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Leadership across Cultures

Leadership and Cultural Differences"Education is the mother of leadership."
Wendell Willkie

With the march of globalisation and internationalisation growing louder and stronger, few successful businesses can now escape the need to work across cultures. Even if businesses or organisations are not working abroad or with foreign entities, it would be a challenge to identify any that have a mono-cultural workforce. Even here in the rural South West of England, businesses ranging from manufacturers to farms to care homes are employing foreign personnel in order to operate at maximum efficiency.

With this move towards a cross-cultural business environment comes a need for people to be aware of how culture impacts the workplace. Unfortunately, as many quickly discover, the rest of the world does not do things “like we do”. Cultural differences impact everything from inter-personnel communication to health and safety procedures to project management. In short, no corner of any business escapes.

It is within this context that the idea of leadership is being challenged. Our “western” conceptualisation of who a leader is, what they do and how they do it is not shared the world over. Today’s leaders need to be adept at leading and managing people of different cultures; they need to listen to the ‘voices of the people’ as well as understand what those voices may actually be telling them. This in essence is the crux of the challenge; when people perceive the world, communicate and view their leaders in different ways, the leader’s ears may be ringing with misunderstood messages.

The leader will come across cultural issues in many different guises. By way of illustrating the challenges of cross-cultural leadership and for the sake of brevity this article will examine two interdependent issues: the role of a leader and communication.

The Leader

When thinking through the role of a leader one can not escape the concept of hierarchy. Based on academic paradigms we can generalise that all cultures fall somewhere on a scale of hierarchical vs. egalitarian. Where a culture falls will impact their perception of a leader, their role and how they deem it appropriate to interact with them. For example:

Egalitarian cultures:

  • Prefer self-direction with minimal guidance from above
  • Like flexibility in their roles and others’
  • Reserve the right to challenge authority
  • Make expectations, interpret rules and use “common sense”
  • Treat sexes equally

Hierarchical cultures:

  • Take and expect clear guidance from superiors
  • Like clearly defined roles with boundaries and limitations
  • Respect and rarely challenge those in power
  • Enforce regulations and guidelines
  • See sexes as naturally different

With these points in mind, can you spot issues leaders may encounter? The British on the whole are egalitarian in their work approach and a leader would interact with subordinates, ask for feedback, hand out tasks of importance with basic guidance and expect everyone to pull their weight without the need to watch over them. However this may not always be effective.

What if this approach is taken with hierarchical cultures (for example South East Asian, Arab, Polish)? Their leadership may actually be brought into question. Rather then being seen as an effective, driven and focused leader they would come across as weak and lacking the knowledge to assume the title of “boss” (Why are they asking for feedback? Do they not know how things are going? Are they trying to shift blame on me? Why are they are asking me to do this job? Is that not their role?). Hierarchical cultures expect to be dominated. The same process would work vice-versa in that egalitarian cultures would seen a dominant leader is inaccessible, power hungry and unappreciative of others’ efforts.

Communication

This relates to the manner in which people communicate and interact with one another. We can scale cultures according to their willingness to be ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’ in the manner in which they communicate. Those in the direct camp (Germans, Americans, Scandinavians) tell it how it is and are not overly concerned with sentiment. Why say anything else but the truth? Those in the indirect camp (Arab, Indian, British) would find such a style rude and inconsiderate as it puts people in embarrassing situations. The latter is concerned with face, honour and harmony in personal relationships.

Direct cultures:

  • Are less concerned with how something is said but rather what is said
  • Openly confront difficult issues
  • Do not leave things to interpretation
  • Do not rely on non-verbal cues

Indirect cultures:

  • Focus on what is said and also how it is relayed
  • Avoid open confrontation
  • Express difficult issues with diplomacy and tact
  • Count on the listener to interpret meaning

Again the reader will identify immediate issues. How does one get negative feedback from colleagues who prefer the indirect communication style? Furthermore what if they also come from a more hierarchical culture? How can the leader give feedback without causing hurt or embarrassment? How can a leader sum an organisation’s goals in a manner that appeals across cultures? How do they motivate? These issues ultimately test the leader’s agility to temper the way they communicate to get the best out of a range of people. The ability to do this is not difficult but rather it is the need to at first appreciate that such differences exist. Essentially the leader must learn to really communicate with people at different levels and be sufficiently intuitive to pick up on the signals in order for them to impact others and therefore the running of the organisation.

These two very brief examples are literally the tip of the cultural iceberg. They should act as a stimulus to the reader who deals with different cultures to explore the issue further and to examine how such knowledge can help them improve both on a personal and organizational level. Businesses need culturally-competent leaders. Technical competence and organisational experience are inadequate as sole criteria. We need people who have an attitude of openness to others' values and practices as well as the willingness to experiment with different ways and means. When the leader broadens their horizons it produces solidarity, encourages productivity, stimulates innovation and pushes an organisation forward.