Leadership in different cultures: does one size fit all?

Source: MT Magazine (12/02/2018); Author: Karlien Vanderheyden

Erin Meyer, who is a professor at INSEAD and the author of the bestseller ‘The Culture Map’, has conducted considerable research into effective leadership within different cultures. Let’s focus for a moment on three important skills that a good leader needs: decision-making, communication and feedback.

1/ How do you make decisions in a multicultural environment?

There are two options. As a manager in cultures with top-down decision-making like India, Italy, Mexico, Russia or the United States, you call the shots yourself. The advantage is that it is fast. However, the decision you take may be subject to change once it starts filtering down to the employees concerned and new information may come to the fore.

Other cultures such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan or Sweden have more of a collaborative decision-making culture, where you, the manager, get the team to help decide. The disadvantage is that it can take a long time, but once the group decision has been made, people stick to it and implementation happens surprisingly fast.

The big problems crop up in mixed teams, however. For example, take a Dutch-American joint venture. A Dutch team consult with each other and give their recommendations to their boss. During the meeting between that boss and the American boss, however, the latter takes a completely different decision. The Dutch team are indignant, whereas the Americans all agree with it. What's more, the Americans assume that the decision may still be adjusted, while the Dutch team immediately start implementing it and do not expect a new decision. 

How can you help them work together more effectively? To begin with, make it clear what the word ‘decision’ means. And develop a system for collective decision-making in which it is clear to everyone when a decision is final (and so you can start implementing it) and when a decision is flexible, with more consultation to come.

2/ What is the best way to communicate within a multicultural team?

Being able to recognise differences in communication styles means that you can adjust your own perceptions and actions to them. In some cultures, it is normal to laugh heartily, raise your voice, put your arm around a colleague, etc. In others, these ways of expressing yourself come across as threatening and unprofessional. Knowing in advance that a calm conversation without much disagreement is a good sign in Sweden and a bad one in Israel will ensure that you can react appropriately.

Another cultural difference has to do with the way of thinking. In a ‘specific’ culture (e.g. United States, northern Europe), you can motivate people by giving them very detailed information about what exactly you expect from them. However, if you need to convince or motivate someone from a holistic culture (e.g. China, Japan or Taiwan), it is best to spend some time on the bigger picture first, showing how the different pieces fit into the larger whole. This way of thinking is nicely reflected in the way addresses are written. In China, they start with the province, then the city, then the street or block and finally the number. We do it the other way round.

3/ How do you ensure, as a leader, that your feedback is accepted by all the different employees?

A Chinese leader will never criticise anyone openly, whereas the Dutch are always very honest and put their message across very directly. Moreover, Americans give a negative message a positive twist, and the French give passionate criticism while being very sparing with positive feedback.

One way to adapt to different cultural habits is to listen to the words that people use.

  • More direct cultures (such as Israel, the Netherlands, Russia or France) use a lot of ‘upgraders’. These are words that precede or follow the negative feedback and make that feedback stronger. Examples are: that is totally unacceptable, that is extremely unprofessional.
  • The more indirect cultures (such as China, Japan, Saudi Arabia or Kenya) use words that tone down the criticism, or opt for an understatement. The British are masters of this. The online ‘Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’ offers a whole range of examples that may lead to miscommunication. If the British say ‘I was a bit disappointed’, for example, they really mean they are very disappointed and angry. And if they say ‘please think about that some more’, it means it is a really bad idea and that you shouldn’t do what you were planning to do.
How can you adapt to different cultures as a leader?
  1. Don’t underestimate the challenge. A leadership style is based on habits and develops gradually. That makes it difficult to change just like that. If you are a Dutch or Belgian leader who wants to be successful in a different culture, you need to unlearn all kinds of techniques that you found really useful in your own country.
  2. Apply different perspectives. If you lead an international team, you will need to learn to look through different lenses. It is less important what exactly a culture is like (whether it uses direct or indirect communication, for example); what is more significant is the position that one culture occupies with respect to others.
  3. Look for the positive aspects of every encounter. We are inclined to mainly see the negative aspects of a different culture. Every culture has its own value, and we should try to bring out the strengths of every culture in every team.

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