Inner development for intercultural competence

professional swimmer underwater after the jump in abyssWhy does inner growth matter to your international assignment?

Imagine: This is your first week of work in a new role. It is time to meet your supervisor and colleagues, who are from a culture different than yours. You’ve done your homework: diligently read about the new country, took an cultural assessment, attended a cross-cultural program, talked to others who live there, and downloaded an App with business tips on your smartphone.

You started working with your new team and, despite being sensitive and understanding that their culture is more comfortable with uncertainty, you personally are not at ease with it. Your discomfort with uncertainty triggers thoughts and feelings that negatively impact how you show up in meetings.  You feel confused.

What went wrong? Nothing went wrong. Your learning, until this point, has been just partial.

The intercultural training you’ve done to date has focused on competency development. This is called horizontal learning, which builds upon what you already know and increases technical skills. In this case, you developed functional knowledge (e.g., learned how the country’s educational and political systems work) and intercultural skills (e.g., increased awareness of different communication styles). The focus was on enriching your intercultural toolkit in order to become a more effective global executive.

What you haven’t engaged in yet is vertical learning, or learning that results in mindset transformation. Vertical learning creates sustainable change in how a person makes sense of the world (e.g., increasing her level of tolerance with uncertainty). The focus is on internal shifts that develop mental complexity and emotional intelligence. This, in turn, results in advanced leadership capacity.

Vertical learning is customized for each individual. It requires daily practice. It addresses your unique developmental needs. You might say that this is not for busy executives. Think again. In order to develop genuine empathy and behavioral flexibility towards another set of cultural values, you need to recognize and reshape deep structures within you. Rushing through the learning won’t take you there. Without committing to diving within yourself, you won’t find out what is underneath current behaviors. Leading-edge research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that vertical learning is a must for anyone interested in lasting change in areas meaningful to them.