘truly in the present’ (Eckhart Tolle – A New Earth). All of this is good advice but if interpreted wrongly, may confuse people. Meanwhile, organisations and businesses need to cope with an increasing complex environment that demands speedy technological advancement, just-in-time delivery whilst acknowledging diversity and understanding cultural differences.

          So let’s unpack this a little further. Issues pertaining to international business, immigration, partisan politics and ethnic tensions seem to increase, rather than decrease despite our ability to travel, work in  diverse teams and learn about others via (social) media via the internet. Effective cross cultural management is the ability to handle issues between people from different backgrounds and identities, be it religious, ideological or national. In our current globalised environment, any individual with responsibility over or for others, i.e., a leader and decision maker, would do well to take heed of the cultural differences that exist. Moreover, an important ability is taking perspective and be aware of context: we are never neutral, and all that we perceive is through a filter coloured by our cultural background. Effective communication is not about simply being aware of using the polite form of ‘you’ in certain languages but about being highly critical of what is deemed universal when in fact it is a subjective norm in your community.

It is crucial to be aware that believing strongly that something should be universal (peace, human rights, democracy), doesn’t mean that it is. More problematically, if you think that it should be and therefore tell those who are not of that conviction (yet), this may not be welcomed. The debate of cultural rights vs. human rights also affects management as issues related to the respect of an individual’s culture (e.g., religion, sexuality, gender) within the workplace are a challenge for any organisation. We know that cross cultural issues are viewed as important.  However, it is also often ignored by people in leadership roles because the benefits of engaging in very difficult dialogue can be difficult to translate into a hard cost-benefit analysis and it goes against the general idea that we live in a global village, where modern people think similarly and where there is no need for understanding cultural differences.

We contain multitudes (Whitman, 1891-1892) and a person may be viewed like a murmuration of starlings, with internal aspects of our identity flying in sequence often, but not always, as opposed to a self that has a stable, unchanging seed or pit.  The environment to which one pledges one’s belonging or, more formally, allegiance, span a spectrum from perceiving it as a community that aims to relinquish foci on nation, race and ethnicity on grounds that it hinders humanitarian progression to a vote for Brexit, a wall or a dictator as an act of national sovereignty, taking back control and celebrating “flag, faith and country”. We need to find what occupies the space in between these polar opposites if we want to reach a point of understanding that is beyond ‘tolerance’.

Apart from taking perspective, it is also important to be able to think about solutions at different levels. For instance, if a goverment makes a legislative decision, an organisation needs to decide what to do strategically and how this will impact the individual. Together with colleagues from 17 nations, we discovered that if a country is going through uncertain times and it’s hard to plan ahead, organisations may do well to provide a bit of a buffer so that employees are not stressing out about this uncertainty and can devote cognitive efforts on collaboration (helping) and coming up with bright ideas (voice). The scientific evidence for this is available for free here.

Should you think that multi-level, cross cultural awareness is a skill paramount for the functioning of modern society, read on. The core features of the ideal training and development for anyone functioning in an international environment is a multidisciplinary approach (connecting the dots), experiential learning soft skill development (e.g., interpersonal skills), a global perspective, and the incorporation of ethics[2]. For example, the Financial Times features cross cultural management as a core aspect of leadership and management development in their FT.com Business School section. In this short book, I summarise my research as an expert in Cross Cultural Management and Psychology. The report was developed with the aim to inform decision makers in businesses and organisations, who work in an international context.

I have over ten years of experience in teaching and researching cross cultural management and psychology. Based on this experience, the overall conclusion (so far) I’ve drawn is that:

a) Taking perspective involves the skill to stop, pause and listen without making assumptions about the other person who may look Japanese, but will have studied in America, married a Peruvian and worked four years in Germany.

b) Shelve any convictions of your own neutrality or superiority (‘surely everyone wants democracy/360 degree feedback/performance appraisals/freedom of speech’). Even if you believe with all your heart in an ‘ism’, ‘ology’ or ‘theory’, the other may not.

c) the path to agreement, collaboration and compassion is hard work. To tolerate, I’d like to reason, stops at true understanding. If I say ‘I tolerate you’ then this indicates a power imbalance.

In order to achieve the above together as a team or as part of citizenship, I advocate ‘Evidence Based Management[3]’, which is essentially the idea that people should manage by gaining some evidence to back up their decisions. Sometimes, this evidence starts with a ‘hunch’ and that kickstarts further exploration through in-house investigation asking colleagues, then using a consultant or exploring (academic) literature to see what else has been published on the subject. The ideal scenario for any organisation or leader is to be able to come up with their own bespoke solutions rather than copying what others do (based on a fad or trend) or risking that the consultant employed copies an off-the-shelf solution that isn’t tailored to the particular challenge. It matters because in this complex, globalised world, it is most certainly good practice to learn from others and expand one’s horizons, but at the same time, ethical security breaches and financial crises show that to maintain some kind of control (“if you can’t explain it yourself, then why are you endorsing it?”). For this reason, the advice and tools provided to you in this text are for you to try and tailor to your needs.



[1] https://www.gapminder.org/videos/200-years-that-changed-the-world-bbc/ [2] https://web.archive.org/web/20070805020515/http://www.martijn.org/page.php?id=200000 [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vereniging_Martijn

{2} Navarro, P. (2008) The MBA Core Curricula of Top-Ranked U.S. Business Schools: A Study in Failure? Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 7, No. 1, 108–123.

[3} https://www.cebma.org/  find the equivalent in your country