Management Development ForumVol. 1 - No. 2 (98)
Psychological Readiness for Multicultural Leadership
Kecia M. Thomas
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Kecia M. Thomas

The approaching century offers those concerned with leadership development many new opportunities and challenges, many of which will stem from the increasing frequency of intercultural contact. The rise in mutlinationalism among corporations indicates that not only are leaders required to be proficient at managing diverse workers at home but they must also be adept at leading workers whose culture may be foreign to them. Current models of leadership development should be integrated with efforts to prepare for diversity. Specifically, all forms of leadership development should include some component of cross-cultural training and diversity training, as well as psychological preparation in the form of self-assessment of psychological privilege, the significance of one's ethnic identity, and inherent ethnocentrism. All three psychological competencies are proposed as critical components to becoming psychologically ready to lead in multicultural settings.


Changing workforce demographics, growing multinationalism in business, and the ease of international travel mandate that leaders have the ability to develop and successfully maintain intercultural relationships. Current leadership development programs have been supplemented with separate cross-cultural (CCT) and diversity training (DT) workshops in order to prepare leaders for intercultural relations. The rates of success for this additional training, however, have been limited at best.

The social sciences, especially the field of psychology, may offer promise for improving intercultural interactions over and above the limited effects of CCT and DT. Specifically, the exploration of identity may help prepare individuals psychologically for diversity-related training and subsequent intercultural interactions through the elimination of ethnocentrism and the development of allocentrism. Both CCT and DT emphasize the acquisition of knowledge and development of skills for dealing with "different" others. In both cases it is the "other" race or "other" culture that becomes identified, examined, acknowledged, and most likely further marginalized. In some cases trainees are given no opportunity to identify, examine, and acknowledge their own culture, race, etc. Nor are they asked to examine the influence of their identity on their own behaviors, their relationships, and their own expectations of themselves and others.

Recent trends in the diversity and cross-cultural psychology literature suggest a psychological component involved in successfully leading and working across cultures (Garcia, 1995; Thomas, 1996). For example, Graen and Wakabayashi (1994) suggest that the goal for leadership development in the 21st century should focus on the development of cross-cultural leadership in order to develop a new generation of bicultural professionals. Garcia (1995) promotes the development of multicultural competence as a key to successful intercultural interactions. Smith and Bond (1994) argue that CCT should help trainees to develop a metacultural awareness; that is, that trainees be able to transcend their own culture and its constraints in order to avoid imposing it upon others. Thomas (1996) suggests that both CCT and DT address the roles of home country privilege and resulting ethnocentrism as barriers to positive intercultural interactions. Further, she argues that in order for any type of diversity training to be effective, trainees must develop mature ethnic identities so that ethnocentrism can be eliminated and an allocentric (or bi-/multicultural) consciousness can result.

All of these recommendations are based upon the importance of self-awareness and psychological readiness in order to become a multicultural leader. These suggestions are built upon the premise that self-assessment is a critical component of being able to value differences and build upon them. Therefore, members of the majority or dominant group (within their workplace) are encouraged to examine the role of their identity on their work and non-work lives. For example, a white male manager receiving training to become a multicultural leader would learn about other cultures or races—their norms, values, and behaviors, etc. However, that manager would also assess his own identity in terms of nationality, culture, gender, etc., and the role of his identity on his life. For example, this exploration could include consideration of questions including: What does it mean to be an American, and how has this facilitated/hindered my career development within the U.S.? How has my American identity impacted my career at home and will this identity affect me differently when working abroad?

The development of multicultural leaders rests upon integrating traditional leadership development efforts with other skill based training programs such as CCT and DT. Furthermore, multicultural leaders are those who are cognizant of their own culture and the limitations it may place upon their ability to interact with others who are somehow different from themselves. Rather than imposing their culture upon others and allowing it to shape their expectations and attributions of others, multicultural leaders assess their own culture and that of others without judgment. These leaders then try to develop expectations, make attributions, and engage in relationships with others in a way that is comfortable and fair for all involved.

Changing Demographics and Mindsets

One of the greatest reasons to focus on leadership development for the multicultural 21st century is the changing role of leaders in the changing world of work. As the American economy becomes more focused on information and service, successful one-on-one interactions will continue to be a crucial component of individual and organizational effectiveness.

Numerous reports suggest that those interactions will likely take place between individuals who differ—on the basis of gender, race, and/or nationality (e.g., Cox, 1993). In addition, American businesses are moving toward a team orientation, rather than a reward structure that reinforces interpersonal competition and individual achievement. Again, with the increasing diversity of the labor force, work teams are likely to be diverse.

