Culturally Intelligent Leadership
Making sense of leadership is difficult enough, even without the complication of cultural differences. While there is no universally effective prescription for leading culturally diverse followers, there are some things we can say for certain that culturally intelligent leaders know and do.
• Leadership is largely in the minds of followers. If followers perceive a person as a leader, he or she will gain the power, authority, and respect afforded a leader.
• Followers expect leaders to have (a) a vision for the group or organization, (b) the ability to communicate this vision clearly, and (c) skill in organizing followers toward the vision. However, the behavior that indicates these characteristics differs among cultures.
• The leadership dimensions of task orientation and relationship orientation exist in every culture, but the behaviors that indicate these orientations are specific to different cultures.
• Some followers need more leading along each of these dimensions than others. Factors such as organizational norms and the education levels of followers can act as substitutes for leadership. For example, a group of research scientists typically needs very little task orientation from their leader: they already know what to do.
• Trying to mimic the behaviors of a leader belonging to the followers’ culture may lead to unintended consequences. Some adoption of these behaviors will gain a leader acceptance by followers, but too much may be interpreted as insincere or even offensive.17
In summary, if you want to be a culturally intelligent leader, you will need to use knowledge and mindfulness to develop a repertoire of behaviors that can be adapted to specific situations. Doing so involves knowledge of the likely expectations of culturally diverse followers based on generalizations from cultural values such as individualism and collectivism. Through mindful observation, you will gradually refine these expectations. You will also need knowledge of your own preferred style of leadership. What balance of task and relationship orientation feels normal to you? Will you have to work harder at being a relational leader if the situation calls for it? You will also need knowledge of the relevant organizational norms. Trying to be a participative boss in a culture that does not value participation can be counterproductive. Here, mindfulness includes paying attention to follower reactions to particular leadership
behaviors and adjusting as necessary. In cross-cultural situations, it is probably best not to model your leader
behavior after a leader in the follower culture. You may look silly trying to behave like Sun Tzu (especially if you are not Chinese) and may find that follower expectations of indigenous leaders may be very different from their expectations of you. Also, in multicultural groups followers can have very different expectations. Therefore, a better role model is a leader like you (e.g., someone from your own culture) who has been particularly effective with these followers.
The needs of followers are extremely important in determining an individual’s perceptions of leadership. A culturally intelligent leader is able to find a leadership style that strikes a balance between his or her normal style, the expectations of followers, and the demands of the situation. This balance may well be imperfect, a work in progress. As with surfing or skiing or cycling, finding this balance is initially difficult but becomes easier and feels more natural over time.
Summary In this chapter we introduced culturally intelligent leadership. Influencing others toward goals is difficult in itself, and the dynamics of cross-cultural interactions increase the challenge. Our understanding of leadership is influenced by individuals we envision as great leaders, who share an ability to communicate a vision and to organize followers. In addition, the idea that leaders can exhibit a task or relationship leadership style has a universal appeal. However, the variety of behaviors that leaders around the world exhibit raises questions about any universal approach. Understanding followers’ expectations is a key element in a culturally intelligent approach to leadership. This, plus an individual’s preferred style and the constraints imposed by the situation, provide the three dimensions among which the culturally intelligent leader must find balance. While initially difficult to achieve, this equilibrium becomes easier with the development of the knowledge, mindfulness, and behavioral skills of cultural intelligence.
Working with Multicultural Groups and Teams
PARTICIPATE, AND THAT’S AN ORDER! Harry is the leader of an advertising agency account team that is developing advertising campaigns for a range of clients. The four team members are from different cultural backgrounds and seem to be at odds with each other.
Harry, an American, is clear what the campaigns should be like; he talks about them a lot and tries to persuade his colleagues. But Harry also recognizes the value of diversity, of different ideas. He tells his colleagues that he welcomes alternative ideas. He would be delighted for them to suggest ideas that were better than his. Harry says frequently, “Four heads are better than one.” His three team members eye each other cautiously.
The only person who responds to Harry’s invitations is Ingrid, a recent immigrant from Germany. Unfortunately Ingrid’s ideas are not only different from Harry’s but also completely opposite. Furthermore, with twenty years’ experience in advertising back in Germany, she believes she knows far more than Harry. She therefore backs her ideas vehemently. She too talks, frequently and forcefully. Harry disagrees with her and argues back.
The other two members of the team keep a low profile. José, a Latino, can’t stand Ingrid. How dare she talk to the boss like that! Has she no respect for authority? It’s not so much that José doesn’t agree with Ingrid’s ideas—in fact he secretly thinks they are quite good; it’s the rude and aggressive way she treats Harry that José objects to. So he sides quietly with Harry and wishes Ingrid would go away. He has ideas of his own, of course, but he doesn’t believe either Harry or Ingrid would be interested in them.
