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How to improve your cultural agility in the workplace

By Suzanna Tan,  Executive Coach – Helping leaders to strengthen their cultural agility. 

Working virtually has become the norm, enabling us to be even more connected to a diverse network of people.  With worldwide colleagues, customers, suppliers and partners, a topic often arising in our work is helping leaders and organisations work more effectively across cultures.  What we refer to as improving cultural agility.

I’ve worked with people from a multitude of different organisations across over 55 countries and there is no one size solution that works for everyone, because preferences and circumstances are invariably different.  I recently worked with a client who had been in Asia for three years. During coaching, a key area of frustration surfaced.  Contrary to what she was used to experiencing in the German workplace, she had not developed any trusted working relationships in Asia, which she felt impacted her performance. Using Erin Meyer’s Country Mapping Tool as a framework, we found two particular areas particularly resonated with her: trusting and disagreeing.  We mapped her preferences of working in these dimensions against how people from the country she was now working in preferred to work, and there were stark differences.  Then by relating back to past difficult situations, we were able to see why tensions had arisen and she was able to formulate a plan of actions to try out.  A key insight for her was to be mindful of her own preferences in relation to others, and to adapt her approach accordingly.

Awareness of cultural differences can have a positive impact on your leadership approach which can enable you to successfully navigate the multi-cultural society you work in.  Whether you want to motivate your teams, minimise misunderstandings, generate new business or simply want to delight your customers, being culturally agile is essential to succeed in the global business world and here are three pointers to help:

  1. Get clear on your own personal preferences.

Our cultural upbringing influences our own personal preferences.  This is further compounded when we have bi-cultural or multi-cultural influences from parents, growing up or working in different countries.  Understanding your own preferences in how you prefer to work, can help you understand how you react or work in different circumstances.

What are your natural preferences when working with others? 

  • Profiling tools, such as Spotlight or DISC, will provide self-awareness so you can be more conscious of how to adapt your approach when working with others.
  • For those looking at the impact of their own cultural mix or if you work with cross-cultural mobility and transitions, Third Culture Kids, by Pollock, Van Reken and Pollock, is an insightful read.


  1. Get curious on how people from different cultures prefer to operate.

We can’t always be together in-person with the people we work with, and travelling to a country to do business is no longer as frequent as once was. Being aware of those invisible boundaries that may separate us when working across cultures is crucial.

What are their preferred styles of working?

  • I highly recommend Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map, as it is a practical guide that explains how people from different countries prefer to operate.It’s particularly useful as she highlights eight dimensions we use at work: communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling.  Through appreciating the relativity between how people from different countries may operate, you increase your awareness of why things may or may not happen as expected.


  1. Respect each other’s preferences and reconcile differences to focus on the goal.

We all have unconscious and conscious biases, and that’s OK as long as we respect each other’s differences and are careful in how we behave and of our expectations of others.  You may not agree with other people’s views or actions, but having the courage to speak out in a considered and sensitive way will help everyone.

How can you either adapt your approach or work together to find a better way forward?

  • Find the common strengths in the cultural differences that will work best for the situation or task that is required.
  • Together, use open dialogue and honesty to agree and be clear on what’s expected to avoid misunderstandings. Be honest and open, it’s ok to make mistakes. Sometimes this may take longer and more effort, but as you learn to compromise together and adopt the best from each other’s preferences, you can enhance the way you work with each other.

To find out more about how we can help you develop cultural agility or foster cultural acumen in your organisation, please get in touch with us 


DISC Team Evaluation

Meyer, E. (2015). The culture map: decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures. PublicAffairs.

‌Pollock, D.C., E, R. and Pollock, M.V. (2017). Third culture kids: growing up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

‌ SpotlightPROFILE,

The Country Mapping Tool, Erin Meyer,