Brislin (1990) suggests that one prediction that can be made about the future with a high degree of certainty is that there will be extensive contact among people from different cultural backgrounds. He suggests this increased frequency of intercultural contact will be caused by factors such as increased international travel, decolonization, and the elimination of physical and psychological barriers that separate ethnic and religious communities internationally as well as domestically. Specifically, experts have pointed to increasing intercultural contact as a result of multinationalism in business, leisure travel abroad, and advancing technology that makes it easier to communicate across national borders.

Not only is cross-cultural contact likely to develop between countries, it is likely to increase within individual countries as well. Countries such as the U.S. are reported to be growing in diversity, given the increasing rates of immigration, as well as the escalating birth rates within some minority communities and the declining birth rates within the white community.

Growing rates of within-country diversity are not the only reason for the projected increase in intercultural contact at home. Both Cox (1993) and Brislin (1990) have suggested that immigrants, refugees, and racial minorities are less willing than they have been in the past to accept a "melting pot" ideology, perhaps because of their growing numbers. These groups are becoming more vocal in demanding that schools, employers, and governments respect their cultural heritage and identities. This change in ideology also reflects differences in how society has approached ethnicity. Often in the past an assimilationist view of ethnicity predominated in which it was assumed that racial minorities would embrace and accept the mainstream culture and reject their own. Today, more people are beginning to adopt a pluralist view that suggests that ethnicity is an internal attribute that predisposes, but does not make compulsory the display of ethnic identification in interaction. Hence, previous intercultural contact may not have resulted in much discomfort on the part of the majority group member because minority groups felt pressure to assimilate and not stand out. Perhaps then intercultural contacts were less salient and less noticeable.

However today similar intercultural interactions may produce anxiety in the majority group member who is not comfortable interacting with someone culturally or racially different who also feels comfortable with their identity and who chooses to assert it rather than to assimilate. Changing cultural expectations may then increase the salience of interacting with someone who is culturally different. In addition, changes in the nature of intercultural contact may motivate majority group members to acknowledge that they too have race, gender, and other distinguishing characteristics, and that the "other" minority group member is not solely responsible for facilitating interactions between members of majority and minority groups.

Traditional Approaches to Developing Traditional Leaders

Leadership development, and research on leadership, has focused on understanding leader traits, the effectiveness of transactional versus transformational leaders, the importance of charisma in leadership, as well as the contingent nature of leadership. Clearly, unresolved issues within these streams of research should continue to be explored. Yet, despite the importance of these questions, other pressing issues are emerging. Perhaps largest among them is how the increasing frequency of intercultural contact will influence the effectiveness of leadership development efforts.

Traditionally, leadership development efforts have focused on preparing the leader to carry out the business strategy of the organization. Skill-based training has been the standard. Leadership development programs often focus on skill acquisition in areas such as communication, time management, task delegation, and interpersonal skills. In many cases no significant amount of attention has been afforded to the transfer of these skills to multicultural work settings nor the role of culture on the importance assigned to these skills. For example, task delegation may be an important skill for leaders working with employees from cultures or backgrounds in which members have a high need for community and interdependence. On the other hand, leaders who routinely delegate tasks and share in decision making may be viewed as weak or indecisive when working within a culture that values independence and autonomy. Many traditional leadership development programs have not typically addressed the fact that differences between groups exist and that these distinctions impact leaders’ work and individual effectiveness.

Now that organizations are beginning to realize that the successful utilization of diversity can be an important asset to achieving business goals, efforts to develop successful managers must also take this into account. Training programs to prepare managers and leaders for organizational diversity have been separate from more mainstream leadership development programs. This training has also been skill-based and has focused on two types of diversity: international and domestic.

Current Tools for Preparing Traditional Leaders for Diverse Workforces

Cross-cultural Training

Cross-cultural training (CCT), also known as intercultural training, has been the vehicle used by some organizations to prepare managers for both short and long term international assignments. Often, CCT is not made available to leaders going abroad. The rationale to support this decision is that leaders chosen to go abroad have already proven themselves through their performance and, therefore, no special training is warranted. This ethnocentric assumption is based upon the belief that those who perform well at home will perform likewise elsewhere (Copeland and Griggs, 1985). When CCT is offered to expatriate leaders, typically the focus is on the acquisition of the new culture's language, as well as knowledge of its history, customs, and traditions.

