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.


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