Connect Across Cultures Blog

How Can Asian Leaders Adapt To New Cultures?

They don’t speak up. Why are they so quiet? I feel pressured to speak. Shouldn’t we be listening?

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

How Can Asian Leaders Adapt To New Cultures?

They don’t speak up. Why are they so quiet?

I feel pressured to speak. Shouldn’t we be listening?

These two common perspectives show the diversity in our ways of communicating. Performance, productivity, team cohesion, leadership and even simple coordination – all of which cannot happen without communication. But such opposing views on communication can often bring about misunderstanding, tense or broken relationships and at its very worst attrition. Whether you are a leader from the East or the West, understanding cultural differences is vital. Yet, understanding alone does not make a leader effective. While literature is abundant in discussing and supporting Western leaders to adapt to the Asian culture, a quick search on Google hardly shows any reference or support for Asian leaders.

The good news is that there are universal and cross-cultural frameworks that Asian leaders can use to prepare them to adapt to new cultures. One such framework is the well-researched and validated Cultural Intelligence (CQ)1, which assesses an individual’s capability to adapt and thrive in culturally diverse situations and environments.

Culture refers to a subgroup with their learned, shared and enduring behaviours. When we encounter a new culture, it often means interpreting, learning and adapting to new ways of communicating, interacting and doing things.

The CQ framework consists of the four capabilities: drive, knowledge, strategy, and action, all of which prepare an Asian leader to adapt to a new culture. However, there are specific nuances to be mindful of when it comes to Asian leaders.

The Value of Asian Leaders

Asia is the world’s most populous continent and home to nearly 5 billion people. Spanning from the Pacific, Indian and Arctic Oceans, most Asian countries have more than one native language. According to Ethnologue2, there are over 2000 living languages in Asia alone.

A report by PWC3 says that by 2050, Asian countries, namely China, India, Japan and Indonesia, will be the top 10 largest economies. By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s middle class will be in Asia, according to the South China Morning Post4.

There is an abundance of opportunities for organisations based outside of and within Asia for investment and expansion. Hiring, developing and promoting Asian leaders will be highly beneficial to your organisation. Especially for companies outside of Asia, Asian Leaders can be advantageous in bridging the local culture and the culture of the company’s headquarters.

Not only can Asian Leaders be the cultural bridge, but most cultures in the world are also collectivist, mainly Asian countries. Collectivists are cultures that value relationships. Collectivists are good at building relationships, have a strong, if not vast, social network and are better able to leverage their network for support. Thus, an Asian Leader will have an exceptional ability to find the required resource or the right people to achieve the desired outcome.

What Are The Challenges In Developing Asian Leaders?

Asian leaders face unique challenges compared to leaders from other countries.

Influential local leaders are overlooked for opportunities within organisations. According to an article in The Atlantic5, Asian Americans account for just 1.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 1.9 % of corporate officers. Researchers have called this the Bamboo Ceiling, where employees of Asian ethnicity face an invisible barrier in rising the leadership ranks within an organisation. The Bamboo Ceiling, a form of confirmation bias, is the recruitment and promotion of leaders based on whether their style closely resemble that of their company’s leaders.

The underlying assumption is that their company’s leadership style is effective and will help continue its success in different locations. Hence, if an Asian Leader is more inclined to listen rather than speak up like their Western counterparts, they will be deemed unsuitable for leadership positions.

To remain competitive in this rapidly changing world, organisations face the mighty challenge of preparing and leading their organisation to adapt to these changes. We are also seeing a rapid change in the workforce that is becoming younger, multicultural and global.

According to research by McKinsey6, only 30% of companies say they are effectively developing leaders to meet evolving challenges. Suppose organisations do not invest in developing a diverse range of leaders. In that case, they will lose out in harnessing their talents and potential, which is key to innovation and competitiveness.

Most importantly, organisations need to recognise that they cannot change unless they change. As such, organisations must ensure that Asian Leaders are selected to participate in leadership development programs.

How Can Developing Cultural Intelligence Help Prepare Asian Leaders?

Fortunately, there are universal frameworks that can help prepare Asian leaders for their globalised roles. Cultural Intelligence is one of the many frameworks in Global Leadership Development.

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is an individual’s capability to adapt and thrive in culturally diverse situations. People with high CQ have a reduced level of stress and perform well in unfamiliar situations. The well-researched CQ framework consists of 4 capabilities, which are drive, knowledge, strategy and action. Like all skills, these capabilities can be learned and developed.

Cultural Drive

Drive refers to one’s motivation and confidence when faced with a culturally diverse situation.

Let’s say you were invited to speak at a 1-day conference in another country. Perhaps you may reflect upon your motivations by asking questions such as...

  • What do you gain from speaking at the conference?
  • Will you be able to grow your professional network?
  • Do you enjoy learning about different perspectives and backgrounds?

These reflections indicate your CQ Drive of personal motivations and confidence in managing the cultural interaction or situation.

Cultural Knowledge

Knowledge relates to one’s intellectual understanding of another culture, ranging from recognising cultural norms, values, local dialects, customs, history and much more.

Most intercultural training focuses on these aspects, which is helpful, but it can be overwhelming. Before embarking on your cultural research, take a moment to determine what kind of knowledge you need for your task. If we use the previous example of speaking at a conference, you might ask yourself...

  • What do I need to know about the audience?  
  • What is their history?  
  • What are the dos and don’ts?

Cultural Strategy

Strategy is one’s ability to take cultural knowledge, reflect upon your strengths and resources, and make plans to interact with people from that culture.

Confidence and knowledge alone are of no use if we do not take the time to plan nor prepare for our cultural interaction. Find out your stakeholder’s or counterpart’s goals, be clear on your goals and find ways to achieve them. If we use the example of presenting at a conference, you ask may yourself...

  • What will your audience gain from your speech?
  • Why is your speech vital to them?  
  • How will you craft your speech so that it relates to your audience?

With a well thought out strategy, you can create a win-win situation.

Cultural Action

Action is the leader’s capability to adjust their speech, actions and behaviour in executing the strategy.

You can have the best plan in the world, but if it is poorly executed, you and your cultural counterpart will not achieve your goals. Let’s continue with the example of the 1-day conference.

  • Can you change your tone, pitch and pace in your speech so that your audience can understand you?  
  • Are you ready to adapt your non-verbal language and presentation style to not offend your audience?

Taking the time to practice and rehearse can be tremendously beneficial to you and your audience.

The CQ framework is valuable and applicable across all cultures. CQ takes into account your culture and the cultural situation you are going to face. When you take the time to develop your CQ, you will find those cultural interactions are more enjoyable and less stressful.

Are your Asian Leaders Ready?

Preparing and developing your Asian Leaders is paramount to the success of your organisation to continue its expansion and investment in Asia. We must first understand the value and challenges of Asian Leaders and subsequently support them in their leadership development. Leadership development should include developing their CQ to harness the power of diversity for greater inclusion, innovation and competitiveness.


  1. Mitchell, R. (2014, November 3). Cultural intelligence: Everybody needs it. Harvard Gazette.
  2. Asia. Ethnologue.
  3. PWC. (2017). The Long View: How will the global economic order change by 2050? PWC.
  4. Wong, P. (2017, April 16). How Asia will change the world via East-East trade corridor. South China Morning Post.
  5. Mundy, L. (2014, October 15). Cracking the Bamboo Ceiling. The Atlantic.
  6. Feser, C., Nielsen, N., & Rennie, M. (2017, August 1). What’s missing from corporate statements on racial injustice? The real cause of racism.