Leadership in cross-cultural contexts (Part II)

Almost a year ago I have taken on my first formal leadership role as team lead. I have had experience from informal leadership roles (project leader, central function position) in cross-cultural contexts and some theoretical knowledge on cross-cultural management. Now I was curious about the concept of leadership in cross-cultural settings and enrolled in a university course on that topic. This is part two of a series of three posts (find part I here, part III here) describing my main learnings from the course.

Key concepts in cross-cultural leadership

The main course literature consisted of two books with contrasting perspectives on leadership in cross-cultural contexts:

  • Steers, R. M., Nardon, L. & Sanchez-Runde, C. J. (2016) Management Across Cultures: Developing Global Competencies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bennett, M. J. (2013). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: paradigms, principles, & practice. Boston, Mass, Intercultural Press.

Along the way, we were asked to read these books and compare and contrast key concepts in the final assignment. Prior to this final assignment (which you can find in part III of this series), we were asked to describe and reflect on key concepts of our choice from Steers et al (2016). Below is a selection of interesting concepts and my reflections.

Multicultural competence

In a changing global landscape where continuous change, interconnectedness and multiculturalism are central characteristics, multicultural competence is intimately connected to managerial success (Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde, 2016: pp. 3-9). Together with managerial competence, multicultural competence makes up the concept of global management skills which is essential for those leaders that want to build competitive enterprises. Multicultural competence refers to the understanding and leveraging of cultural diversity to reach business goals. It entails understanding and dealing with cultural differences in a way that is appropriate and effective (Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde, 2016: p. 10). In a world that becomes faster, local culture and customs will continue to exist, a development which can evolve into challenges and possibilities concerning multicultural work (Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde, 2016: p. 3). The challenge lies within understanding and accommodating local culture as well as avoiding cultural misunderstanding or condemnation. The possibility lies within leveraging cultural diversity to for example serve new markets, understand local customer needs or improve project work with multicultural work teams. Multicultural competence can be important in companies with only one office in one country. Employees might come from different cultural backgrounds or the company might sell products in different countries from the home country. Thus, multicultural competence regards both, multicultural work and managing multicultural work teams.

Core cultural dimensions

If cultural is an essential part of global management skills, understanding the meaning of culture is essential to understand cultural differences and their implications for managerial work. There are different models of national culture and Nardon and Steer (2009) have identified five core cultural dimensions across these models. The dimension of power distribution refers to in how far power and authority are distributed whereas the dimension of social relationship describes if individuals or groups make up the elementary unit of a society. Moreover, the dimension of environmental relationships is characterised by how people view their relationship with their surroundings while the dimension of time and work patterns specifies how a society relates to the concepts time and work. Finally, the final core cultural dimension of uncertainty and social control incorporates the degree of acceptance of uncertainty. These core cultural dimensions can function as a starting point for understanding different national cultures. As such, they can enhance multicultural work as well as leading multicultural work teams. However, as the concept of cultural and its effect on behaviour has been subject to debate, focussing too much on these dimensions can also lead to cultural stereotyping.

Language and linguistic structures

Language, communication and shared meaning have been identified as the key to successful management (Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde, 2016: p. 126). In the communication process, participants must pay attention or make use of cognition along the way. There are four ways of culturally meditated cognition with language and linguistic structures being one of them. Language provides symbols to meaning provided by culture. Challenges and possibilities concerning multicultural work regard the choice of language and the choice of English. That is, in multicultural teams, a decision needs to be made in which language it should be communicated. The underlying challenge is that almost all the time, one or more team members will not be able to communicate in their native language. This can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Extrinsic rewards