Ming is a Taiwanese with a demure exterior, and although she is expert in campaign development, she too keeps quiet. Harry
says he wants her opinions and ideas, but like José, she doesn’t think he means it. Why does he argue so aggressively with Ingrid? If you really want to hear what other people think, Ming believes, you should behave as if you respect them. Listening to Harry and Ingrid makes Ming sad. These people are talented but egocentric. Ming believes good decisions are made through patient reflection, the respectful exchange of ideas, and the protection of the harmony of the group as it works together. So she puts forward her views when Harry asks her, but she speaks so timidly that Harry wonders if Ming herself believes what she is saying.
Many of the differences in the group can be explained by the cultural variation that we introduced in Chapter 2. Westerners such as Harry and Ingrid tend to be high on individualism and autonomy, and moderate or low on power distance and hierarchy. This means that they expect to put forward their own views strongly in groups. Furthermore, they have been brought up and educated to be articulate and persuasive. They tend to believe in creative conflict, in which ideas are pitted against each other until the best one wins. Maybe either Harry will eventually persuade Ingrid, or Ingrid will persuade Harry. But the growing rivalry between the two may make it difficult for either to admit that the other is right.
As for the others, it appears that José has such a high level of power distance, and the associated expectation that decisions should be made by those in authority, that he is unable to accept Ingrid’s form of intervention. And Ming appears to be a collectivist who is lost in an individualists’ world: she expects modest harmonious discussions in which the goals of the whole group take precedence over individuals’ egos. In a group where Ingrid expects the right to challenge, José expects the imposition of authority, and Ming expects a long, courteous decision process, creative discussion seems unlikely.
Each team member explicitly adopts the behavior and the norms learned in his or her culture. Each has brought to this new group his or her own culturally based ideas about how groups should function. They show little mindfulness. In both action and observation, they stick to culturally predetermined scripts.
Yet each of them has much to offer. They all have vital technical expertise. Harry and Ingrid are full of ideas and are articulate in presenting them. Ming has ideals of team harmony and respect for listening, and José recognizes the ultimate need for decisiveness by the leader and group acceptance of decisions. In this case, as in many, diversity of cultural
background is not just a problem to be solved; it is an opportunity to be capitalized on. Despite the conflict in the group, its diversity adds huge potential if its members could but see it and harness it.
The Challenge of Teams Because of the growing diversity of the population, work teams, even in one’s home country, are becoming more and more multicultural. This shift presents a dual challenge: how to contribute to a multicultural team and how to manage a multicultural team.
Once people are organized into teams it also becomes impossible for us to try to handle multiculturalism by dealing with each employee individually according to his or her own cultural needs. We now have to manage not only a set of culturally different individuals but a process involving different cultural responses.
An important feature of groups is the difference between task and process activities.1 Task activities are directed toward accomplishing the group’s goal. Examples include “This is my plan for the advertising campaign…”; “If we do it that way, we will run over budget”; “That’s a good suggestion.” Process activities are directed at examining and improving how the group goes about this task. Examples of this include “Suppose we go around the group and see what each person thinks”; “I think Jane has something to say, but no one is listening to her”; “We’re running short of time, and we’d better have a vote now.” Process activities need not be positive: “I’m irritated that you won’t tell me what your ideas are”; “When you talk so loudly, I feel intimidated”; “In my country we show respect for other people.”
Although groups should spend most of their time dealing with the task at hand, failure to attend to process frequently causes group dysfunction. Groups often become ineffective because their process is overly autocratic or conflicted or indecisive, and they fail to examine what they are doing and change it. When the processes are complicated by culturally different expectations, even more problems can occur.
In the opening case, the successful conclusion of group tasks requires joint problem solving, based on the effective integration of ideas from all members. However, the group’s problems are culturally based process problems. The participants all have different models of how the group process should work, but—due in part to the leader’s preoccupation with the task and his lack of interest in the process—they have no way of bringing these ideas to the surface or resolving the process issues.
Cultural intelligence helps deal with group development and process issues that are caused or made more difficult by cultural differences. But it can also help solve the process problems associated with any group. High cultural intelligence enables us to observe and understand the different actions and intentions of members, and to acknowledge the cultural diversity of the group and the legitimacy of each member’s cultural background. Understanding how members see their roles in the group will improve the quality of their interactions.
By combining this awareness with a focus on getting group processes clear before proceeding to the detail of the task, the team described above could break its impasse and move on to achieving its goals. A culturally intelligent Harry would recognize that his leadership is influenced by his own cultural background and by the individualism and egalitarianism that were part of his makeup and that of his co-worker Ingrid. He would consider how he might accommodate José’s and Ming’s different characteristics in order to harness their abilities. By attending mindfully to the others’ reactions and doing some basic homework on their cultures, he might begin to understand José’s deep-seated respect for authority and quiet Ming’s hidden talents. By modifying his actions to respect their differences from him, he might gain reciprocal responses, with Ingrid listening more and José and Ming becoming more forthcoming. By explicitly discussing process in team meetings, he might enable all his team members to contribute productively to the group’s tasks. Such a process would not only improve task performance, it would also make the team more harmonious and its members more satisfied, and all would improve their cultural intelligence.