What Is Cultural Bridging and Why Global Companies and Leaders Need It

Contributing author: Yih-Teen Lee
Professor of Managing People in Organizations, IESE Business School

In workplaces, cultural differences can be a valuable source of creative business solutions, enlarging the space of possibility when different perspectives are effectively connected and explored. At the same time, they can also be the cause of misunderstanding and conflict, resulting in poor business results and damaged relationships among business partners. Companies and leaders play a critical role in managing cultural differences, and determine whether the desired fruits of diversity are obtained. Cultural bridging represents a strategic competency for companies and leaders, building up their capacity to navigate cultural diversity.

From Adaptation to Bridging

Typically, research in cross-cultural management focuses on identifying and comparing cultural differences. The most common solution for working with differences is cultural adaptation, which suggests that once we learn about the cultural norms of our counterpart, we should adapt ourselves to fit with them. However, this approach is neither desirable nor effective for the following reasons. First, it leaves the question “who should adapt to whom” open, creating possible confusion and tension. Second, it does not consider organizations’ strategic needs, which may require people to behave in certain way beyond their cultural preferences to achieve alignment. Third, it assumes that people can adapt as they wish, neglecting the fact that special effort is needed to liberate them from the cognitive and behavioral patterns ingrained in their culture. Defined as a set of strategic and intentional behaviors which aim to create connection among members, cultural bridging offers leaders a distinctive approach to align people across cultural differences with resources and guidelines that allow members to break free from their original cultural patterns and converge toward a desired mode of collaboration, consistent with organization’s strategic goals.

Cultural Bridging as Powerful Tool for Strategic Cultural Alignment

Cultural bridging leads to three types of connection among members from different cultures. First, cultural bridging creates cognitive connection by facilitating meaningful mutual understanding among members from different cultures. For instance, leaders can enable members to engage in learning and productive dialogue and explicitly understand similarities and differences embedded in the group. Second, cultural bridging contributes to emotional connection by fostering trust and sense of belonging among members. Creating opportunities for social bonding is one example of this type of bridging. Third, leveraging the above-mentioned cognitive and emotional connection among people, cultural bridging further establishes behavioral connection by shaping behavioral scripts for collaboration. For example, leaders may specify clear behavioral expectations and help members consciously and intentionally act in ways that generate the greatest value for the collaboration.

Cultural bridging gives global companies and leaders a flexible and powerful tool for aligning people of different national or organizational cultural backgrounds, in a way that achieves multiple advantages. For example, in multicultural teams, where more than two cultures are simultaneously present, an adaptation approach may not work as members may not know which culture to “adapt” to. Cultural bridging enables deep mutual understanding (i.e., cognitive connection) and bonding (i.e., emotional connection) among members, who can consciously co-create functional behavioral scripts (i.e., behavioral connection) for collaboration. Moreover, cultural bridging may contribute to post-merger integration to allow all parties to more thoroughly visualize similarities and differences, and to form shared identity and proactively aligned behavioral patterns without feeling being imposed.

Whereas global companies can design cultural bridging strategy at organizational level, leaders at all levels of organization from all cultural backgrounds are ultimately responsible for developing local bridging packages suitable to their specific projects and teams. With cultural bridging properly implemented, global companies and leaders can reap the benefits of cultural diversity and prosper.