Leaders Who Inspire Commitment

Tapping traditional Asian values can instill cross-cultural managerial capabilities.

Recent research holds lessons for any company doing business in China: In a land where Confucianism originated over 2,000 years ago yet still exerts a major ethical and philosophical impact on the prevailing ­culture, managers who actively offer employees clear goals and rewards can strengthen organizational loyalty.

A study by Jean Lee, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore Business School, links two strands of past research: leader-focused and leader-follower studies. Lee’s goal in integrating these perspectives was to extend Western leadership research into a non-Western culture and to examine the perspectives’ combined effect on organizational commitment.

On the basis of her research, Lee recommends that leadership training for managers in China integrate aspects of the traditional philosophies of Chinese culture, such as Confucianism. Not a religion, she explains, Confucianism is a practical philosophy of human relationships and conduct that offers present-day managerial insights. At its core are self-cultivation (a predilection of Western culture) and harmonious human relations for the common good (a value that Western cultures emphasize to a lesser degree than Asian cultures).

To assess attitudes about leadership in China, Lee used the 1995 Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire Form 5X created by B.M Bass and B.J. Avolio, who proposed the full-range leadership model. This model features three dimensions: transformational leadership, characterized by individualized attention to workers, intellectual stimulation and inspirational motivation; transactional leadership, in which clear goals are set and accomplishment is rewarded; and laissez-faire leadership, in which little direction is offered. To study the leader-follower relationship, Lee used R.C. Liden and J.M. Maslyn’s 1998 LMX-MDM, with its 12-point scale that tests attributes such as affection, loyalty and professional respect. J.P. Meyer and N.J. Allen’s 1997 instrument was used to test organizational commitment. Questionnaires were sent to five pharmaceutical companies in China having 1,000 to 2,000 employees and several branches or subsidiaries. The final sample comprised 556 respondents.

For those familiar with the Confucian emphasis on duty to others and the collectivism of Chinese communism, the results may confirm anecdotal evidence. In China, the kind of leadership that fosters the highest level of organizational commitment, Lee says, emphasizes building relationships with followers. Confucianism holds that true leaders routinely demonstrate caring. This is consistent with Western transformational leadership, in which leaders work at earning followers’ affection and respect.

So Western managers need to recognize that, in China, the relationship comes before the task.

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