“I help leaders to achieve greater alignment between their intentions and their actual impact,” says Karen Eisenthal. Achieving this alignment can happen in many ways: “It depends on what each person brings. It could be about changing mindsets and behaviours or about skills they need to learn, such as how to provide constructive feedback.

“Often it’s about the culture they want to create. For example, I coach leaders who want to drive innovation in their teams. Innovative cultures require psychological safety, where one can make mistakes and even fail.  If leaders haven’t fostered this type of culture, I work with them on how they can achieve that.“

The impact, breadth and depth of culture

When we consider a person’s culture we tend to think first in terms of geography, which country or region they come from. “But it’s so much more than that”, Karen says. “At the individual level our cultural influences may include our religion, gender identity, education, even the size of our family: the experience of someone who grew up with five siblings is very different from someone raised an only child.”

Each person comes with “a unique blend of cultural influences that show up later in life in our values, attitudes and beliefs and in how we attach meaning to behaviour.” This blend informs our communication style, our decision-making style, our image of what leadership is, our approach to hiring and to conflict management.

At the same time, the impact of organisational culture on an individual can be just as powerful, Karen explains. “This is often brought into focus when people change organisations, and find that others in the new environment attach different meanings to the same behaviours. A behaviour they used before, that had been successful for them, may mean something different and result in an undesirable impact.”

Cultural competence and impact

Cultural competence is one of the key skills that Karen coaches leaders in to increase their alignment between their intentions and their impact. “Cultural competence includes how we observe, understand, traverse and work with people across cultures.

“It’s not just important for international leaders”, Karen emphasises, “but for everyone, in every business and relationship.”  

Cultural competence is a skill set rooted in self-awareness, and involves developing a level of cultural knowledge which tracks with emotional intelligence, Karen says. “It requires someone to deeply understand their own and others’ cultural influences, values, beliefs, drivers, triggers and how they attach meaning to behaviours based on the cultural affiliations they have. “

Creating a psychologically safe environment

Cultural competence includes skillsets that promote diversity and create inclusive teams. “Sometimes we discover that some of our cultural affiliations have led to certain biases, and/or ways in which we have limited our understanding of the diversity of others,” says Karen.

“Typically, as leaders begin to understand how this competency directly correlates to psychologically safe environments and more comfortable, motivated employees, they want to do everything they can to increase it.”

People tend to place their own meaning on the behaviours of other people. But this is the opposite of a psychologically safe environment. Karen works with leaders to utilise a curious mindset which enables them to consider the other’s influences and potential meanings.

“A classic example of this is when an extroverted, direct leader is unconsciously biased against an introverted team member. As a fast speaker themselves, this leader expects others to communicate with them in the same way.

“They may even associate negative meanings such as a lack of expertise or enthusiasm with a slower, more methodical style. When the leader then sends signals that this style is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, it is a message to the other person that they’re not accepted as they naturally are.”

Recognising your own influences

When you recognise your impact on other people, you can align it effectively with your intention: “If you have a general awareness of your communication style it helps you to understand how you come across,” says Karen.

“In the case of the extroverted leader, they may realise that they need to slow down, listen more and ask more questions to actually have the desired impact on their more introverted team members,” she continues.

“Otherwise, when they mean to appear confident, witty and decisive, instead their actual impact may seem impulsive and inconsiderate, leaving team members to wonder if they’re acting without thinking.”

Developing cultural competence

“Increasing one’s cultural competence encompasses looking at one’s most deeply-held values and questioning where they’ve come from,” Karen explains. “Then one must understand how that is impacting on one’s current behaviours. Sometimes there’s the need to ask the very difficult question, are these behaviours still serving me?

“Beginning this kind of exploration can change a person’s life in a single session,” she says. “This is why I love my work – there is that moment when a client realises how certain misunderstandings have contributed to the leadership battles they are facing and they can see the steps to managing them.

“It is thrilling to witness the huge change that clients can bring to their teams and the whole organisational culture as they unlock these areas of development and achieve the effective impact they always wanted to have.”

Karen Eisenthal is a Senior Associate at Potential Squared. Based in North America, she has worked with us for eight years as a facilitator and coach, for clients including Akamai, Accenture, and HSBC.