People & Culture – Leading with cross-cultural Compassion

Cross-cultural compassion is a key skill for global leaders //

Globalization exposes leaders to a variety of different ethical systems. It is nearly an impossible task to deeply understand each and every culture and the attached ethical systems they are dealing with in their entirety. Conventional – and meanwhile rather outdated – approaches to understanding “doing business in” other countries focused often on interpreting the popular dimensional models of culture, such as individualism, collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, etc. Unfortunately, though helpful as a start, ad-hoc interpretations drawn based on these dimensions are vague and tend to stereotype as culture is not a static and uni-dimensional construct. Culture is an extremely complex and dynamic construct. It can be difficult to generalize about an entire culture, and generalizations often don’t help much for a specific business situation. As work and societal environments become increasingly diverse and pluralistic, the role of compassion across cultures, regarded as a meta-competency that complements knowledge derived from dimensional cultural models, can be of central importance for the development of skill sets international managers and leaders alike need in order to work effectively and efficiently across cultures.

“Cross-cultural compassion goes beyond learned behavioral norms and instead focuses on our shared humanity”

Cross-cultural compassion doesn’t necessarily relate to behavioral norms that have been learned through socialization, but essentially focusses on our shared humanity by superseding cultural peculiarities. Compassion lies at the heart of what makes us human. It involves ‘feeling for another’ and involves the desire to alleviate another’s suffering by having the desire to help or, at the very least, see what one can do to help. This can be a very honorable and effective leadership ideal. Suffering can include personal tragedies or job stressors like layoffs and injuries. In multinational corporations (MNCs) cross-cultural tensions and conflicts are regarded inevitable and represent a typical factor causing stress to a global workforce. Reciprocity plays a considerable role in cross-cultural compassion. Feeling for another, the drive and action to help someone, altruism – these are very positive qualities and intended not to be unidirectional but rather multilateral. Unidirectional compassion across cultures can hardly survive if it is used but not returned. If this is the case, someone acting in a compassionate way would soon feel exploited, be at risk of taken advantage of and regarded naïve. Hence, cross-cultural compassion should become an ideal engrained into the corporate culture and business ecosystems at large.

Corporate behavior that reflect altruism, kindness, understanding and patience are highly valued ideals today. Developing compassion skills among leaders and the workforce by sharpening our understanding of our shared humanity in relationships can solve many challenges global firms face today in the area of interpersonal conflict, relationship quality, motivation, commitment, creativity, engagement, diversity, inclusion, purpose, passion, etc. Understanding the barriers to cross-cultural compassion and developing measurements to develop cross-cultural compassion will become key skills for successful global operations. Leaders need to be among the first embracing ideals of cross-cultural compassion. Cross-cultural compassion skills can be learned and improved through training and coaching as most people are equipped with some level of compassionate feelings already, fortunately.

More here:

Jakobsen, M., Worm, V., & Horak, S. (2023). Compassion in the international business studies–prospects for future research. Critical Perspectives on International Business, in press, doi:

Horak, S.; Worm, V., & Jakobsen, M. (2023). Cross-cultural compassion. In Audra I. Mockaitis and Lena Zander (Eds.), Elgar Encyclopedia of Cross-Cultural Management, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham. Forthcoming.

Published by Sven Horak