Cross-Cultural Lessons in Leadership

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There's no shortage of advice available to guide managers about to embark on an overseas mission. But much of it is superficial, focusing on small points of etiquette along the lines of “Don't hurry through meals” when dining with the French or “Speak in low tones and wear dark clothing” while dealing with the Japanese. When accurate, such tips can prevent embarrassments, but they don't begin to address the broader issues that arise over the course of a longer-term assignment.

On the other end of the scale, managers may be given very broad advice, such as “Keep an open mind.” There is nothing wrong with such advice, but it, too, is insufficient. Without more context, a manager may assume that having an open mind will produce the same results in Helsinki or Beijing as it does in New York City. And that assumption, according to the directors of a decade-long study of cross-cultural leadership, is a mistake.

Two of the study's leaders, Mansour Javidan, a professor of strategic management at Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, Canada, and Robert House, the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Organization Studies and a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, argue in their working paper “In the Eye of the Beholder: Cross-Cultural Lessons in Leadership” that the absence of scientifically compiled information has prevented businesspeople from obtaining sufficiently detailed and context-specific suggestions about how to deal with significant cross-cultural challenges. This paper and others have emerged from work conducted over the past 10 years by a team of more than 150 researchers. As members of project GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness), the researchers collected data on cultural values, practices and leadership attributes from 18,000 managers in 62 cultures working in the telecommunications, food and banking industries. Led by Javidan and House along with Paul J. Hanges, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, and Peter Dorfman, a professor of management and general business at New Mexico State University, the project and its findings make it possible for managers to compare their own cultures with those of other countries.

The major thrust of project GLOBE concerned the study of nine cultural attributes. Using a rigorously constructed survey, team members measured such attributes as assertiveness, tendency to focus on the future, attitudes about gender, comfort level with uncertainty, and “power distance” — the degree to which members of a society expect power to be shared unequally.

All surveys were based on a scale ranging from 1 to 7. To calculate a country's aggregate score for, say, power distance, survey respondents assigned a number to such statements as “In this society, followers are expected to: Question their leaders when in disagreement” or “Obey their leaders without question.” A score of 1 would most strongly indicate the tendency to question leaders; a 7, the tendency to obey. On this particular attribute, Denmark, the Netherlands and South Africa scored lowest (aggregate scores of 3.89, 4.11 and 4.11), while Thailand, Argentina and Morocco scored highest (5.63, 5.64 and 5.80).

Consider how a high score played out in a real example involving a large Thai corporation. The company's senior management wanted to learn about the 360-degree feedback process. After they heard the explanation, the managers responded that it would be very hard and probably undesirable to implement the process in their organization. They felt that subordinates would be uncomfortable because Thai workers do not see it as their business to evaluate their bosses, and the bosses would be insulted because Thai managers do not think subordinates are in any way qualified to assess them. A typical U.S. manager might go into such a situation assuming that the 360-degree process is by definition the open-minded approach. But, GLOBE's leaders suggest, that manager would be risking real damage if he or she tried to implement the process without understanding how it would be received, whether in Thailand or France or Mexico.

Take another example. In the United States, team members may often work independently and rarely have much interaction with one another's families. But that lack of connection is not an impediment to getting the work done. In Brazil, however, which scores high on the cultural attribute of “in-group collectivism,” the researchers contend that a team leader should spend as much time as possible with the team and should also invite the team members' families to get together frequently. In that culture, a team functions best when it is seen as an extended family, they say. This is also true in Egypt, according to the research analysis, with one important exception: The team leader in Egypt is viewed as a paternal figure, a benign autocrat. Needless to say, that role will not come naturally to the U.S. leader trying to walk in an Egyptian's shoes.

What, then, should a manager about to go overseas do to prepare? While it is surely important to learn about other cultures, the GLOBE researchers point out that expat leaders, regardless of their nationality, also need to educate the host employees about their own culture. That's the only way to overcome stereotypes and build mutual understanding and trust between people, Javidan and House conclude.

Similarly, the GLOBE leaders note that executives need not focus their cross-cultural efforts on becoming more like people from the host country. Thus the U.S. executive in Egypt may find it useful and congenial to bring the families of team members together while preferring to avoid the autocratic approach. If the executive is forthright about the reasons, he or she can create a collective learning environment that is productive for both sides.

How can companies develop leaders with the savvy to make such distinctions? Formal education and training can help to some degree, but the general consensus among experts is that there's no substitute for experience. The findings from project GLOBE, with its country-by-country analysis, can give the manager contemplating an assignment in a new culture a head start on the process. For more information, see the GLOBE Web site at http://www.ucalgary.ca/mg/GLOBE/Public/

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