Leadership and Culture

4.2 Cultural Collision and Leadership

Multicultural work settings have been around for centuries. Immigrant workers and cross-national trade have existed around the globe for centuries. However, the intensity of cross-cultural exchanges has a more noticeable economic impact in today’s global society than in the past. In previous centuries, those with resources and military might imposed their ways on others. Now, the competitive global economic market does not allow for a company or a nation to mistreat others for long, as there are competitors and potentially better options. Also, the presence of global communication systems has increased the accountability for social responsibility and human rights in business exchanges.

In today’s global economy, expatriates can be emigrant workers or expatriate managers of large, multinational corporations. Leader–member exchange theory can assist understanding the impact of culture on leadership in a multicultural setting.

The leader–member exchange defines leadership as a relationship. It has demonstrated that leaders have varying levels of intensity in their relationships with different employees. When the leader and the subordinates are in a close, trusting relationship, they enjoy an enriched relationship in which the leader is more apt to engage in transformational behavior styles. When the subordinates are at the periphery of the team, are not closely involved with the leader, and do not have a strong trusting relationship, the leader tends to behave more transactionally with them. Leader–member exchange theory, therefore, demonstrates that like any relationship, the leadership process also goes through a maturation process, from being strangers to being confidants. What makes this model appealing to multicultural setting is that at the core it assumes that leaders and subordinates develop unique dyad relationships.

In a multicultural setting, it is conceivable that leaders will develop closer relationships with subordinates who are similar to them; the leader may stay distant from those who are different. The research on this model is still young, yet the opportunities to explore the role of culture in leader–subordinate dyad relationship building are promising. Exploring the cultural factors that contribute to building strong leadership relationships in multicultural settings is necessary.

Independent of this theory of leadership, practitioners and cultural anthropologists have developed cultural guides to help expatriate leaders adjust to working in cross-cultural settings and with people from various cultures. However, in this type of cultural awareness training, two issues are overlooked. The first is that the cultural prototypes are used. That is, in this training, the leader is told what typically may occur in a country or what to expect from people of a certain culture. This can create stereotypes, as most people do not fit the cultural prototypes or stereotypes, and so can lead to misunderstanding. Second, this method of cultural awareness assumes that culture is static. Trompenaars and Hampden-Truner stated that international managers are faced with layers of cultural demands that are fluid and need balancing. In addition, in this type of training there is a tendency for the leader to try to act similar to the natives. This can be a no-win situation, as it has been demonstrated that natives do not trust expatriate leaders who act like them. Consequently, the value of knowing about the norms of the other culture is the awareness of the range of accepted behaviors that can equip leaders with alternative explanations when they observe behaviors that may be strange to their own cultural norms.

In summary, our knowledge about leadership in multicultural settings is still evolving. For years, cross-cultural trainers such as Foa and Triandis have recommended that those interacting in cross-cultural settings defer judgment and view situations through the eyes of the member of the other culture. They also developed the cultural assimilator training programs, which teach the individual faced with a heterogeneous team to be aware of his or her cultural assumptions and potential biases, as well as the beliefs and assumptions of the others. This technique trains the sojourner or expatriate to be more attentive and to think before acting.

Therefore, it is most helpful for the leaders in multicultural settings to be aware of the cultural norms of their own culture and those of the others. This awareness gives them a perspective of the range of behaviors to be expected. In addition, keeping an open mind and asking questions before judging is the best way to adjust to a team composed of various cultures and styles.


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