Imagine that you’ve been tasked with leading a team overseas. You feel confident about your ability to engage and motivate your new group; after all, your leadership style has been highly praised in the past. Then you begin working with your new team, only to find they don’t respond to you quite so positively. Whether you’re giving feedback, delegating tasks or building relationships, your efforts seem to fall flat – time and again. You begin to wonder if you really have good leadership skills after all…
This scenario happens every day to even the most experienced executives. As a result, more companies have been moving toward situational leadership. This school of thought recognizes that an approach that works with one individual or group may fall flat with another. Unlike development models that focused on cultivating one “ideal” leadership style, forward-thinking companies are looking for leaders who can adapt their approach to specific dynamics.
It’s no mystery why this is so valuable in today’s era of global expansion. What works well in one culture could be unintentionally alienating in another, causing a rift between a manager and his or her team. Effective leaders must be able to mirror the shifting standards of multiple regions and apply effective leadership styles globally.
To see why global situational leadership is so necessary, think about it from the employee’s viewpoint. If you get a new manager from another culture, you naturally want to be sure you’re valued as a contributor. So you watch your new leader closely, interpreting his or her words and actions to see if you’re appreciated as a top performer. When your manager fails to provide the feedback you expect, or behave in a way that (to you) signals dissatisfaction, you begin feeling demoralized and disconnected.
That’s a shame, because this can happen even when both leaders and employees start out with the best intentions. It’s only mismatched expectations that drive the relationships off course.
To establish common ground with your cross-cultural teams and act with global intelligence, be aware of your leadership style in the following areas.
Hierarchy. Maybe at the office where you usually work, employees at every level are fairly informal with each other. But then you go overseas and your new team addresses you formally and maintains a specific social distance. Is it because they don’t like you? Should you try to be pals? No and no. Research the diverse cultural viewpoints of hierarchy and adjust accordingly.
Management style. Most of us have experienced both the micromanaging boss and the hands-off boss. In some cultures, teams will expect a manager to keep a tight rein and will feel abandoned by a boss who allows more independence. Other cultures are the opposite. Even something as simple as the difference between “Do you need help?” and “If you need help, let me know” can assist you in meeting your team’s expectations.
Making decisions. Some cultures approach decision-making by talking through the ethics surrounding the matter; others focus only on the potential results. Adopting the wrong approach can lead to a perception of callousness or ineffectiveness, so do your research ahead of time.
Giving feedback. I worked with a team once where problematic employees would be criticized as indirectly as possible. “If a table had a weak leg and that leg broke, it’d be unfortunate for the whole table,” someone might say. Everyone would know whom they meant, but the metaphor saved face for the criticized employee. Other cultures, of course, are more direct. The danger here is that what’s candid in one country can be perceived as harsh and humiliating in another, and what seems polite to you can fall on deaf ears.
Time. As the saying goes, we all have 24 hours in a day – but cultures make use of those hours differently. If you come from an environment where deadlines are sacred, it may come as a shock to be in a workplace where honoring relationships takes precedence over deadlines. But in many cultures, it’s highly important to establish and maintain personal connections before focusing on getting a deliverable across the finish line.
Recognition. This area can be a minefield of misunderstandings. In some cultures, the leader gets the credit and the blame for the team’s results. In other regions, there’s more of a focus on recognizing individual accomplishments. The same applies to visibility – where you may see yourself as protecting your staff from unpleasant meetings, they might feel sidelined and want more of a seat at the table. Other times, you feel you’re delegating and providing a development opportunity, where the employees may feel burdened.
At this point, you might be asking, “So what’s the solution?” Here’s my advice. Always do your homework regarding cultural nuances in the workplace. Collect input from colleagues who’ve also led teams in that region. But don’t be afraid to communicate directly with your staff to align expectations. Once you’ve fostered mutual respect and rapport, you’ll understand how to lead your team to success.
Contact Melissa to assess and develop Global Mindset in your managers.