When it comes to motivation at work, Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde (2016) highlight several aspects which are similar across cultures (such as psychological contracts) and aspects that differ (such as why people work and how central work is in their lives) (pp. 263-282). The importance of incentives and rewards varies across cultures, with extrinsic rewards being those provided by the firm based on performance and intrinsic rewards influencing the mental state of an employee by for example feeling pride and satisfaction (Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde, 2016: p. 275).  Right now, I am responsible for the yearly salary review round of my team, which consists of 10 employees with five different national backgrounds (Swedish, German, Dutch, Finish, and Romanian) working for a Swedish company. The idea is, that I can distribute a set amount of salary increase based on performance for the past year. Before taking a decision, employees can book a meeting to “pitch in” their expectations. Even though the process considers mainly extrinsic rewards (increase in the monthly salary), it was interesting to see how these pitch-meetings differed between nationalities and experiences from previous salary reviews. Some employees directly mentioned their concrete expectations in numbers, while others claimed that money was not as important as they enjoyed the job they are doing. Some found it uncomfortable to talk about themselves while others appreciated a dedicated time to discuss performance. As all team members have been with the company for some years, I could not identify clear cultural differences among them. Rather, and in the words of Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde (2016), I found that “no culture (…) has an absolute preference for one incentive system” and that “cultures make use of a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic incentives.” (p. 280).

Co-located global team

A global team typically consists of heterogenous employees from more than two countries working together to achieve a company’s goal (Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde, 2016: p. 295). If a global team is in the same place, it can be defined as a co-located global team as opposed to dispersed global teams (Ibid., p. 299). My team is a co-located global team for one week per month, whereas the rest of the month it is a dispersed global team. This is because one team member is officially employed by a German subsidiarity and joins the rest of the team working in Stockholm once per month. In line with the reflections by Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde (2016), my team does not fit into the boxes of co-located vs. dispersed global teams (p. 299) and for my work as their manager this finding is of minor importance. I must make sure that the advantages of our set-up outweigh the disadvantages. Our main advantage is that we come with cultural backgrounds which represent our current major as well as emerging markets, resulting in a good understanding of our customers. Our diverse backgrounds in nationalities and experience help us in finding creative solutions in challenging situations. On the other hand, effective communication requires a lot of effort from all of us. With English as the team’s work language, no one speaks his or her native language. We need regular team meetings to keep aligned on the work we do and discuss our ongoing work. Especially in situations where we must make decisions, I feel that cultural backgrounds come into play – where the Swedes urge me to make more room for discussions, the Dutch and Germans demand a stronger team lead who simply takes decisions. It’s striking this balance which accounts for most of my efforts at work right now.

Reverse culture shock

According to Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde (2016) a culture shock is an internal unbalance between expectations based on once old culture when being confronted with the realities of a new culture (p. 342). Often, expatriates inevitably experience a cultural shock while undergoing the process of psychological adaptation to a new culture (Ibid., p. 345). In turn, when going home after re-location, there is the so-called phenomenon of a reverse culture shock. It might result from dissatisfaction with the old position or ways of doing things in the home country (Steers, Nardon & Sanchez-Runde, 2016: p. 354). When I came back from two years studying in Sweden, I experienced a reverse culture shock. For example, in the beginning, I would thank my colleagues for the day when leaving the office. This would amuse my German colleagues, as they did not understand this common custom from Sweden. Also, I had difficulties adjusting to the German custom of addressing people in the formal way. Whereas in Sweden I had been used to address everyone by their first names, I now constantly displeased senior colleagues and customers when stumbling upon how to address them properly. In sum, this made me feel like I did not function as well as I used to do in my home environment, meaning that getting work done would require mental effort and adaptation from my end.

The struggle with reflection

What I appreciated about the pedagogical set-up of the course was that we actually had to hand in two assignments and then received feedback from the course leader on our work. The first three concepts were included in my first assignment, the final three in my second assignment. You might have realised how I develop my reasoning further and refer directly to personal experience and reflection in the last three concepts (compared to the first three). I struggled a lot with this reflective part in the assignment description, as it does not feel as academic as I am used to when writing my assignments for university courses. After the course leader provided me with this feedback, I pushed myself to reflect more, write from an I-perspective and refer to concrete experience from my current leadership role.

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