Cultural Intelligence and Performance Management

Published on September 24th, 2021

In the 1990s personnel departments started transforming into human resources departments. This was not just a change of name, but a change of ideology. Organizations started to recognize that their value derived more from their people and that people were the most significant strategic resource. Now, we understand much more about organizational development and have learned that if organizations want to leverage the power of their human capital, managers must learn to manage the performance of their teams.

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Accounting for culture

In a globalized workplace and even more so in a hybrid workplace, managers must account for culture as they seek to develop the productivity of their teams. Society has become acutely conscious of injustice, inequity and discrimination. This is a legitimate concern; however, it puts additional scrutiny on managers to ensure transparent and fair performance management.  

Managers who are lacking cultural intelligence may struggle either to get the best out of their team or to implement just processes. 

Principles of performance management

Leaders must consider three key areas to performance management: 

  • Setting and measuring objectives 
  • Maintain and improve performance 
  • Holding to account: reward and discipline 

Each of these areas requires a high level of cultural intelligence to improve the effectiveness of both the team and the measures. 

Research has shown that organizations that set effective objectives and regularly review them will have greater productivity than those that don’t. However, the challenge is that we instinctively know that some people work better with more ambitious objectives and others need seemingly more easily attainable goals. It is good practice to set stretch objectives – but how much do we stretch? 

Impact of culture on managing your team’s performance

Dipping into our culture knowledge is key – understanding the cultural preferences of our team will help us understand how far we can push. Employees who tend towards risk aversion may be more motivated by objectives that seem closer; other employees with an implicit communication preference may try to read into the objectives and look for hidden meaning. Shared power cultures will look to their colleagues to help them achieve the goal whereas concentrated power cultures may want to rely on themselves.  

Similarly, how a manager motivates and inspires the team to grow their performance must be grounded in culturally intelligent behaviors. Do you communicate directly and explicitly what you need, or will a more implicit, subtle approach achieve better results? Do you need to give the bare facts, or should you present the reasoning and the detail? 

A culturally intelligent manager

A culturally intelligent manager is aware of the impact of culture and encourages intentional learning about others. They don’t rely on national or ethnic stereotypes but explores the real cultural drivers. As we learn about others, we develop culture knowledge – another element of cultural intelligence. Cultural knowledge describes the why of behavior – the values and principles that guide an individual’s default reactions.  

Unlocking why people behave in a certain way allows the manager to develop the action element of cultural intelligence, the cultural skills of: 

  • Communication 

Adapt your message for the cultural preference of your team members, without losing clarity. Performance management is a tricky balance of motivation and discipline, so you need to craft your message carefully, checking for understanding and impact. Be prepared to adapt your message for different audiences – embellishing or clarifying as needed. 

  • Authenticity 

It’s important to remember that cultural intelligence isn’t about trying to be someone else. The 1960’s rock star, Janis Joplin, when asked about her success said, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” Being yourself and true to your own cultural values is essential to maintain your wellbeing and identity, as well as being the way to manage your own performance. 

However, authenticity means being honest, transparent and open; accepting feedback and acting on it and taking responsibility for mistakes and failures as well as success. An authentic leader builds trust by default because their words and actions match up. When the team see you trying to engage everyone flexing cultural styles they will see the truth – that you value each as an individual. 

  • Respect 

Accepting difference is only a start – respect for difference is when you can start leveraging the power of cognitive diversity. An individual who knows they are respected and valued will give that discretionary effort that distinguishes an average team from a highly successful team. But remember that respect must be active and visible – too often, we respect passively. Culturally intelligent respect is using your power to amplify others, bringing others into the spotlight and allowing others to get credit.  

  • Empathy 

Empathy is the hardest cultural skill. Empathy, particularly in a performance management context must be genuine and open. As you talk about objectives, a culturally intelligent manager can understand the impact from each of their team member’s perspectives. 

Performance management is the tool that helps organizations reach their strategic goals using their most influential resource – humans. This makes it a cultural issue – humans are driven by their cultural influences and values. And with something as mission critical as performance management, a culturally intelligent approach is the most efficient way to get it right.


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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