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Friday, June 24, 2022

Leaders with Multicultural Experiences Communicate and Lead More Effectively, Especially in Multinational Teams

J. G. Lu, R. I. Swaab, A. D. Galinsky
Organization Science
Published Online: 22 Jul 2021


In an era of globalization, it is commonly assumed that multicultural experiences foster leadership effectiveness. However, little research has systematically tested this assumption. We develop a theoretical perspective that articulates how and when multicultural experiences increase leadership effectiveness. We hypothesize that broad multicultural experiences increase individuals’ leadership effectiveness by developing their communication competence. Because communication competence is particularly important for leading teams that are more multinational, we further hypothesize that individuals with broader multicultural experiences are particularly effective when leading more versus less multinational teams. Four studies test our theory using mixed methods (field survey, archival panel, field experiments) and diverse populations (corporate managers, soccer managers, hackathon leaders) in different countries (Australia, Britain, China, America). In Study 1, corporate managers with broader multicultural experiences were rated as more effective leaders, an effect mediated by communication competence. Analyzing a 25-year archival panel of English Premier League soccer managers, Study 2 replicates the positive effect of broad multicultural experiences using a team performance measure of leadership effectiveness. Importantly, this effect was moderated by team national diversity: soccer managers with broader multicultural experiences were particularly effective when leading teams with greater national diversity. Study 3 (digital health hackathon) and Study 4 (COVID-19 policy hackathon) replicate these effects in two field experiments, in which individuals with varying levels of multicultural experiences were randomly assigned to lead hackathon teams that naturally varied in national diversity. Overall, our research suggests that broad multicultural experiences help leaders communicate more competently and lead more effectively, especially when leading multinational teams.

From the Discussion

Practical Implications

Because of the rise of globalization, individuals and organizations increasingly value and invest in multicultural experiences. However, multicultural experiences are expensive. The present research lends support to the common belief that multicultural experiences foster leadership effectiveness (Karabell 2016, Pelos 2017). Notably, our studies consistently found that the breadth (but not the depth) of multicultural experiences predicted leadership effectiveness via communication competence. This finding suggests that organizations should ensure that expatriates are exposed to a broad set of experiences. For example, when structuring international assignments, organizations should consider exposing their employees to a range of foreign postings (e.g., global rotation programs) rather than one lengthy foreign posting (Suutari and Makel ¨ a¨ 2007). Similarly, individuals may consider pursuing multinational educational programs (e.g., global MBA) that allow them to engage with different cultures.

Just as individuals’ multicultural experiences are increasingly prevalent, so are multinational teams. The
present research examined three multinational team contexts with high ecological validity and real-world
consequences. Across these contexts, we provide evidence that multinational teams perform better when
led by leaders with broad multicultural experiences.