What does a cross-cultural business team leader have in common with a choreographer? Much more than you would expect!
Bridging cross-cultural differences to deliver a stellar dance performance has many parallels with the international business community. This is true especially in the Netherlands, where dance companies are frequently composed of diverse nationalities. My own background in the performing arts has provided me with valuable insights about getting the best out of a multi-cultural team.
Learning to Juggle Cultural Differences
I arrived in Amsterdam in the mid 1980’s as an American-trained dancer dragging my ”cultural baggage” with me. In the States, I was used to rushing into the rehearsal space, quickly changing clothes and starting to practice. Instead I was introduced to the famous Dutch habit of settling down with a cozy cup of coffee as a prelude to getting to work. Although I was often impatient to start the rehearsal, I came to appreciate how the ritual of drinking coffee helps to bring people together and give them time to focus on the ‘person’ before the ‘task’.
Another thing that struck me was that in the Netherlands, there is more of a feeling of equality between ”leaders” (directors, choreographers and teachers ) and the dancers and actors they worked with, whereas in the states, star status in the performing arts confers respect, privilege and distance. To get a feel for the difference, take a look at this anecdote from the States: A performer auditions for a much coveted role in a play. The director asked him, ”Can you juggle?” Without a moment’s hesitation, the performer answers “Yes, as of tomorrow.” In contrast, a Dutch performer might ask “Why is juggling so important to you?“.
Dancing Between Cross-Cultural Competencies
Reflecting back on my own experience as a choreographer, I’ve counted at least 13 different nationalities among the dancers I have worked with. Each constellation of multi-cultural performers brought its own richness and depth to the production.
What made it work? For starters, giving everyone the feeling that their contributions are valued. The beginning phase of a choreography involves spending time ”improvising”. This could be inspired by a theme, a piece of music, or a movement phrase.
Much as in a corporate brain-storming session, dance improvisation yields new ideas and raw material. This is further worked out and solidified under the guidance of the choreographer or manager of the group.
Because the team has been involved from the start in the creation of a new concept, they are much more likely to take ownership of the final result. In a cross-cultural business setting, cultivating an ”open-community” of ideas helps to bridge gaps created by differences in reasoning, communication styles, and power distance.
Agreeing on the ”Steps” to a Shared Identity
The collaboration process on a dance production is similar to that of cultivating an effective multi-cultural team. It starts with everyone getting familiar with each other in order to build trust. In the case of dancers, the trust must be physical as well as personal. However the metaphor is universal: Can you trust your colleague to catch you when you fall?
Another key to success is achieving agreement among the team members about solo roles vs. group dance steps. A dancer who decides to operate outside of the team consensus during a performance reflects badly on the whole team. The risks of causing serious injury to him/herself or to a colleague are also elevated. Everyone is highly motivated to defer to the collective needs of the group.
Successful cross-cultural collaborations in the dance world are fueled by a combination of commitment, teamwork, self-expression and technical skill. It doesn’t take a great leap to understand the relevance for the international business community.
Anybody want to dance?
Lisa has both American and Dutch nationality and has lived in Paris, Moscow and Basel. After a successful career in dance and theatre, she shifted direction to the corporate world, leading and co-leading communication training programs for international business executives in The Netherlands, USA, Russia and Thailand. She is also an executive coach and trainings actor. Her areas of expertise are Cross-Cultural Communication and Leadership and American culture.
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