Calling out the culture of personality

The case for global companies to rethink what to assess when determining promotability & assessing potential in Asia

Written by Meena Thuraisingham, Business Psychologist, Consultant and Author, Aug 2014

In today’s business environment where one’s leadership brand or career brand is identified as important for success, personality driven traits such as style, poise, self-confidence and self-assurance are highly prized. In such a business culture, strong personalities thrive and the character-based strengths of humility, wisdom, discernment, patience, tolerance, fortitude, and courage are less valued.  Personality strengths are not culturally neutral, whereas character strengths are.  Herein lies the issue for global companies that want to strengthen and diversify their leadership pipelines and build an Asia capable workforce.

Personality vs Character

 A quick review of most global companies’ leadership assessment methodologies will reveal the bias towards personality strengths. These methodologies are often normed on Anglo Saxon norm groups. Even when character strengths are listed as desirable traits, few of the current methodologies make a serious go at assessing for these.

In a culturally diverse environment, relying heavily on personality and style related assessments/tests is not helpful because personality is not a culturally neutral construct. Despite this, promotability and talent identification is often  decided on issues of personality: how outspoken one was, or how much one self promoted etc.

Nowhere is this distinction more prominent than when providing leadership coaching to young emerging Asian leaders who are told by their multinational employers that they have to be more outspoken, more out there, more extrovert, if they wish to be promoted and progress in the company.

This approach does not hold satisfactory answers for those who may have  questions such as “what if I like to play with that idea in my head for a little longer” or “enjoy the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake” or “what if I like to reflect on the bigger questions of life” or “how can we be 100% sure of anything” and so on. How and where does this fit into current day assessment and development methodologies? How do these different thinking orientations find a place around our decision-making tables in Asia?

Focus needs to shift to a more culturally neutral way of assessing strengths. The notion of considering universal strengths may be a good start in thinking about leadership effectiveness in a globally dispersed operation. However while assessing leadership assessment practices may be important, it is equally important to consider how day-to-day effectiveness is also judged by line managers who manage in a global context.  This is where language bias and business interaction norms play a part.

Leading linguistically diverse teams

Language Bias is subtle and favours those who can communicate in English well. If this is not addressed then the company simply ends up only with people who speak English well, not necessarily with the best talent for a given role. One’s first language or language spoken at home is a weak criteria for success despite the fact that many of us will continue to justify why this is even more important in today’s globalized world or as is sometimes argued because our clients demand it.  We would argue that the reverse is true: a truly global workplace is one where multiple languages are spoken with ease, not a place dominated by one language at the exclusion of others. As Asia produces, at a very rapid pace, its own globally dispersed companies, challenging this narrative will be even more important commercially for Anglo Saxon based global companies with aspirations to grow in Asia in this increasingly pluralistic  business environment.  Language is but one challenge. Calling out norms that develop around business interaction i.e. “the way we do things around here” is equally critical when leading culturally diverse teams.

Business interaction norms

Business Interaction norms are also important to call out. For example asking if only those who are prepared to challenge their bosses or argue a case assertively thrive in the company? This may be the norm for American, British and Australian nationals (and Asians who originate from countries with an Anglo Saxon colonial past such as with Indians). However this may not be the norm for Buddhist cultures where the ability to hold and understand multiple truths is an important value. In this latter case, the preparedness to ‘die in the ditch’ for an idea may not be seen as desirable or even sensible.  It is therefore important that an organisation builds the skills of line leaders who are able to be more open and accepting of different ways of working as a means of strengthening decision and performance outcomes. Global companies must take a step back and consider the interaction norms that may have become second nature but that may prevent it from getting the best out of its culturally diverse workforce.

Unleashing the potential of Asia’s cultural diversity

At a macro-level, to execute the diversity ambitions of global companies, a more systematic translation in Asia on 5 continuums is required to ensure sustainable regional success:

  • Religious roots and societal traditions
  • Economic maturity
  • Demography of the workforce
  • Colonial history
  • Political and institutional freedoms

Rather than thinking about the diversity agenda in a traditional way as being about the under-representation of this minority or that minority as is currently done in western countries, a more productive way of thinking about the diversity agenda in Asia may be to ask which groups in the workforce appear to thrive better and why. Questions such as which groups do not have the same access to opportunities for advancement than other groups, which groups have less of a voice in decisions, which groups or sub groups do not enjoy access to critical organisational networks and so on. Framed this way the diversity agenda becomes clearer and easier to navigate in a region as culturally complex as Asia.

There are a handful of global companies that focus their energies on what we see as the neglected regional ambition. It’s all about ambition, and the question of how the rich cultural diversity in Asia can be much better leveraged by global companies to build pan-regional and ambi-dextrous talent assets in the region to match their growth ambition. This will not be achieved by imposing national level boundaries in our thinking. Employing a more intentional policy of intra-regional moves will expose young professional talent and the next generation of Asian leaders through developing pan-regional career paths more deliberately. This will broaden and deepen the talent pipeline in Asia, build stronger regional performance and ensure Asia is ready to compete with the full might of its regional potential.


For more on how to rethink your assessment methodologies, business interaction norms, solving for language and other biases & in building a Asia wide talent strategy, contact TalentInvest, business psychologists & consultants at

Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest

Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.

Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today