Diversity Training

Surprisingly, diversity efforts in organizations have a long history. There have been three dominant trends and each has built upon the previous one. This legacy began with legislative efforts to bring about equal opportunity. Among these efforts are Truman's 1948 Executive Order concerning integration in the military, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. A national policy of affirmative action can also be considered part of this legislative history of attending to diversity.

The second trend in organizational efforts to embrace diversity is the "valuing
diversity" movement. Training has been critical in this trend, and the goal has been to uncover differences and build appreciation of them. The current trend, managing diversity, is to approach diversity as an organizational-level initiative. Human resource systems are examined as potential hindrances to diversity and redesigned to reflect an organization's commitment to it.

Diversity training is difficult to differentiate from CCT since both focus on skill acquisition. CCT often centers on improving communication skills through language training, and on improving the accuracy of causal attributions concerning natives of the host culture, as well as the customs, history, and traditions of the host culture. Diversity training often focuses exclusively on domestic diversity. That is, the focal point of training efforts is not across geographic boundaries but rather within them. For American companies undertaking DT, too often the focus is only on demographic attributes like race, gender, age, and in more liberal work environments, sexual orientation. Diversity training is also often a part of a larger organizational change intervention that affects all employees, whereas CCT may be used solely for managerial development.

Both CCT and DT provide trainees with information about people different from themselves and with the skills to communicate with those individuals. Despite these training efforts, problems persist for leaders facing diversity. For example, a large percentage of expatriates return home early, even when provided with CCT. Estimates suggest these early returns cost American businesses and taxpayers two billion dollars per year (Copeland and Griggs, 1985).

Diversity training has also been imperfect. Programs adopting a "social justice" orientation are often approached with fear and suspicion on the parts of trainees. It can be argued that this training may actually result in alienating trainees from one another by pointing out differences rather than making the trainees more cohesive. Others suggest that diversity training and focusing on employee differences may promote a "backlash" effect.

Despite the acquisition of the skills offered during CCT and DT, expatriate turnover and backlash effects of DT may persist if trainees are left psychologically unprepared to lead and work with those who are different from themselves in race, gender, or culture. Perhaps one problem with both types of training has been too much attention on developing skills. Despite skill acquisition, leaders are still experiencing problems with diversity at home and abroad. Clearly, trainees are well armed with knowledge about differences and the significance of those differences in interpersonal interactions. Yet, there still appears to be a barrier to effective intercultural interactions. Modern efforts to develop leaders must train emerging leaders to recognize cultural differences and their implications, and these programs must also prepare leaders psychologically to appreciate cultural idiosyncrasies that are different from their own rather than to try to erase or manipulate these differences. Multicultural leaders understand their own culture and the role it plays in both their personal and professional lives. They therefore understand the significance of culture when working with members of groups other than their own.

Psychological Readiness

In order to become a multicultural leader, self-assessment of one's psychological privileges, culture, and ethnicity is required. Individuals must come to recognize the psychological privileges that exist for them and how the lack of these privileges may impact others who are different from themselves. Multicultural leaders, therefore, have also given thought to their identity, especially their ethnicity. They are interested in their own culture and those of others. Lastly, multicultural leaders are allocentric rather than ethnocentric in the attributions they make about employees who are different from themselves.

Recognizing Privilege

The recognition of psychological privilege is a key step in becoming a multicultural leader. Psychological privileges are not physical, tangible assets like money, nor do they accrue with education. They are often bestowed upon members of the norm, and these privileges provide invisible and ignored hidden advantages, especially within the world of work. Within the American cultural context, being middle class, white, and of a heterosexual orientation all provide privileges. Psychological privileges are those things that majority group members (within a given setting) often take for granted but which free them to get on with the task at hand rather than focus on their identity in relationship to the identities of others.

For example, within the United States having English as their first language allows natives to spend relatively little time worrying about making business presentations to other U.S. natives. The ability to speak English permits the native to not have to worry about or consider language skills when making presentations or speaking informally in the workplace. However, employees for whom English is not their first language may spend considerable time giving thought to their English grammar and vocabulary prior to speaking with co-workers, formally as well as informally. Likewise, men may not spend much time thinking about how to best communicate and relate to another employee when making a business proposal; women, however, may often spend much time and energy considering how to engage in effective cross-gender communication, especially in male-dominated settings or industries. Therefore, the ability to not have to consider one's language or gender within the workplace are examples of privileges that mentally free the privileged to spend more time and effort focused on their job rather than their identity.

