3 traps for leaders to avoid and get things done in an international business environment

Effective leadership in today’s hyper-connected world of business requires not only high level of emotional intelligence (EI) but also cultural intelligence (CI). To successfully lead in today’s world leaders must not only understand how people from his or her own culture experience others – but also how others perceive one another.1

This article presents three areas that are at the core of leadership, but often become the place of pitfalls for those who work in and lead intercultural teams to fall into. Read on to learn what they are and how to avoid them, to ultimately become more successful at navigating the multicultural business environment.



There are two distinguished types of trust: cognitive type of trust – often built when working together, based on reliability; and affective type of trust – the one built in friendship, when we share more openly and are empathetic towards each other.

Some, so called more task-based-trust type cultures value the separation between the affective and cognitive type of trust– for the affective trust not to cloud the way they do business. These are the more ‘business is business’ type of cultures, characteristic for an example for people in the US or the Netherlands. Whilst others – like in Brazil or Poland – stand more by ‘business is personal’ type of belief, leaning towards the relationship-based -trust type.

The implications of that are quite far reaching when working with or for people having distinctly different ways of building trust. It is extremely easy to jeopardize any working relationship by not recognizing these differences.


How to avoid the pitfalls in building TRUST?


  • It is advisable to always invest extra time in developing a relationship based approach to establishing trust: think of things in common with your counterparts, share something about yourself, invest time and effort in business lunch or dinner invitations – these may not be a nice to have addition but often are the key to a successful cooperation.
  • Be mindful of what communication channel you choose: Go for the most effective one when interacting with representatives of task-based cultures, and defer to more personable connection (phone over email, and if only possible: face to face meeting) with people from relationship-based cultures.
  • Pay attention to the time spent on social talk before jumping into business topics – especially when working with people from relationship-based trust cultures. When unsure – follow your counterpart lead.



The cultural context of what does it mean to be a good leader is often an area of pitfalls. There are differences between cultures that represent a more hierarchical leading style (like Polish, German or many of the Asian cultures) relative to cultures with much more egalitarian or flat approach to leading (like the Dutch or the Swedish).

Egalitarian cultures are characterized by short distance between the boss and the subordinates and therefore a good boss is the one who acts as a facilitator among equals; communication often skips hierarchical lines and respect is gained by transparency and consultation in decision making, empowering team members.

In hierarchical cultures in turn, the distance between the boss and subordinate is longer: a good boss leads from the front; status is important; communication flows along hierarchical reporting lines;  respect is gained by managers knowing the answers and making decisions.


How to avoid the pitfalls in LEADING?


  • If unsure, it is always better to follow a more hierarchical communication: Be mindful what type of power messages you or your management are sending.
  • When leading mixed teams of people from both types of leading style: Be transparent about your own preference and establish clear ways of engagement, a team protocol.
  • When managing people from more hierarchical backgrounds than yours: Be mindful that asking for advice may cost you due respect. When working with more egalitarian team members, manage by shared objective setting and adopt less formal style.



Another area where leaders often fall into traps is the art of persuasion. Whether you are trying to convince the team, align behind a common goal, negotiate budget or pitch a new idea – cultural context is key.

People of different cultural backgrounds differ in their preference towards so called principles first or application first reasoning.  The group of principles first reasoning see facts and draw conclusions from general concepts or principles. Whilst application first reasoning proponents draw general conclusions based on a pattern of observations.

The  implications of it go far.   Often for those accustomed to application first style of reasoning, lengthy introduction before the conclusion is made, leads to confusion.  Whereas the principle first culture representatives may feel suspicious of not being given the full picture when a recommendation is made without enough context (or methodology). That is also why people from principles first cultures often want to first understand the’ why?’ behind the boss’s request before acting, whilst application first inclined team members focus less on ‘why?’ and more on the ‘how?’.

This is worth considering when trying to convince your stakeholders, especially if they represent a culture closer to the opposite end of the spectrum to your own, but also in how you coach and assess your team members.


How to avoid the pitfalls in PERSUADING?


  • With mixed audiences it is best to move between practical examples and answering theoretical questions.
  • Do not cut short what seems like a lengthy and unrelated introduction – wait for the point to be made, especially when listening to presenters from more principle first cultures.
  • To successfully convince application first thinkers – show practical examples or conclusions first!


Culture, seen as specific to a particular group of people ways of doing things (such as social behaviors, customs, laws) and defining meaning (norms, believes, arts) – is something that we learn. And as such, it can be taught .  This premise for the (inter)cultural competency becomes more important than ever when we think about effective intercultural business leadership. Developing the intercultural intelligence is a must as the rising trend of cultural diversity is the reality of many.


Magdalena Szumna

MIC Alumni


1  ‘The Culture Map’ by E. Meyer https://www.erinmeyer.com/