Cultural Differences In Leadership

Imy Clarke - On behalf of Alchemy Recruitment, May 21, 2014

With the globalisation of companies and countries now so common, multi-cultural teams are vastly becoming the norm. Yet, with different languages, behaviors and ideas, cooperating can be a challenge at times, never mind attempting to lead the team.

One of the major difficulties with leading an international team is the varying view on how to use power. While some cultures may be autocratic in their behavior, making decisions on behalf of their team will little opportunity for others to provide input, others might be more democratic, offering the rest of their team a say in the final decision. Often democratic leaders, such as is typical in Japanese culture, will sacrifice the needs of an individual for the sake of the team. Alternatively, a leader may be more bureaucratic with a strict set of rules to follow precisely, as in the case of the Americans and the Germans, or perhaps they may be more charismatic, wanting to establish an organisation where all employees are dedicated to their leader’s ‘mission’.

Leadership itself is different in many cultures, although rather than dividing leadership styles into ‘East’ and ‘West’ it is far more pragmatic to approach in terms of ‘egalitarian’ cultures and ‘hierarchical’ cultures. Egalitarian leaders, such as the British, are more likely to interact with all subordinates, treat everyone equally regardless of age or gender, ask for feedback and delegate tasks of importance with basic instruction, expecting employees not to need constant supervision. Hierarchical cultures, such as South East Asia, Arabic or Polish, are likely to struggle with this; their egalitarian leader could be viewed as weak, lacking knowledge and incapable. On the other hand, egalitarian employees would most likely find a hierarchical leader unapproachable, power hungry and unappreciative of their efforts.

Leadership centers on communication. Besides the obvious language differences, which have their own obstacles, different cultures communicate in different styles, notably either direct or indirect. Direct cultures, German, American and Scandinavian, are most concerned with what is said rather than how it is said. As a result they will openly confront any difficult issues and avoid any interpretation on behalf of the listener. Indirect cultures, Arabic, Indian and Chinese, however, would find such an approach rude and embarrassing. These cultures much prefer to focus not only on what is said, but how it comes across, avoiding open confrontation and relying heavily on accurate interpretation of the listener. Yet, how do you deliver negative feedback to someone who prefers more indirect communication? It’s a leaders responsibility to know how to communicate on different levels.

Data from the Global Executive Leadership Inventory has revealed a vast amount of information on cultural differences in leadership. While Nordic Europeans rank highly on ‘Global Mindset’, promoting ‘togetherness’ and cultural diversity, Southeast Asia excelled in ‘visioning’ to compile global strategy that united all company stakeholders. While Middle Eastern leaders struggled for work/life balance, they ranked well in stress resilience. Regardless of originating culture, the secret to a good leader in the contemporary workplace is sympathy with other cultures and a strong awareness of the individuals within your team.

Posted in categories: Culture & Languages
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