Cross-Cultural Leadership Skills for a Multicultural Canada

By Tim Jackson and Erik Girard

It used to be that stories of how leadership styles differ across cultures came mostly from expatriate executives returning home from assignment. They would say that Japanese managers visit the ill family members of their employees; Italian managers openly challenge and show disdain for rules; Middle Eastern leaders ignore efficiency to spend more time building relationships within their teams.

But times have changed, and you no longer have to take an international assignment to lead a group of people from a different cultural background as you. Organizations are increasingly multinational in scope, operating subsidiaries and establishing reporting structures across several cultures, making global work teams the new norm. Even Canadian business people working domestically often lead cross-cultural teams here at home due to the exploding cultural diversification within the Canadian labour market.

Indeed diversity is growing by leaps and bounds in the Canadian workplace. The vast majority of people who come to Canada do so to work. According to government statistics, economic immigrants (those selected for their potential contribution to the economy) dwarf the number of all other categories of immigrants combined (e.g., family class, refugee). In anticipation of greater numbers of baby-boomers beginning to leave the labour force, the competition for skilled workers is heating up.  Canada and other countries have been positioning themselves as attractive destinations for talented immigrants. In response, the number of economic immigrants coming to Canada is surging. Between 1999-2009, there were on average of 138,389 economic immigrants admitted per year to Canada, while during the previous decade (1988-1998) that number was only 101,525. Recent landings are dominated by entrants from Asia, followed by growing numbers from the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Central America.

Trends in diversity in Canadian workplaces and communities suggest that organizational leaders will need to deepen their understanding of other cultures to maximize their effectiveness. To identify which leadership behaviours might resonate across all cultures, and which ones might gain traction only within specific cultures, a consortium of international researchers combined forces to conduct the ‘Manhattan Project’ of cross-cultural leadership studies. The GLOBE research program, led by renowned leadership scholar Robert House (University of Pennsylvania), involved 17,000 managers, in 951 organizations, across no less than 62 countries.

The study collected empirical data to answer the question of what are the universals of leadership, and by contrast what are the leadership styles that only some cultures prefer. Their findings form a list of sacred do’s and don’ts for leaders across the world. First the universals – behaviours that all people agree, no matter what culture a leader hails from, should be practiced or avoided:

Universal and Positive – Leadership behaviours endorsed as positive across all 62 countries studied:

  • Integrity (being trustworthy, just, and honest)
  • Charismatic-visionary (having foresight and planning ahead)
  • Charismatic-inspirational (being positive, dynamic, and motivating)
  • Team-building (being communicative with others, sharing information, mediating conflict, showing diplomacy and coordinating others)

Universal and Negative – Leadership behaviours endorsed as negative across all 62 countries studied:

  • Self-protective (being a loner and asocial)
  • Malevolent (being non-cooperative and irritable)
  • Autocratic and Dictatorial
  • Ruthless
  • Egocentric
  • Non-explicit

The GLOBE study also provides guidance on what leadership behaviours might be effective only in specific countries or cultures. Below are some culture-specific leadership tips:

China (note, these apply most to the Shanghai region):

  • Chinese employees may expect leaders to form strong, even emotional bonds with in-group members, and to maintain harmony within the in-group at all costs.
  • Chinese employees may not expect their leaders to communicate with them in a direct fashion. Because harmony among in-group members is so important, Chinese leaders tend to speak more indirectly (sometimes using parables and metaphors), compared to leaders from North America.

Brazil:

  • Brazilians dislike leaders who are independent, individualistic, and make decisions on their own. They strongly prefer participative decision-making, and leaders need to take extra care to include the team in this process.
  • Brazilians may expect their leaders to maintain harmony within the in-group, but may also expect them to be a provocateur, or inducer of conflict with those outside the group.

Egypt:

  • Egyptians have more respect for the power differences afforded to leaders over followers, and so may be more tolerant of leaders who make unilateral decisions (compared to North Americans).
  • An informal leadership style when building rapport with followers (as is more common in North America) may be seen by Egyptians as a sign of weakness. Egyptians want to see their leaders as authoritative, strong, and masculine, but yet also caring, benign and paternalistic.

Cultural boundaries will continue to break down due to the expansion of global business. If leaders can appreciate how culture influences perceptions of leadership effectiveness, they can adjust their style to produce the maximum impact and the best business outcomes.

Tim Jackson, Ph.D. is a consultant with Jackson Leadership Systems Inc., located near Toronto. He advises organizations on leadership assessment, selection, development and succession management solutions. A full bio is available on LinkedIn and you can follow him on Twitter (@jacksonlead). Email: tjackson@jacksonleadership.com.

Erik Girard, M.A., has analyzed labour market and immigration policy at the Canadian federal and provincial government level.  He completed his graduate studies at the University of Guelph, specializing in the labour market integration of skilled newcomers to Canada.

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