Motivating and Leading across Cultures
CLASS CONDUCT Kenichi Tokuzawa, a Japanese man of twenty-four, was a graduate in languages and was fluent in various languages, including English. Prior to his university study, he had trained as a schoolteacher, had taught for two years in a Japanese primary school, and had been acclaimed as an outstanding teacher. Kenichi put his success down to his clear structuring of lessons, meticulous preparation, effective use of language, and ability to make topics interesting. The results were impressive: when Kenichi taught, every student paid close attention.
In his final year at university, Kenichi won an international scholarship enabling him to spend a semester studying at a university in New England, including the opportunity to teach at a local school, conducting daily classes in conversational Japanese with a tenth-grade class.
Kenichi realized it would be a challenge to teach students from another culture who were older than those he had taught before but believed his thorough preparation and proven teaching techniques could transcend cultural boundaries. He had heard that American students take a more relaxed approach to their studies and expect to participate more in class than do Japanese, but as a the young Japanese well educated in U.S. culture, he thought he would be able to get on the same wavelength as American teenagers.
On his first day in his new class, Kenichi, immaculately dressed, walked to the front of the classroom, bowed, smiled, and said, “Good morning. I am Mr. Tokuzawa. I am here to teach you Japanese.” A few girls tittered, and several boys continued to talk among themselves. A little rattled, Kenichi tapped the desk loudly
with his pen. “Please listen to me,” he said, more loudly, and repeated his greeting. This time there was more attention but also further suppressed giggles. A youth at the back of the class rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
Recognizing the possibility of a challenge to his authority, Kenichi decided to impose it. Briskly, he asked a student to distribute his meticulous course notes. Clearly and methodically, he explained the syllabus and grading system. He asked if there were any questions. There were none. Rather than being eager to participate, the students seemed bored, listless. It was the same when he started teaching. He followed the schedule he had carefully prepared. He asked the students to repeat his words back and to translate, and a few did so. But they did so unwillingly, as if they were answering his questions only to break the silence. The atmosphere at the front of the class was leaden. At the back the students were restless. The boy who had rolled his eyes put his head down on his desk, apparently asleep.
Dismissing the students at the end of the class, Kenichi overheard a girl remark to her friend, “Is that guy uptight! He ought to chill out.” Chill out? He didn’t know the expression. But he did realize that his class had been a major step backward. The class was just not in a mood to listen, to learn, to be led by him. Why? Were they not interested in the subject? Were these simply the norms of the school, or the United States? Or was there something he himself had simply gotten wrong?
In this case, Kenichi’s problem is one of leadership. Leadership has been defined as “the ability to influence other people to strive willingly to reach common goals.”1 As well as being the teacher of the class, he is its leader. It is his job to influence students to “strive willingly” toward the common goal of learning.
Why has he not succeeded? While we can’t say for sure, it seems likely that his style of leadership was too Japanese to fit with the culture and expectations of his American students. Japanese have higher power distance (see Chapter 2) than Americans; that is, they expect a leader to exercise authority as a right. In Japan leaders are respected because of their positions, whereas in the United States they must earn respect through their actions. In Japan, respect is shown partly by not participating, that is, by respecting what the leader says and does and not speaking until the leader invites you to do so. Japanese schoolchildren are therefore
respectful of their teachers and ready to pay attention and accept the teacher’s instructions. The Americans in Kenichi’s class might have responded better if he had been less formal and had found out more about them—by being mindful—before launching into his own agenda. Kenichi may find it difficult to get his students to be receptive. Can Kenichi motivate this class? Is he a leader?
Motivation across Cultures In order to lead, one must understand the motivation of those being led— their willingness to exert effort toward a goal. Patterns of motivation vary both between individuals and across cultures. For example, achievement motivation (striving for individual success) is higher in individualist cultures, and affiliation motivation (seeking good interpersonal relationships) is higher in collectivist cultures, but in both cases there may be exceptions.
It is the leader’s task to provide rewards appropriate to the cultural and individual characteristics of the situation. This task requires leaders to understand the motives of their followers, how these can be mobilized, and how effective action can be rewarded. An important aspect of motivation is individuals’ attitudes to the allocation of rewards, particularly the issue of equity (fair distribution of rewards) versus equality (equal distribution of rewards). Preference for equity (which leads to more unequal rewards) over equality tends to be related to power distance. Collectivist societies prefer more equally distributed rewards, whereas individualist societies believe that individual performance should be rewarded with benefits related to the level of performance of the individual.
Popular Ideas of Leadership There is much public confusion about leadership. Many people believe in the “Great Man” theory of leadership and have people in mind who personify leadership to them—such as Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Joan of Arc, or Sun Tzu. We think of such people as having the “gift” of leadership and being able to lead effectively regardless of situation, task, or culture. However, leading across cultures raises questions:
• What made these people leaders and others not?
• Would these people have been great leaders at another time, in another place, with different followers, or in an other culture?
A parallel to the Great Man theory is the “One Best Way” theory. Some people believe that there is a set of definable practices that will inevitably bring success in leadership.
Leadership would be easier if either theory were true. Unfortunately both are plain wrong.2 Many people—both men and women—can be effective leaders in different situations and cultures, and those effective in one situation will not necessarily be so in another. Likewise, effective leaders influence their followers in different ways. A leader may capture the loyalty of some followers while being rejected and ridiculed by others. A style that works perfectly in one situation (such as with construction workers in Dubai) may fall flat in another (such as with software engineers in Silicon Valley).
Even within cultures, leaders need to display the mindfulness and adaptability skills discussed in Chapter 3 just to understand the special features of the situation and vary their leadership to fit the amount of power at their disposal, the characteristics of their followers, and the tasks to be accomplished. Becoming a culturally intelligent leader is a major challenge. Yet as more and more leaders find themselves, as Kenichi Tokuzawa did, dealing with followers who are culturally different from themselves (and often culturally different from each other) or leading in settings with different traditions and expectations for leadership, a culturally intelligent approach is vital.
Leadership Styles Our understanding of culturally intelligent leadership begins with a look at leadership styles—a concept based on research conducted in the United States that has been assumed to be valid, and has often been applied, elsewhere. These studies attempted to relate organizational performance— as indicated by measures such as productivity, quality, and staff morale— to different styles of leadership behavior. Two dimensions that have shown up consistently are concern for tasks (getting things done) and concern for relationships (getting along well with people). Research indicates that relationship-oriented leaders tend to have more satisfied subordinates, and that this is true across a range of different cultures.3
However, most organizations are at least as interested in employees’ performance as in their satisfaction, and the evidence on the relationship of leadership style to performance is more complex. Task-oriented leadership, for example, can take different forms—such as detailed goal- directed planning or autocratic command. People from different cultures
react to task-oriented leadership in different and often unpredictable ways. There are also numerous other factors, such as the structure of the task, the power of the leader, and the behavior of subordinates—who, of course, are frequently themselves trying to influence the leader—so that statements about leadership must often be hedged with the statement “it depends.” In short, researchers have not found one best way of leadership that works across all cultures. In the next section, examples of leadership from around the world are provided so that we can begin to understand the enormous complexity and subtlety of the cultural forces affecting leadership.