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Leadership Skills in Multicultural Environments

business english conversational skills engineering myth buster office communication podcast Jul 11, 2022

Do you want to be right, or do you want a relationship? Today, my dear engineers, we’re talking about leadership skills in technical environments because, unfortunately, even math, science, and logic won’t save you from relationships.


Leadership is a broad term according to communication expert Catherine Stagg-Macey. Whether or not you’re a CEO or project manager, leadership skills are essential to working well in diverse environments. When you can navigate difficult interactions effectively, you’re being a leader.


She would know. Catherine is a leadership consultant for tech companies, helping groups learn how to communicate in high-stress, multicultural environments so they can effectively work on projects together. 


So, what makes the difference between a project that goes well and a project that flops? Relationships! Here’s how to navigate this in any language.


Logic isn’t always the answer

If you learn one thing from this article, I hope it is: just because you think you’re right doesn’t mean it is right. 


You became an engineer partly because you like to have the answers. You love predictability and math and science gives you that. Relationships, on the other hand, are a blurry area. They’re not binary. Being kind to one another, understanding perspectives, and listening for nuance aren’t black and white skills. They’re something that can be constantly improved upon, and you’ll never 'be there.'


You don’t have to be an engineer to like predictability. Relationships are difficult. It would be a lot easier if you could know exactly how someone is going to show up today, tomorrow, and all the days after that. You can get a sense of someone today, but who’s to say something won’t change tomorrow.


The first step to not getting frustrated, is to put that logical brain to the side for a moment.


Your reactions have an impact

Don’t give up hope on having no control whatsoever, though. Your behaviour affects others for better or for worse. 


When we work in groups, we’re not working with individuals. We’re working with individuals that are affected by one another. How you react to something will affect how your coworker talks to you or works on the project. 


This can be difficult to visualise, but it can be done. Here’s what Catherine likes to do with teams to help them see the interconnection of everyone’s reaction. 


Everyone takes a piece of string and holds onto the other person’s string in their free hand. What happens when you pull the string? The other person reacts. Then you join all the strings of the room together. Everyone’s holding on to multiple strings and they can’t tell who’s pushing and who’s pulling.


It’s a mess but you can see the dynamic. Now you try to have a conversation with the string. If one person pulls and the other person doesn’t, you feel tension. If you let loose when someone pulls, the tension dissipates. You learn just how much is going on under the surface through this activity.


6 steps to becoming an empathy (relationship) expert

So how do you clean up this string of confusion? Through empathy. In other words, getting a sense of what it’s like in someone else’s world. You can’t calculate the outcome of empathy, but it is a skill you can learn – just like calculus. Here are some tips from Catherine to practice this essential skill.



  • Know why you want to learn.

It’s impossible to learn a skill if you think it’s useless. So, before you try anything, remember your why. Empathy can help you have better relationships with challenging colleagues. Empathy can help you accomplish more and tackle projects you couldn’t do alone. Keep this in mind when working with a challenging team member.



  • Don’t expect it to come naturally.

I know your head is already spinning. Empathy won’t come naturally at first, and many of these interactions will feel unnatural. That’s perfectly normal. Even if you mess up these steps, focus on this: How do I learn what it’s like in your world? That’s the most important consideration.



  • Set an intention.

Tell yourself, “I’m going to be helpful today.” You’ll be amazed at what shifts. Even in frustrating situations, focusing on what you can do won’t only shift your perspective, but you’ll likely notice the dynamic of the entire group changes.



  • Focus on the positive

This point could be an entire blog of its own. According to John Gottman, a clinical psychologist who studied marriage and relationships for 40 years, the more positivity in a relationship, the better. So, in the office, for every negative comment, you want to have 5 positive comments to offset it. That’s a lot!



  • Compliment the human quality, not the output

 You don’t have to tell everyone who works on the same project a generic compliment. Learning to compliment specifics can help increase your positivity bank account. Catherine uses this compliment example, “Don’t say, Olivia, you did a great project. Instead, say, Olivia, you showed great courage in the face of a difficult client conversation today. Thank you.” See the difference?



  • It’s not about being right.

This goes against everything you’ve learned, I know. But relationships are about perspectives. So while you think something you’re working on as a team is stupid, that’s just your perspective. It’s neither right nor wrong. From your angle, something is clockwise, but from your colleague’s, it’s counterclockwise. Try to repurpose your frustration into relationship-building. Tell me more about how you see this, and build a bridge to create understanding.


Bonus step: Speaking their language

If you read my last article, you’ll know that language can also mean dialect. When we learn how to meet people where they’re at, we’re a step ahead relationship-wise. Taking the time to learn the intricacies of culture can lead to more fruitful conversations and more meaningful relationships.


Want to learn different perspective-building activities and straightforward empathy tips catered to tech-focused individuals? You’ll love episode 6 of my podcast: English for Engineers Conversations at the Edge with Catherine Stagg-Macey. Available on your favourite podcast platform!