How to lead in a multicultural organisation

Leading any culturally diverse organisation or group requires cultural intelligence. But the problem is increased in large multinational organisations with subsidiaries in many countries. Typically, there are organisational requirements for central control and uniformity to ensure that the organisation remains stable and that subsidiaries work toward a common goal. But major problems emerge when such organisations attempt to manage their diverse communities of people uniformly.

Managing diversity is a positive goal for multinationals, but the means of achieving it need to be locally specific and probably locally devised. In international organisations, a helpful guide for managing diversity is the simple notion of thinking and acting locally.

Also important in this case is the question, who is the leader?

There is a difference between formal leadership, that is, with a formally appointed leader who has an appropriate job title and informal leadership, in which someone has leadership status because of the respect of others.

In multicultural situations, it is probably best not to model your leadership behaviour after a leader in the follower’s culture

Meanwhile, informal leaders arise because their ideas or behaviour are well received by others and because of their good communication skills. Ideally, the formal and informal leaders are the same person. However, a formal leader from another culture may not be accepted in a multicultural situation because of cultural differences, particularly in expected leadership methods. An informal leader from the home culture representing the ideas of local employees may exercise countervailing influence. Formal leaders may therefore have to either exercise a leadership style that fits local expectations or be able to work with the informal leader.

Different cultures also have different prototypes of what a leader should be like. A leader who can meet followers’ expectations of a good leader can develop better trust and quality relationships.

From the foregoing, it is evident that anyone in a group, and not just the formal boss, has the potential to be a leader. In most groups, leadership is at least partially shared. Further, the exercise of leadership implies a duty of followers to follow. Therefore, in multicultural groups and organisations, becoming culturally intelligent is an advantage to the follower as well as to the leader. Being able to read one’s formal leader and colleagues, considering their national culture, is an advantage.

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 sure that culturally intelligent leaders know and do. They are as follows:

1. Leadership is largely in the minds of followers. If followers perceive a person as a leader, they will gain the power, authority, and respect afforded a leader.

2. Followers expect leaders to have

i. a vision for the group or organisation,

ii. the ability to communicate this vision clearly and

iii. skill in organising followers toward the vision. However, some behaviours indicate that these characteristics differ among cultures.

3. The leadership dimensions of task orientation and relationship exist in every culture, but the behaviours that indicate these orientations are specific to different cultures.

4. Some followers need more leading along each of these dimensions than others. Factors such as organisational norms and the education levels of followers can act as substitutes for leadership. For example, a group of lawyers typically needs very little task orientation from their leader: they already know what to do.

5. Trying to mimic the behaviours of a leader belonging to the followers’ culture may lead to unintended consequences. Some adoption of these behaviours will gain a leader’s acceptance by the followers, but too much may be interpreted as insincere or even offensive.

Read also: Trustworthy leadership

6. In essence, if you want to be a culturally astute leader, you will need to use knowledge and mindfulness to develop a repertoire of behaviours that can be adapted to specific situations. Doing so involves knowledge of the likely expectations of culturally diverse followers based on generalisations 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 feels normal to you? Will you work harder to be a relational leader if the situation calls for it?

You will also need knowledge of the relevant organisational norms. Trying to be a participative leader in a culture that does not value participation can be counter-productive. Here mindfulness includes paying attention to followers’ reactions to particular leadership behaviours and adjusting as necessary.

In multicultural situations, it is probably best not to model your leadership behaviour after a leader in the follower’s culture. You may look silly trying to behave and sound like Obama, especially if you are not American 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, someone from your own culture, which has been particularly effective with these followers.

The needs of followers are critical in determining an individual’s perceptions of leadership. A culturally astute leader can find a leadership style that strikes a balance between their typical style, the expectations of followers, and the demands of the situation. This balance may well be imperfect, a work in progress. As with surfing, skiing, or cycling, finding this balance is initially tricky but becomes easier and feels more natural over time.

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