Is your boss from another culture? Understand his/her leadership style!

If you think that leading a team is a hard challenge, imagine leading a multicultural team! Which challenges do you think you would face being in this position?

Leadership styles vary from culture to culture. So, if you want to improve your leadership skills or even learn how to respond to your international boss, you need to search for books and articles that address this topic from a cultural perspective. I chose the book “The Culture Map”, by Erin Meyer, to better understand this topic and help my clients.

Let’s start with the concept of egalitarian style. In an egalitarian style, leaders want their team to see them as equal. In her book, Erin Meyer gives an example of Ulrich Jepsen, a Danish executive working for Maersk, a Danish company. Ulrich used to avoid formal titles like “Mr.” and his office didn't have a door so that people could feel encouraged to talk to him anytime. He dressed like the other team members to show that there was no difference between them. Ulrich empowered his team to make decisions without constantly consulting him and he also welcomed different opinions.

Now, let's talk about hierarchical leadership styles by taking the example of this same Danish leader, now working in Russia. Different from all the other successful experiences Ulrich had in Denmark, the one in Russia turned out to be a disaster. He complained about the lack of initiative of the Russian team because they consulted him to take every single decision. He felt bothered because they called him Mr. President and they never questioned his opinions. Likewise, the Russian team was highly dissatisfied, regarding their new leader as weak, ineffective, incompetent, and lacking management skills. As you can see, the Russian team was expecting a hierarchical approach while the Danish director was sticking to his egalitarian style, which had been working successfully until then.

“In an egalitarian culture, an aura of authority is more likely to come from acting like one of the team, while in a hierarchical culture, an aura of authority tends to come from setting yourself clearly apart.” Erin Meyer

By looking at the leading scale below we can understand why Ulrich had so many problems in his experience with his Russian team. Denmark is one of the most egalitarian cultures in the world while Russia is on the far-right side of the scale.

Now, I’d like to share my own experience with you. Although Brazil and the US seem to be close on the scale, I felt a huge difference while working in the US. In Brazil, I was not used to being close to my boss. Actually, I barely saw my bosses because they were always in their offices and if I wanted to talk to them I usually had to schedule a meeting. There was a lot of formality involved. My first culture shock in the US was to have my boss picking me up at the hotel to take me to the city where I was going to live and work. Then, in the car, we started talking about all kinds of things, including our personal lives.

At first, I thought she just wanted to make me feel welcomed because it was my first time in the US. But this informality never stopped. My boss invited me and other team members to have lunch together and she used to come to our office to talk about projects and ask how things were going. In the beginning, I felt uncomfortable with this proximity because I’ve never had a good image of bosses in my mind. As time passed, I got more used to it, but not 100%. I still felt uncomfortable being treated as equal.

The more I learn about cross-cultural communication the more convinced I am that working with other cultures is a great opportunity to be humble. What does it mean to be humble? It means to admit that you don’t know everything and to be willing to reinvent yourself. When working with people from other cultures, we have to become researchers, we need to study the culture where we are as well as our own culture. It doesn’t mean that if you are working in the US you have to become American or if you are working in Brazil you have to become Brazilian. After all, the beauty of working in a multicultural environment is the opportunity to broaden our perspectives and learn from one another. The key is to be able to become more flexible and strategic in order to achieve your personal and collective goals.

What about you? Have you ever led a team with members from other cultures? Do you have a boss from another culture as well? Share your experience by commenting below. Let’s learn from each other!

Fernanda Carvalho is a Fulbrighter, certified Neurolanguage® Coach with a Master's in TESOL. She believes in a holistic approach to language teaching, which involves people's development as a whole and not only language itself. Schedule your first neurolanguage® coaching session and check how she can help you improve your communication in English and in Portuguese.