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Publication date: 29 April 2021

Aurelia Engelsberger, Jillian Cavanagh, Timothy Bartram and Beni Halvorsen

In this paper, the authors argue that multicultural skills and relational leadership act as enablers for open innovation, and thereby examine the process through which…



In this paper, the authors argue that multicultural skills and relational leadership act as enablers for open innovation, and thereby examine the process through which teams can utilize multicultural skills to support the development of relational leadership and knowledge sourcing and sharing (KSS) through individual interaction and relationship building. The authors address the following research question: How does relational leadership enable open innovation (OI) among employees with multicultural skills?


This paper applies a multi-level approach (team and individual level) and builds on interviews with 20 employees, middle and senior managers with multicultural experiences, working in open innovation environments.


The authors’ findings shed light on the process through which social exchange relationships among team members (e.g. R&D teams) and knowledge exchange partners are enhanced by the use of multicultural skills and support the development of relational leadership to facilitate KSS and ultimately OI. The decision for participants to collaborate and source and share knowledge is motivated by individual reward (such as establishing network or long-lasting contacts), skill acquisition (such as learning or personal growth in decision-making) and a sense of reciprocity and drive for group gain. The authors encourage greater human resource (HR) manager support for relational leadership and the development and use of multicultural skills to promote KSS.

Research limitations/implications

Despite the value of our findings, this paper is not without limitations. The authors explained that the focus of this study design was on the work activities of the participants and their skill development and not specific projects or organizations. It was outside the scope of this study to examine variations across organizations and individuals as the authors wanted to focus on multicultural skills and relational leadership as enablers for OI. The authors recommend that future studies extend our research by unpacking how various boundary conditions including relational leadership and multicultural skills impact KSS and OI over the life cycle of innovation teams within large multinational organizations, across countries and ethnicities.

Practical implications

The study’s findings provide managers with improved understandings of how to enable an individual's willingness and readiness to source and share knowledge through multicultural skills and relational leadership. Managers need to ensure that human resource management (HRM) practices celebrate multicultural skills and support relational leadership in innovation teams. The authors suggest managers engaged in OI consider the components of social exchange as described by Meeker (1971) and utilize reciprocity, group gain, rationality and status consistency to support the emergence relational leadership and KSS in innovation teams.


In this paper, the authors contribute to the dearth of literature on the boundary conditions for OI by examining the role of relational leadership and characteristics/skills of the workforce, namely multicultural skills and contribute to the scarce research on the role of employees with multicultural skills and their impact on OI and present multicultural skills/experiences and relational leadership as enablers for OI.


Personnel Review, vol. 51 no. 3
Type: Research Article
ISSN: 0048-3486


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