Once people have recognized the privileges they possess, McIntosh (1993) says they become newly accountable. They are no longer able to take for granted the privileges that exist for them, nor ignore the disadvantages that the lack of privilege presents for those within the work setting who are not of the majority group. This examination of privilege leads to the consideration of one's identity, especially ethnic identity, which is the second step in becoming psychologically ready for diversity training and intercultural success.

Ethnic Identity Achievement/Bicultural Competence

The recognition of privilege leads one to further consider the significance of race, culture, gender, etc. Rather than merely accepting external definitions of who they are and what it means to be a member of their group, leaders who have achieved a high level of ethnic identity decide for themselves how they will be defined. They further recognize that there may not be simply one way of being white or black, but that there are plenty of individual differences within groups as well as between them. Multicultural leaders are, in a way, bicultural or multicultural. They are able to exist within their culture or race, appreciate it, and be committed to it, as well as being equally appreciative and committed to the races and cultures of others.

Progression toward higher levels of ethnic identity occurs once an "encounter" has been experienced. For racial minorities, these encounters usually involve an experience with racism and discrimination. For whites, encounters typically involve being confronted with a racial moral dilemma where they are forced to choose between their racial group and humanity overall. In these racial moral dilemmas, people are often forced to acknowledge and confront the privileges they may have derived from their majority group status. The ethnic identity literature clearly and repeatedly finds that members of minority groups are usually higher in ethnic identity levels than are members of majority groups. Majority group members may hide various aspects of their identity, while minority group member must consider their identity daily.

Promoting ethnic identity maturation within the workplace is not an easy task. However, there are some conditions that may help to inspire this transformation. Kirkland and Regan (1997) suggest that organizations engaging in CCT and DT must allow employees and consultants opportunities to identify issues and concerns about the ways in which the company perceives and deals with racial diversity issues within its work environment, hiring practices, reward structure, and performance evaluations. These issues should be discussed in an emotionally safe and supportive environment in which all voices can be heard.

They also suggest that when providing CCT or DT, assessments of the climate for diversity and individual ethnic identity levels should precede training. Afterwards, small groups of varying ethnic identity levels can then be assembled. Interactions with those higher in ethnic identity then become "encounters" for people at lower stages of ethnic identity maturation. These groups should engage in experiential techniques that help group members acknowledge the significance of their identity for themselves, as well as for how it affects how others relate to them. For example, one activity may be to have members of these diverse small groups draw timelines of their lives and mark events and incidents in which race was made salient, and then discuss these events. An alternative exercise is to conduct "racial role reversals" in order for group members to see how their identity is perceived and how it affects the behavior of others (Kirkland and Regan, 1997).

Allocentrism Rather than Ethnocentrism

Developing a bicultural or multicultural identity leads the multicultural leader to make allocentric attributions of others rather than be ethnocentric. Ethnocentric leaders are unable to step outside of their own cultural frame of reference. Rather than attempt to understand the pervasive influence of culture or race, they may harshly judge people from other cultures whose language, ideals, opinions, and customs may not fit with their own. Ethnocentric leaders are rigid in their acceptance of people like them and equally rigid in their rejection of anyone or anything that is different. Allocentric leaders, on the other hand, understand that differences exist, appreciate them, and then try to make causal attributions about someone that fit within that person's cultural norms and values. Allocentric leaders are able to take a variety of ethnic perspectives without attaching a value judgment to them. The allocentric leader's goal is to capitalize on the unique insights a person's culture may provide in a variety of work situations. Mere knowledge of differences does not eliminate ethnocentrism; in some cases, knowledge of differences may actually reinforce ethnocentrism. Therefore, again self-reflection on one's culture and the significance of it, privilege, and ethnic group membership are mandatory for ethnocentrism to be replaced by allocentrism.

This paper argues for an integrated model of leadership development. Methods for developing effective leadership must keep pace with changes in the workforce. This paper proposed that leadership development programs incorporate efforts to develop multicultural awareness in all leaders, given the increasing frequency of intercultural contact at home and abroad. Crucial in the development of the multicultural leader is an appreciation of self. Self-awareness, in terms of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, etc., may predispose the leader to effectively engage in productive, non-threatening, and healthy work and non-work relationships in the 21st century.


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Kecia M. Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology and African-American studies at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include multicultural leadership, recruitment, and the selection and training of expatriates. She received her BA degree from Bucknell University, and MS and PhD degrees in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Pennsylvania State University.

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