Good leadership is a matter of culture

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As more top managers seek to develop their global skills through going on international assignments, they must be aware that the definition of a strong leader is a matter of culture.

Around the world good leadership is well-defined – but the definition itself differs from country to country. The same holds true for motivational factors as well as the levels of staff retention.

The qualities that make a good leader are different in each country. In Germany, for example, strong managers unafraid to make decisions are considered to be the natural-born leaders. In East Asian countries, on the other hand, only someone with the ability to constantly achieve consensus within the team will reach the top. British managers must gently move their employees in the desired direction through the power of persuasion; Scandinavians, and Swedes in particular, see the role primarily as a supporter and organizer of the team, distributing tasks equitably and promoting a harmonious working atmosphere while remaining a primus inter pares, a member of the team just like anybody else.

In Russia, on the other hand, being too close to the team can harm your reputation as a good leader. As in many cultures with hierarchical company structures and little delegation, asking team members for their opinions is considered a weakness. Strong leaders must make decisions on their own.

Meeting expectations at the local level

The field of occupational psychology describes many different kinds of leadership, from the authoritarian style on the one end to a cooperative or participatory style on the other. Other theories put the scale between an objective and a person-oriented leadership style. But all those scientific approaches are assessed in a completely different manner around the world. What counts is the cultural setting of the local environment. Any leadership style works only if it meets the expectations of the local team.

In Spain, for example, an authoritarian leadership style is an advantage, as employees expect to be told exactly what to do. They need a strong leader with charisma. The French also see their boss as a supervisory authority. In a similar way, Chinese or Russian staff members will not perceive it as negative if their team leader controls every step of their work progress on a daily basis; they interpret it as benevolent support and even appreciation of their work.

Northern European employees, on the other hand, want to work independently with a rather large scope for making their own decisions. Only a participatory leadership style can provide this much freedom. Many Eastern Europeans, however, would not find that kind of responsibility desirable at all; their cultural imprint makes them inclined to focus on the dangers of making mistakes and having to face the consequences.

Personality is key

In Eastern European and East Asian countries, personal relationships are the most important element in successful leadership; employees see a good relationship with their boss as a very relevant factor in their job satisfaction. In countries with a paternalistic leadership culture it is obligatory that the boss take care of the employees—including including private matters as well as work-related ones. While walking around the office and talking to everyone, managers must show interest in a personal assistant’ struggle to arrange child care or a junior-level manager’s longer
way to work after moving to a new house. Note that it is not a matter of actively helping, by taking over and arranging the childcare for him/her, but it is about showing a genuine interest in what is going on in this person’s life that has a direct or indirect impact on the workplace. Such interest can be expressed by asking the right questions, making suggestions, offering advice – always ascertaining that the helping hand is welcome and not seen as meddling in
private affairs. It is a delicate balance indeed.

Equally important for the profile of a good leader is joining some after-work activities with employees, showing up at their birthday parties and even being the guest of honor at their weddings. What is required is a paternal, caring attitude, not an overly chummy manner, though. This benevolence will be returned by the employees in the form of respect and long-term loyalty.

Preventing employee turnover

Talent retention, one of the big criteria of good leadership, is influenced by cultural factors as well. While workers in West European countries generally strongly identify with their employer, those in other regions of the world are more apt to spontaneously change jobs. Employees in many Asian countries never show their dissatisfaction with the management or the workplace at all, even as they look for better job conditions somewhere else. Depending on the financial situation and the local job market, slightly higher pay can be reason enough to change employers.

Good leadership and a high level of motivation are needed to counteract frequent job-hopping and retain a skilled labor force. But again, how this can be achieved differs from culture to culture. Regular pay raises for key talent might be the answer in some countries, while in others it’s more important that the boss show personality, spend more time with her employees, and apply a higher level of personal leadership.

Flexibility trumps style

The conclusion for globally mobile managers is that a leadership style that has proven successful in one country cannot necessarily be transferred to another. Every manager assigned to a job abroad or leading a multicultural team should prepare to see his or her individual leadership style suddenly stop working. Equally, the company’s leadership principles and management tools must be adjusted to the cultural context of any country into which the company is expanding.

Only someone who is willing to give up familiar and proven ways of leadership, and to adjust flexibly to what is considered as good leadership elsewhere, will prove to be a successful global leader.

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit

About the author:

Katrin Koll Prakoonwit is a Product Development Lead at Globiana Inc.

Spotting a good story is what Katrin enjoys most when creating web content on intercultural business communication. She started her career at one of the leading newspapers in Germany, where she experienced the buzz of the first launch of the paper’s web portal. Later she developed an award-winning HR portal as part of her work in the consultancy industry and wrote for an Expat Journal. Most recently she conceptualized a book series on business cultures for a publishing house. After launching her own website on intercultural communication, she joined forces with cross culture academy to be part of a much broader online learning platform, now known as Globiana. Katrin holds a Masters degree in International Cultural and Business Studies as well as in Organizational Psychology.

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